Heart of Stone
by Meg Lark
"You did what?!"
Ben Stone stared at his secretary. He had never heard her take that tone of voice with him.
"You turned her down for a date?!" she continued, and slammed down her steno book. "Mr. Stone, with all due respect" -- she didn't sound very respectful, she sounded as if she were addressing a backward five-year-old -- "I suggest that you get on the phone right now and call her back and tell her that you misread the date on your agenda, that you are entirely free tomorrow evening, and that you will be delighted to take her out to dinner and whatever else she has in mind."
"Except that I'm not entirely free tomorrow evening, and we're working against a deadline on this case, and if we don't get it done --"
"It'll get done." She fixed him with a chocolate-ice-cream gaze. "Have I ever let you down?"
He felt unequal to reminding her that they had only known each other for six or so months.
"Sir, it's Valentine's Day tomorrow."
So that was why his caller had been so sure he would be free to take her out to dinner. He took a deep breath. "Annie, so help me, if this project isn't completed --"
"It'll get done if I have to pull an all-nighter. Some things are more important even than the people of the City of New York."
He pressed his lips together. Her tone of voice irritated him, but he couldn't argue with the truth of her words. "All right," he acquiesced with a brief nod of his head, and picked up the receiver.
Melissa was thrilled to hear back from him. She had felt so disappointed to think that he couldn't make it, had wondered if he was mad at her, had even doubted her importance in his life -- that hurt, when she said that. "You'll always be my best love," he promised her, and by the time they hung up, the old sparkle was back in her voice.
All that day, at odd moments, he thought about his upcoming date. It had been so long since he and Melissa had seen each other. Was it actually a full year, he thought, aghast, since their last contact? Even at Christmas, they had been apart -- she had gone out of town to visit friends, and he had spent the day thinking only of her and her absence. He thought about her every day, and sometimes, events in his case load tore little chunks out of his heart when he thought about them in terms of Melissa.
If he had been a younger man, he would have thought himself hopelessly in love with her. Every time he heard her voice, his pulse quickened; the thought of her made him feel warm, like the first full day of spring weather, when the wind softened into a caress and you could take a walk in City Hall Park with just your suit jacket, instead of the topcoat you'd begun to wear like a second skin. He turned to the picture of her on his desk, and felt a foolish grin split his features. Yes, he guessed he was in love.
Annie bustled past his office, casting a furtive, enquiring glance in his direction, and he beckoned to her.
"Just wanted to let you know that I'm booked for tomorrow evening, so if anything comes up, you and Paul will have to handle it. Unless, of course, it's a change in plea."
"We'll handle that, too, if need be," she said firmly. "That's one date you're not going to break. If you need me, by the way, Mr. Robinette and I will be in Conference Room 1. It's easier to spread out spreadsheets." She waved her hands in arcs, and he nodded and returned to his work.
Briefly, he wondered about his secretary's plans for Valentine's Day. Then he remembered that she was some kind of nun. He felt sorry for her. Snuggling up to a prayer book didn't seem like much of a love life. How long had it been, he thought suddenly, since someone had brought her candy and flowers? He made up his mind on the spot to correct that deficiency, and dragged his mind back to the case at hand, the murder of a bookkeeper by, apparently, a senior accountant. Fraud had always been a prime motive for murder, and this shabby, sordid little affair had all the earmarks.
He was in even earlier than usual the next morning. You had to get up with the chickens to catch Annie, and even arriving at 7 a.m., he wasn't sure he would get there before her. But Cupid had smiled on him, and he deposited the requisite equipment on her desk.
Buying flowers for Melissa had been the easy part. A dozen red roses, the old standby, would be delivered to her home in time for her to enjoy them, and he had also purchased a corsage of sweetheart roses that would go well with whatever she wore. He felt light-headed with pleasure at the thought of seeing her again.
Flowers for Annie were another matter. It wasn't a question of pleasing her taste; he had no idea what her taste in flowers was. It was a question, rather, of finding an arrangement that would suit her personality. He liked his gifts to show some discernment, in any case, and particularly in Annie's case: she had a smile that seemed to light up all of lower Manhattan, all the sweeter for its rarity. In his present mood, thinking constantly of Melissa, he wanted all the world to smile with him.
So he'd spent the better part of the evening poring over the standard flower-arrangement books, and had almost given up when he'd spotted it in the florist's refrigerator case: an arrangement of freesias and baby's breath in a small basket, with a single red rose tucked in among them. The sweet scent of the freesias would match her sweet smile, the baby's breath reminded him of her shy personality, and the red rose -- well....
He had barely set the bouquet on her desk when he heard the measured click of her sensible shoes on the marble staircase outside the office. Hastily he set a box of Crackerjack next to the flowers, propped a card against it, and beat a retreat to his office to watch developments.
She bustled over to the staff cloakroom, and a few minutes later she reappeared, sans coat, and picked up the coffee urn. Damn, he had forgotten that she always made coffee first thing. He would just have to bide his time and watch; filling the fifty-cup percolator was a task that necessitated several trips to the water cooler with a jug. At last she had finished, and returned to her desk -- and stopped, and stared, picked up the Crackerjack and twisted it this way and that, then saw the card and opened it. He watched her face flush as she read the noncommital greeting printed on the card, and his own more personal message; then she cast a quick glance in his direction, compressed her lips, and looked down. As he rose to his feet, she made her way to his door.
"This was very silly of you, Mr. Stone," she told him with mock severity. He motioned her to come in.
"It's very true. You're a crackerjack secretary, Annie, and I wanted to let you know that I appreciate that. I know that Jack McCoy didn't."
At that she cracked a wry grin that couldn't quite hide the suspicious shimmer in her eyes. "Every time I have to contact Fraud about something, I hold my breath, hoping he won't answer the phone. McCoy's a Class-A CPA."
"Jack? A Certified Public Accountant?"
"Certified Pain in the Ass." Around his laughter, she added, "Thank you so much, Mr. Stone. Those flowers are lovely. I hope you got flowers for --"
He held up the corsage. Oddly, it was that bouquet which elicited the sweetly radiant smile he had hoped to see. "Those are lovely! She's a lucky woman."
He was about to respond when his telephone rang, and Annie made a face. "Back to the salt mines," she commented, and left him to get on with it. True to her word, Annie devoted the day to preparing the supporting evidence for the state's case. He was grateful yet again for her accounting background, which made it possible for him to put the whole matter into her hands, leaving the legal aspects to Paul and himself. Life was so much easier, not having to wait for Fraud to condescend to grant a ten-minute audience with a pair of math-challenged DAs.
There was the additional benefit that he actually had some time to devote to his plans for the evening. Melissa would be expecting to go out to a nice restaurant. Last-minute reservations weren't going to be easy, but finally he was able to book a table for two at Fraunces Tavern, with a night of ballroom dancing to follow at the Glenn Miller Room. The last he had heard, ballroom dancing was popular again, and Melissa had a grace on the dance floor that took his breath away. As the day wore on, he found himself feeling almost giddy with anticipation.
She arrived promptly at 5:30, peering around the office uncertainly. He caught his breath at her loveliness, her long chestnut hair with those marvellous reddish highlights and her pert, upturned nose that made her look like a little leprechaun.... She was wearing green, too, a dark forest green that enhanced her peaches-and-cream skin and her overall air of youth and innocence. As he hastened around the corner of his desk, nearly tripping over his wastepaper basket in his eagerness, he fell in love with her all over again. She looked up from her chat with Annie, and the smile she gave him made his heart skip a beat. He held out his arms to her, and she fell into them with a sparkle in her eyes and an embrace that made up for her year's absence. They exchanged quick pecks on the cheek.
"Melissa, I see you've met my new secretary, Annie. Annie, I'd like to introduce you to my daughter, Melissa Stone."
Anne stood. "We've been talking about you, sir. I told her what a slave-driver you are."
"Oh, Daddy, she didn't. She said you were the best boss she'd ever worked for and you'd spoiled her for anybody else."
"Spoiled her, have I?" The frown he tried on felt foolish, in light of the fact that he couldn't stop grinning. "We'll have to do something about that tomorrow. Are you ready, sweetheart?"
Melissa nodded and turned to Annie. "Nice to have met you. Thank you for taking care of my silly old Dad. Imagine getting the dates on his calendar mixed up! Daddy, you're getting positively senile." Her chatter floated out the door and down the hall, and Paul Robinette appeared from behind his frosted-glass partition. Annie rolled her eyes.
"We should all be senile like Ben Stone," Robinette remarked with a grin. "You sure saved his bacon, pushing him to keep that date."
Anne sighed. "I had a falling-out with my father over the man I married, and we hadn't quite patched it up when he died. We were getting there, but -- Lord, what I wouldn't give to hear his voice one more time." She gazed in the direction of Stone's office. "Have you noticed how young he's looked all day?"
Robinette shrugged. "I wasn't here when the divorce happened, but he always goes soft like that whenever he mentions his daughter. She's his baby. Sometimes I wonder what kind of a woman his ex is, taking that girl out of his life."
"You know...." Anne frowned. "You know what it is about him? He cares too much. Not just about his daughter -- I don't think you can care too much about your children -- but about everything. His work, his staff...did you see the flowers he bought me?"
Robinette's eyebrows shot up. "They're from Ben?"
Anne wagged her finger. "That one, he cares too much. One of these days, he's going to crash and burn, and who's going to pick up the pieces? Not his daughter, I bet."
Startled, Robinette stared at her, digesting the truth of what she had said.
Then she shook herself. "Listen, I called Frank Bell in Fraud about that discrepancy we found in Intangible Assets, and he said...."
Time to get back to work.