Title: The Most Beautiful Dress in the World
Characters: John Reese, Joss Carter, OC
Rating: NC - 17
Warning: These are adults, they do have sex
Word count: 4,000
Summary: There is a first time for everything
Author’s Note: This story of the first time Reese and Carter come together has been hinted at in many stories I’ve written, but it lay unexplored until now. Close readers will recognize Reese’s lighthearted chase with Fusco as a scene played out several times, first in “Surveillance/Overlook,” and then in “Everybody Comes to Pooja’s,” which also contains an account of Mrs. Soni’s negotiations with her bashful tenant. The story of their first dinner at Pooja's is in "An Early Spring." There is even a fleeting reference to the yellow dress in “A Fine Death.” You do not need to have read those previous stories to understand this one, but I think doing so enriches the experience.
An Early Spring
Everybody Comes to Pooja's
A Fine Death
Marching down was easier than climbing up, of course, but Mrs. Soni was still out of breath and puffing through her words when she returned to the main dining room to confront her tenant and his guest.
“I have set out the dessert and coffee upstairs for you.”
She tried to smile but she could feel her annoyance curdling the sweetness of the phrases.
“I hope you find all arrangements are to your liking, John.”
Reese nodded to acknowledge his landlady’s comments, but continued staring silently at his dinner companion.
It was left to Detective Carter to offer a more expansive response.
“Thank you for everything, Mrs. Soni. This dinner was as lovely as the last one. I really appreciate the way you explained each dish to me.”
She cast her eyes over the empty plates on the table before them and smiled broadly. The yellow gold of the hoops in her ears captured and reflected the sunny yellow fabric of her dress.
“And yes, one weekend I will definitely bring my son for dinner or lunch. Taylor absolutely loves Indian food and he is something of a budding cook himself. So I’m sure he would enjoy learning how to make some of these delicious dishes.”
Mrs. Soni shook her head solemnly. She wondered again, as she had several times over the past few months, how a man and a woman both nearing their mid-forties could act with such dull-witted ineptitude in matters as basic and obvious as this.
Maddeningly, they behaved as if they were unplucked flowers in a chaste forest in one of her grandchildren’s picture books.
Despite those colorless ghost eyes, John was a handsome man and Mrs. Soni thought there was nothing more alluring in an attractive gentleman than a touch of shyness.
And certainly modesty was a woman’s most prized trait so Mrs. Soni was relieved to find that Detective Carter had that becoming reticence in abundance.
But what awful calamities had squeezed all the natural boldness out of them?
Mrs. Soni understood that John’s mysterious work was dangerous and exhausting, leaving scant room for personal attachments to flourish.
And through her vast network of relatives and contacts, Mrs. Soni knew about the succession of blows that had hit the detective: Were the early losses of a father, a sister, and a young husband what caused the reluctance that slowed her now?
John was strong, vigorous, and passionate. Detective Carter was young enough, and more importantly she had already borne a healthy son. Mrs. Soni couldn’t conceive of what would stand in their way.
She knew that John liked this woman. She saw the way his fingers brushed hers when he passed a glass of water or the way his hand lingered at her waist as he showed her around the kitchen, making introductions to the waiters.
After intense palaver, he had secured Mrs. Soni’s formal permission to invite the woman to his room several weeks ago. Mrs. Soni was not foolish enough to imagine that he planned to play backgammon once they got up there.
She also knew that this woman liked John. The way she looked at him during their previous dinner at Pooja’s, the glittering eyes throwing admiring glances, the fluttering pulse and moist lips were hardly secrets hidden from a seasoned observer. Mrs. Soni was sure the woman had already made up her heart to accept John and was simply waiting for his inquiry.
The only question was what was keeping them from achieving their shared desire. Arrangements by a concerned third party were clearly required here, as in most successful relationships.
She shook her head again and let her exasperation creep into her next words.
“Well, then get along upstairs before the coffee grows cold and the ice cream melts into a soup.”
The evening had gone well, in Reese’s estimation.
The fun of leading Fusco on a merry chase around the neighborhood had lifted his spirits and kept him from brooding over the dinner ahead. He wondered briefly if he should tell Joss that her partner was stationed across the street on look-out, but he decided against it. The news would just make her fret and scold him, activities she did with regularity anyway. No need to bring additional reasons to her attention at this delicate juncture.
Leaving Fusco to his sub and cookies in the sandwich shop across the street, Reese had rushed through a shower and taken up his station at his usual booth near the back of Pooja’s long main dining room.
At some point in his circuit of the wind-blown blocks, he had decided on a dark blue shirt and black trousers and that is what he stuck with, although the crispness of Mr. Lee’s white shirts was enticing.
But he figured that she saw him almost every day and every day he wore a white shirt, so a bit of variety was called for now.
Shaving was a problem, given the bruise blooming on his chin. That kid had clocked him pretty good for a lightweight. He thought about skipping the second shave of the day, but he knew if he did he would regret it later; a faint shadow along his jaw was already peeking through. And more importantly, he didn’t want her to regret it.
Sitting in his booth surrounded by the squeaky red leather and the high shine yellow enamel on the walls, he fidgeted with the hem of the table cloth.
Although he was extremely good at it, he hated waiting.
Once the course was set, he wanted to get on with the show, see the action through to its conclusion, wrap things up one way or another and move on to the next assignment. That approach worked well in his work, it made him efficient and reliable as a soldier and as the private operative he was now.
But he realized that his impatience was at odds with the realities of the current situation: Joss would arrive when and how she chose. Though the dinner invitation had come from him, the show was hers to run as she saw fit.
So he let his thoughts drift back over recent cases as a distraction from the anxiety of waiting.
He was amused that Finch had proven so adept at money laundering in the Bartlett case last week. There must be a lot of larceny hidden in his boss’s mysterious past and he was determined to find out more when he had the chance.
And Fusco's bust up of that Shanghai human trafficking ring earned him lots of surprised praise and another truck-load of departmental commendations. At this rate he would have enough certificates to paper an entire wall if he ever got an office. The fact that it was information from Reese’s old friend Mr. Han which led to the successful conclusion of the case was still a secret. Perhaps it was time for Reese to arrange a meeting between Fusco and Han.
He remembered the sweet sight of Carter’s arsenal of weapons as they wrapped up the heroin smuggling case five weeks ago. Saving that undercover cop was good, but the bonus of thwarting a CIA drug importation scheme was even better.
He knew how psychology worked: if it was true that you never felt more alive than when you were facing your own destruction, then nothing could match the pure joy of escaping a fiery death only to find a beautiful woman smiling down at you. And if she had an impressive cache of guns and was willing to stand by your side to mow down the bad guys, sweeter still.
A girl after my own heart.
It wasn’t until he saw the sly quirk on her lips that he realized he’d said it out loud. He couldn’t take it back. He decided that he was glad that she knew. But he still felt the burn of embarrassment at having been exposed to her like that.
Then there was Leila’s case.
The baby still haunted his dreams almost every night. He often pictured her shivering or wailing, her lips and tiny fingers turning blue in that damned refrigerator truck.
Sometimes he saw her gurgling happily in Finch’s makeshift playpen of dusty books or gnawing on the tear gas grenade to soothe her sore gums.
Many times he dreamed she was bundled snug against his chest as he spoke to Carter.
Sometimes they were standing in the bitter cold in their long wool overcoats, talking over the baby’s head. He was teasing Joss, waving Leila’s little hand or blowing across her face to ruffle her wispy bangs.
Other times they were lying down face to face, the baby pressed between their bodies, warm and safe. Maybe Joss was awake, smiling at him as he flirted with her through the baby. But mostly Joss was asleep and it was Leila looking up at him with a penetrating gaze.
Once he dreamed that Leila lay sprawled on her back on the floor between them, their hands covered in her blood as they checked for vital signs, their open mouths shouting for help but making no sounds.
Worrying the hem of the white table cloth and rearranging the tented napkins, he was so far into his own head that Joss appeared beside the booth before he registered her presence in the restaurant.
When he looked up, Anil the maître d’ had waved her through the room with a sweeping gesture that included lots of bowing. He hoped the man’s exuberant greeting had not included a kiss on her hand or worse, on both cheeks.
Reese slid from the booth and stood to greet her. He took her black coat, lighter in weight than it looked, and handed it off to a waiter who came and went like a ghost.
Joss was wearing a dress. He had never seen her in a dress or skirt of any kind and he hoped his face did not reveal the stupid amazement he felt.
The dress was rich yellow, with no patterns or fancy embellishments. Just a simple yellow dress that clung close to the lines of her body. The neckline was plain and round, cut to reveal the soft rises of her collarbones and the smooth brown column of her throat. The sleeves came down almost to her elbows and highlighted the power of her shoulders and biceps.
No necklace, no bracelet, no rings. Her only jewelry was small hoop earrings, but this time they were in soft yellow gold rather than the usual silver. As she stood before him he could see the curves of her thighs, the outline of her sex, the gentle swell of her belly, and the pillows of her breasts pressing against the yellow fabric.
The dress seemed to flutter around her knees as if dancing to a breeze that was undetectable to everyone else in the room. In counterpoint to the restless movement of the hem, her brown calves looked strong and graceful.
He wanted her. He didn’t want to talk cases with her, or gossip with her, or flirt with her, or joke with her, or eat dinner with her.
He wanted to be inside her.
Desire made him sway slightly on his feet, an effect heightened by her next gesture. She reached up to touch his chin and made a quiet clucking sound as she examined the bruise there. He felt dizzy.But then she laughed and he laughed and the moment passed.