One hip perched on the wide window ledge Corrie stared down at the parking lot nine floors below. Snow covered everything. Cars were big white lumps, the tops of the lights looked like they had hats. A few brave souls trudged through the drifts and a truck managed to get down the poorly plowed street without getting stuck and with only minimal skidding, but it was a truck and she'd already seen several cars going sideways and stalling out in deep snow.
It looked like none of the snow had melted since it had fallen two days before, the freak Nor'easter burying Virginia in white dense fluff that it couldn't handle.
On one hand Corrie was annoyed by the lack of snowplows and shovels and even proper winter attire. On the other, she'd moved to the South for a reason. Kansas winters were brutal, the wind gusting bitterly cold over the plains, the snow and, worse, the freezing rain falling heavily several times a year.
Charlottesville, Virginia, despite being near the mountains, wasn't supposed to get sixteen inches of snow!
And especially not in December.
The only benefit was that her last final of the semester, scheduled for that morning, had become an emailed "take home" affair and she'd already finished it and sent it back to her professor. She was leaving to spend Christmas with a friend's family the next day and the reports said the roads would be clear. They were driving to Memphis and were debating via email about how to avoid the mountains if at all possible, but she was pretty much relying on her friend who made the drive several times a year in all weather to make the decision.
They could have left today after her final, but it was December 21st and Corrie's birthday and for the last four years he'd come to spend the evening with her. They didn't communicate about it. He just appeared.
As the day was edging towards evening, she was beginning to doubt he'd come. He always drove down from New York and that city was buried in snow, too.
No...he probably wouldn't come.
As that thought settled morosely into her mind, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned her head to look down at the far end of the street.
Large, old-fashioned headlights burned through the gray haze, and a black shape followed them.
Corrie burst into a grin, jumped up, grabbed her coat and purse and ran out the door.
By the time she reached the outer doors to her dorm, the coat haphazardly wrapped around her, the bright purple purse decorated with skulls--her one remaining rebellion as she was graduating in the Spring and bright pink hair and ripped t-shirts wouldn't get her the career she wanted--slung over one shoulder, a small crowd had gathered at the side of the idling Rolls Royce. As she sidled past a couple of the more gossipy girls on her floor, the driver's door opened and Proctor stepped out. The only modification to his usual black uniform was an equally black knit scarf draped perfectly orderly around his neck.
"Miss Swanson," he said, as he half-turned and opened the back door of the vintage car.
"Hi, Proctor," she replied gaily, grinning at the people she passed, most of whom were gaping at her, before sliding into the warm backseat.
He was waiting for her, seated comfortably, one leg crossed over the other, revealing perfectly shined shoes. How he could keep them in that pristine condition in this weather, she had no clue, but it just added to the mystery that was Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast.
"Happy Birthday, Corrie," he said softly, his French Creole ancestry evident in his warm tones.
"I'm so glad you came. I thought maybe the weather..." Corrie couldn't stop smiling.
"I wouldn't miss your birthday for something as inconsequential as snow." He smiled slightly and gestured to her seat belt, which she promptly fastened. "And Proctor can drive in anything." Which he proved as the Rolls began to move smoothly down the street. "I made reservations at the restaurant we went to last year. Is that amenable?"
"Yeah, it's great. And, hey, I can drink."
She could see he was chuckling on the inside but he only gave her a wry look and asked about her classes.
They spent the drive talking about school, saving the more important, personal talk for dinner. It was a routine Corrie enjoyed. If her life was mostly organized chaos, this one day flowed in a certain order she appreciated. Being picked up in the Rolls, talking about school during the drive to a very expensive restaurant, discussing her family--briefly--, friends and future over drinks, his work over dinner, and the most personal discussions happening over dessert for her and tea for him.
He always gave her a gift on the drive back to her dorm and she always squeezed his hand in thanks, knowing that hugging and similar shows of affection made him uncomfortable.
And, in the end, as she left the car, she thanked him for giving her this life.
"Have you heard from your mother?" He asked politely.
Corrie sipped her wine--not her first by a long shot, but she'd pretend for his sake, even though she knew he knew it wasn't her first drink. "She sent me a card." She shrugged as if it didn't matter, and it really didn't. She'd made her peace with her mother years ago. "And my dad called me this morning."
"That relationship continues to work out?"
"Yeah." She could feel herself flushing in pleasure, because without him, she probably wouldn't have taken the steps to find her father. "I'm going to spend Spring Break at his place."
"Good." He smiled at that, making her return it before she dropped her eyes and took another drink. "I've drafted that letter of recommendation for you, if you still need it."
Feeling a tiny bit of exasperation, she replied, "I'm not changing my mind. It's what I've wanted since, well, I met you, practically."
He nodded. "Just let me know when and where you need it mailed. The Bureau chiefs would be fools to deny your application. I simply..." His voice trailed away and his expression turned just slightly chagrined.
"It's okay. I know. You worry. I don't really want to be a field agent, in danger and all that. I want to take photographs and analyze crime scenes. I want to see the way you see."
"I have no doubt you'll succeed at that. The photos you sent me of your friends at Monticello a few months ago were striking. You capture details most would miss."
She did blush at that compliment. He wasn't stingy with them, but she knew that when he gave them, he meant them.
Their dinners arrived--a very rare steak for him, salmon for her--and she watched as he examined the bottle of Cabernet, tasted it, nodded in acceptance, then smiled as he ordered another glass of Chardonnay for her.
No one had ever ordered a drink for her, if you didn't count her study partners who brought her coffee, which she didn't.
Corrie waited for him to cut his steak and take a bite, watched him savor it, and knew it was satisfactory by the look on his face, then she ate some of her salmon, which was delicious and, after swallowing, asked him, "So, any new and exciting cases?"
As they ate, he shared with her his recent case in Chicago--a truly windy city with a propensity for pizza, beer and hotdogs, and a mystifying love for organized, professional sports--and mentioned peripherally that his police friends from New York, D'Agosta and Hayward, had aided him and that they were engaged and planning a Spring wedding. He hoped to be in town to attend, but his work often took him away at barely a moment's notice.
"So, hopefully the next weird case will be somewhere tropical?"
He smiled at her and nodded in agreement.
"I heard New York got even more snow than we did but I bet people there know how to drive in it."
"True, and the State has the necessary machinery and stocks of salt and sand. Virginia may consider itself to be a part of the South, but it's far enough north that this kind of weather shouldn't be unexpected." He glanced around the nearly empty restaurant, shaking his head slightly. "And yet, almost everyone is homebound."
"At least Congress was in session when it hit on Saturday so they're probably stuck in the Capital and might actually get something done on healthcare," Corrie snorted.
That earned her an agreeing smirk before he returned to his plate. "Your friend who's driving you to Tennessee tomorrow, is she a good driver?"
"Yep, and has a four-wheel drive Jeep. We'll be fine. I'll text you when we get there."
"I'd appreciate it," he murmured, looking at her briefly before cutting another piece of beef.
Corrie smiled in pleasure.
He had tea. She had a very decadent piece of white chocolate cheesecake. And it was after nearly moaning in pleasure at the first bite that she asked him. "How's Viola?" It wasn't that she really cared about his girlfriend whom she'd never met, but it was the polite thing to ask.
Sipping his tea, he frowned slightly. "We recently parted ways."
Corrie forced down the instinctive smile, but allowed the happiness to pool in the pit of her stomach. She really hadn't liked anything she'd heard about the woman who was as eccentric as him but didn't seem as interesting by a long shot. "I'm sorry," she murmured.
He lightly sighed. "It was unfortunately a long time coming. She worried about my career, the cases I took, wanted me to settle down on her island with her. I just...It wasn't time for me to do that."
"Well, no," Corrie protested. "You're nowhere near retirement age and no one else can do what you do. You're needed."
That pleased him and he smiled again, his expression lightening considerably. "Thank you, Corrie."
"And someday I want to work with you again, so you can't retire."
And that made him laugh, a low, soft sound that sent a thrill of happiness through her. "It will be my pleasure."
She blushed and took a large bite of cheesecake.
Night had fully fallen by the time they left the restaurant but the moon and stars were reflecting off the snow, making it oddly light. Corrie shivered in the cold and wrapped her coat tighter around herself. He didn't seem to be bothered by the brisk breeze, but then weather never seemed to affect him. She remembered him in the heat of a Kansas summer in his full suit, never sweating.
Sometimes she wondered if he was really human, but then there were always little signs that she could see. Sometimes she hoped she was the only one who could.
Proctor stood ready to open the door to the Rolls and the interior of the car was toasty. She knew he'd take the long way back to the university, allowing them more time to talk, and she noticed the glass partition was closed for privacy.
He knew Pendergast's routines as well as she did.
As the car pulled away from the curb she turned to accept the elegantly wrapped package he held out to her. The box was small, obviously not the camera lens she'd hinted out, but that only made her more eager. There was always something unexpected about him and she appreciated that. Ever since he'd given her the money to get out Medicine Creek to finish high school, she'd known that he would always surprise her.
Tearing into the wrapping, Corrie revealed a small, blue velvet case, long enough to hold a pen set.
It wasn't a pen set.
On a bed of faded ivory satin sat a necklace. It was an oddly burnished gold with a pink stone set in filigree dangling from the apex. Carefully she lifted it from its bed. "It's beautiful." It was, and obviously old, and just holding it was making her nervous.
"Rose gold and nearly one hundred years old. It was my grandmother's. One of the few pieces I believe hold no bad memories or curses."
"Thank you," she stammered, "But shouldn't this go to someone in your family or...a wife?"
For the first time in a long time she saw him appear almost uncomfortable for a brief moment and she nearly gasped. "There's no one left, and when I discovered it last year I knew it would go to you. It should go to you."
She didn't question his cryptic comment, only smiled and set the necklace back in the case. "I'll cherish it." Reaching out with her empty hand she took his and gave it the traditional squeeze, but when she started to pull back she was startled when he held onto her.
Even more startled when he cleared his throat before saying softly, "Corrie, there was another reason my relationship with Viola didn't last. I..." For a moment he seemed at a loss for words and she stared at him, unable to speak herself, then he took a breath and, his eyes meeting hers, continued, "You are a very special woman, Corrie Swanson. Once I would have said you were too young, but you were never young. I would like to..." Again he stopped, but he didn't drop his eyes from hers.
Slowly Corrie smiled. "You're not old, you know, Aloysius." For the first time ever she said his name out loud, letting the syllables roll off her tongue with relish. "And I'm pretty sure with your deductive skills you've known how I've felt about you since you came to see me that first year for my eighteenth birthday." Reaching back, she unhooked her seatbelt.
"Corrie," he chided, but she ignored him with a smile and slid over the seat to take his other hand.
"You'll protect me. You always do."
And she leaned up and brushed her lips over his.
And Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, man of mystery, enigma, and quite possibly not all human, squeezed her hands and deepened the kiss.
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