Check out the rest of the Charlie and Declan Cowriting Project here! Written with Harriet Stuart.
“Care to dance?” Charlie held her hand out to the half-drunk man sitting alone in the club, offering him her most flirtatious smile. He took her hand and followed her out to the dance floor.
He wasn’t Declan. He couldn’t dance nearly as well… and he wasn’t half as handsome. He reeked of alcohol—not that most of the people in here didn’t—and his hands were hot and sweaty. It was clear that he had money though. That was the important bit. And after she plied him with a few more drinks… maybe she wouldn’t even need to kiss him to grab his wallet.
She didn’t want to kiss him. Avoiding that was the goal of tonight.
They danced their way over closer to where the band—just a piano player, one weak saxophonist who kept hitting flat notes, and a bass player half-obscured by the piano—stood in the corner. Charlie flirted with her mark a little, mostly just going through the motions while he replied with sleazy remarks. He didn’t have Declan’s way with words, either. As the song started to reach its ending, she pulled her mark close.
“Let’s escape for just a moment,” she murmured to him, slipping her hand into his pocket and feeling for his wallet while he grabbed her waist and leaned down to kiss her.
There was a sudden thud from across the room, and the music faltered for a moment. The man she was dancing with looked over her shoulder at the band, and she turned as well.
Declan was standing right behind her.
“Excuse me,” he said. “But you’re dancing with my friend.”
Charlie took a breath, then smiled at her mark. “We can pick this up later,” she said seductively, kissing him on the cheek and withdrawing with his wallet in her hand. She slipped it into her purse as the man walked away, dejected, then turned to Declan. “And where have you been?”
Declan put one hand at her back, and pulled her back into the dance. He looked like he was hesitating. Then— “Visiting my family.”
“I thought you said they lived in a different country, and it would be impossible for you to take me to see them. Yet you can just pop off to visit them for five days—without a word of warning, I might add?”
“They do live in another country,” Declan said, sounding hesitant. “And… no, you can’t visit them. It was a short visit.” He bit his lip. “I’m not lying, Charlie. I know it sounds like I am…”
She looked down at her feet, counting the beats of the song in her head to avoid her thoughts. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow… “I was just worried. I thought you might… Someone killed Norman. I thought they might have killed you, too.”
“Oh…” Declan tightened his grip on her hand. “I never even thought of that. Charlie— I’m so sorry—”
“It’s fine,” she said quickly. “I wasn’t that worried. I was more concerned that I would never get to see those photographs you took.”
Declan’s smile returned in an instant. “Oh, just you wait. I got them developed. They’re beautiful.”
“Show me?” she asked, spinning into a hold that put her right in his arms. That had been unintentional. Declan smiled, for one instant holding her a bit closer than the dance required.
“Of course.” He led her over to a table in one corner. Charlie sat down, then reached over and grabbed a cigarette from Declan’s pocket. She lit it, watching him carefully, examining his expression.
“How’d you know I would be here?” she asked. “Or do you just always play the bass in strange bars?”
“I just always play the bass in strange bars,” Declan replied, grinning. He pulled out his wallet, and set a photograph on the table between them.
Charlie picked it up, holding it up to the hazy yellow light of a nearby lamp. She barely recognized herself in it—but then again, this wasn’t really Charlie, this was Katriona, the psychic who flirted in bars and convinced men to kiss her with a few clever turns of phrase. The magic trick in the photograph, though…
“I had my doubts, Declan. But that is mightily impressive.”
Declan grinned boyishly. “I knew you’d like it.”
“How…?” She examined the photograph again, taking a drag from her cigarette. The glowing orb in her hands was certainly suspended in the air—he hadn’t actually placed anything in her hands when he took the picture. “How could you possibly have done that? Suspending it, making it glow… that’s not an ordinary camera trick.”
Declan spreads his hands. “A good magician never reveals his secrets. And I told you—I’m psychic, just like you are. Or maybe a bit better.”
Charlie tsked. “Now that, good sir, is low. One day we’ll figure out who really is the best psychic. And I will win.”
“One day?” Declan smirked. “Why not now?”
Charlie raised an eyebrow and put down the photograph. “Show me the other picture first. Then we’ll see.”
Declan lined up the other photographs on the table. All of them were of her, only the angle was changed slightly in each one, as if to prove that there was no trick—that for some instant, she had really held a floating orb of light.
“The other one. The one… of me.”
“Oh, right.” Declan pulled her portrait—the one with the mirror—out of his wallet, and laid it in front of her as well. “This is why I wanted you to model.” He looked up at her. “You’re lovely. And theatrical. My favorite combination.”
Charlie didn’t meet his gaze. She stayed staring at the photograph. He was wrong. She wasn’t lovely or theatrical. She was lost. Adrift in the sea of life with no direction, no purpose… she didn’t know who she was. She had to admit, though, that Declan had captured that feeling wonderfully.
“May I keep it?” she asked him softly.
Declan hesitated. “I… was thinking you’d keep the psychic one,” he said finally. “I wanted to have that one. Since… you took the photograph that was in my wallet… it’s kind of empty now…”
Charlie looked up at him, letting a smile play on her lips. “You’ve been carrying around my photograph in your wallet?”
“I… yes.” Declan looked down. “And I’d like to keep it there.”
She kept smiling at him for a moment, then it slipped from her face as she remembered the last time she saw him. “I thought we agreed this was just pretend,” she said softly.
“I thought we got interrupted,” Declan replied, slipping the photograph back into his wallet.
“Are you hoping to continue where we left off then?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. The setting was getting to her. The music, the dim, smoky lighting of the bar, the heat of the people, and Declan beside her… It wasn’t real. She was just putting on the mask and playing the part.
But she shouldn’t have been.
“I don’t know.” Declan put one hand casually on the table. An invitation. “But I went home, and talked to my family… my father… You saved me. That’s important. I can’t just leave you now, Charlie, even if it’s what I should be doing.”
She dropped her cigarette in the ashtray, then gently—cautiously—took his hand. He was making it so easy… He was such a fool. He should have been running as far and as fast as he could. If he knew what she was doing, he would be. “Don’t leave, then.” She looked down at their hands. “Don’t leave me, Declan… Even if we both know it’s wrong.”
“I’m not going to go along with it if it’s wrong, Charlie,” Declan said, holding her hand more tightly. “I’m going to make it right.”
“How do you plan to go about doing that, Mr. Falker?” she asked.
“Well…” Declan hesitated. “I thought… maybe I’d go talk to your father.”
Her eyes flashed up to meet his. “My… my father? You… want to talk to my father.”
“Not to— you know, ask for you—” Declan looked away from her. “But… I thought he should know that I’m back. In case… in case I ever do want to ask.”
Damn, he’s serious… Charlie thought. “Declan… What are we doing? Because… if you want to talk to my father… that doesn’t sound like pretending anymore.”
“Maybe I don’t want to pretend, either,” Declan said quietly. “Look. I’m not saying… I’m not saying you need to commit, or anything. But I’ve been alone in this city for far too long. I’d like to have a real friend, Charlie. And I think you would, too. And you’ve already saved me once… you just seem like one of those people. One of those people who walk into your life and never let go. So I want to do this right.”
“I…” She could break it off now. End the game. Send him away before they both got too involved. Break his heart… “I do, too.”
“Anyway, I’m your Watson. That implies I’ll be spending some time with you, and I don’t want to have to always be looking over my shoulder for your father.”
“He’ll only be concerned if he catches us kissing again…” Charlie ran her fingers over his palm. “Do you expect that to be an issue?” she asked softly.
“If you keep touching me like that…” Declan sighed. “I think it might be, Charlie.”
“You aren’t doing a very good job of convincing me to stop, you know.” Please, convince me to stop…
“I’m not supposed to have friends, Charlie,” Declan said, pain edging into his voice. “But I find myself liking you. I’d like to get to really know you. Especially since you still have my photograph, and you’ve made me promise to help you… I want to get to know who I’m working with. I want to have a friend.” He took a breath. “I don’t really want you to stop.”
Charlie took hold of his hand and stood. “Come dance with me, then.”
Declan put the photographs back into his wallet and took her hand in his. They made their way back to the dance floor, and he pulled her into a brief hug before putting his arm around her to dance.
Charlie cursed herself for wishing he had held her longer.
She looked up at him as they danced. “So. How did you know about Limerick?” She had gotten a newspaper the day after Declan left. Sure enough, Limerick fell in the Irish Civil War. How could he have known that?
“Psychic,” he said, winking.
“Please…” She rolled her eyes. “Tell me.”
“You tell me your tricks first,” Declan said. “Then we’ll see.”
“You don’t want to know all my tricks,” she said quietly, glancing at the man who she had been dancing with before and grimacing. “I’m sorry about earlier. That man…”
“I’m not really concerned that you were pickpocketing him,” Declan said. “What does concern me is that you picked me to rob… and him. There’s no similarity there. Please tell me there’s no similarity there.”
Charlie smirked. “No. No, I picked him because he’s drunk, meaning he won’t even remember me tomorrow. Probably won’t even notice I snitched his wallet until the morning, either. And rich… that much is obvious from his suit. I guess that’s the similarity. You both had money.”
Declan laughed. “You about cleaned me out, though. I had to get more from home.” He hesitated. “Why else did you choose me?”
You were desperate and vulnerable and far too easily manipulated. You still are.
Charlie shrugged. “The same reasons I told you before. You were an easy mark.” She hesitated. “And… I wanted you to find me.”
“What?” Declan looked taken aback. Had he guessed, then? That wouldn’t do…
Charlie reached up and brushed her hand over his cheek. “It’s not every day I meet someone like you, Declan. I’m lonely… I thought, maybe, if you found me again…” I could take you for all you have and break your heart… She didn’t let herself visibly wince, but the pain still hit her heart regardless.
“And here we are.” Declan smiled. “I don’t know what we’re doing here, Charlie. But I’m glad we’re here.”
“I’m glad we’re here, too,” she said softly. Was it a lie? She didn’t even know anymore…
“So, in the five days I’ve been gone, have you been hunting for clues? Poking around crime scenes?” Declan had that boyish half-smile on his face again.
Actually, her father hadn’t let her leave the house for the past five days. She’d been sneaking out at night to go to the bar—half-hoping Declan would show up at one of them, and also half-hoping she would catch a police officer who she could seduce into spilling some information on Norman’s death. It hadn’t worked.
“Not as much as I wish I could have,” she said to Declan. “But… now that you’re here, perhaps we can go get into some real trouble. I still need to look at the crime scene…” She took a shaky breath and forced herself to stay calm. “It would be easier to go if I wasn’t alone.”
“First thing tomorrow morning,” Declan promised. “And… you don’t know if they’ve searched my apartment for alcohol, do you?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t heard of them looking to arrest you, though. So you’re likely clear for now.”
Declan sighed. “I still really can’t be arrested. But I need a place to stay… I guess I’ll just have to risk it.”
Charlie hesitated, then draped her arms around his neck, still swaying to the music. “You could stay at my father’s place,” she said softly.
“You were just shocked that I’d even consider talking to him,” Declan said, taken aback. “And now you want me to stay with you?”
Yes, that was believable… “My father never has to know. You can stay in the basement—he never goes down there. We’ll be out during the day regardless, and at night… well, there’s always a speakeasy open somewhere.” She smiled at him.
“I…” Declan hesitated. “That’s not going to make a good impression with your father.”
“Like I said, he never has to know. I would quite prefer it if he didn’t, after all… if it will spare me a lecture…”
Declan sighed. “But if he finds out, our… whatever we’re doing… is ruined.”
She leaned in closer, not knowing what she was doing in the slightest. “I guess that’s plenty of incentive for him not to find out.”
“I lied,” Declan said quietly.
Charlie pulled back a little. “What about?”
“I dabble in trouble. But I have such a hard time justifying it…”
“Can’t I be your justification?” she asked. That wasn’t Charlie talking. That was Katriona. Charlie wanted to tell him to leave before he got hurt. But she couldn’t tear away the other persona long enough to get a word in edgewise.
Declan looked at her with so much pain that she wanted to pull away. He needed to leave her, for his own good. “Maybe. A friend might be justification enough.” His smile returned. “But I wouldn’t want to get that friend in trouble.”
“Do you still not understand?” Charlie asked. “I live for trouble.”
“You need better hobbies.” Declan let go of Charlie. “I want to go check, then. See if the police have gone to my house. Stay here—I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’ll take a cab.”
She grabbed hold of his hand again. “Declan… if you leave me here, that man’s going to try to kiss me again. Let me come?”
Declan glanced over to where the man was slumped against the wall, even more drunk then when Charlie had left him. He looked at her with dark eyes.
“Yes. Come with me.”
Charlie smiled gratefully at him and let him lead her out of the club to the street above.
Declan waved down a cab and paid the driver for both of them. They sat in the darkness, watching street lights flicker by.
“Why didn’t you say goodbye?” she asked quietly after a moment.
“Last time I saw you?” Declan asked, looking out of the window.
“Yes. You could have come by before you left. My father would have let you say goodbye.”
“I…” Declan looked back at Charlie. “I didn’t know if I was coming back. I needed to talk to my family before I decided what to do about you.”
“If you didn’t know if you were coming back… that’s even more reason to say goodbye,” she murmured. “Even if you didn’t know what to do about me… it still would have been nice.”
“I won’t leave again.” Declan slid his hand into hers. “I won’t leave again without saying goodbye.”
She squeezed his hand gently. “Thank you.”
Run! she wanted to yell at him. But she couldn’t. She had signed on for the long game now. She was too deep in. It was either see this through or admit defeat…
She wouldn’t hurt him in the end. Well, she would… but she would do her best to soften the blow as much as possible.
He deserved that much from her.
The taxi stopped in front of Declan’s apartment, and he told the driver to wait for them. They stepped out into the night, and walked slowly up the stairs to Declan’s rooms on the fourth floor. His rooms looked different, cloaked by darkness as they were now. The clutter looked ready to hide any sort of monster, the drafty windows let cool streams of air rustle the curtains. Charlie wasn’t superstitious, despite the part she often played, but she tightly clutched Declan’s arm as they entered anyway.
“They’ve been here,” Declan said quietly, pulling a notice down from the door: FIVE DOLLARS FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO THE ARREST OF DECLAN ERIKSON. “Good Lord… they’re going to think that it’s me, Charlie… it looks like I ran… and they’ll have found the liquor, too, now…”
“I guess you don’t have a choice but to stay with me now, then,” Charlie said softly. She had been half-hoping the police hadn’t been here, so he could just stay in his own home… yet the prospect of smuggling him into her house every night still filled her with a thrill of excitement.
“So you’re saving my hide. Again. I’ve been far too careless lately… and now this.” Declan shook his head. “I guess I deserve it.”
“You deserve to be safe,” she replied quietly. “You deserve to be safe, and loved, and happy…” And you don’t deserve to be with someone like me.
Declan laughed. “Then I should definitely stop being a bootlegger, eh?”
She couldn’t help but smile back at him. “Gather what you need. You can set up shop in my basement for now, until it all dies down.”
“And what if it never dies down? Or what if I bring the police down on your head?”
“I told you, Declan: I excel at talking my way out of getting arrested. And it will die down—we just need to find who really killed Norman, and then your name will be clear. On that charge, at least… I can’t really help you with the alcohol.”
“They’ll forget about the alcohol pretty quickly,” Declan said. “Nobody cares in the city… the same cops after me are drinking my liquor in the bars at night.”
She smirked and nodded. He was right—she saw them there almost every time she went. They were notorious flirts, but she never tried to take anything from them. That was trouble she couldn’t risk.
“I promise, you won’t be arrested, Declan,” she said. “Not while I’m around.”
He took her hand in the darkness. “Thank you. Sleeping under bridges is cold.”
She squeezed his hand and took a step closer to him. “Why did you come back?” she whispered. “And don’t just say it’s because of the photograph. You were in a different country. Free. But you came back…”
“It’s the photograph.” Declan looked down, and saw… what did he see in her eyes? Sincerity? She didn’t know what was there for him to see. “And… you saved me. You didn’t have to do that, either, you know. You saw that I was delivering alcohol. But you didn’t rat me out. So I talked to my father… about how you’d saved me… and he told me I couldn’t just leave.”
“You told your father about me?” she asked, heart starting to race. He was getting his family involved… she really couldn’t back out now…
Declan shrugged. “I needed advice. I knew… I knew the right thing to do would be to come back. Even if it wasn’t the easy thing. But I needed to hear that from someone. So… yes. I told him about you.”
“Is this the right thing?” She raised their clasped hands to her lips and lightly kissed his fingers. “I want it to be, but… I’m scared.”
“Well… I don’t think that hiding in your basement is necessarily the right thing,” Declan said, smiling slightly. “But being here with you… I think that could be right. And leaving you without saying goodbye was certainly wrong.”
“What if you decide you regret it? Coming back.”
“Then I regret it. And I just try to remember the good parts.” Declan squeezed her hand.
“And what if…” Charlie hesitated, then pulled him into a hug. At least that way he couldn’t see her face. “What if the good parts aren’t strong enough to withstand the pain?”
“You say, as you offer to hide me in your basement,” Declan said, putting his arms around her.
“I don’t want you to ever hate me,” she murmured into his shoulder. “I know… a time might come where that’s impossible. But I want the good to be good enough that you don’t.”
“What?” Declan pulled her around to face him.
“Everything has an end, Declan,” she said quietly, avoiding his eyes. “And we already agreed that we can’t end well.”
“I thought we agreed that pretending can’t end well,” Declan corrected.
“If pretending won’t end well, then something real will end in flames…”
“It doesn’t have to.” Declan kissed her forehead. “I’d like a true friend, Charlie. You don’t have to go any farther than that, you know, and it will be farther than I’ve gone before.”
What did she want him to be, though? A mark, a friend, a lover… It didn’t matter in the end. The outcome would still be the same.
He had set himself up, though. He had set himself up so damn well.
“Declan…” She stepped closer again, leaning into his chest. “I want a friend, too. But… do you want it go farther? Because… my head says I shouldn’t, but my heart thinks that I do.”
“I want…” Declan looked down at her again, and pressed his lips to her hair. “I want this to be right. Because you shouldn’t be hurt again. And I want to be your friend… and then, maybe…”
“Then let’s start by being friends,” she said softly. Would it be easier that way? Was it less painful to be betrayed by a friend than a lover?
“I can hide in a friend’s basement,” Declan agreed.
She smiled up at him. “So pack your things.”
“I took most of the important ones home.” Declan grabbed a suitcase, and tossed a few more sets of clothes into the bottom, along with a pen and some handkerchiefs. Charlie watched him pack, her fingers absently wandering to her lips as memories of when he’d kissed her in the park intruded on her mind. It might be easier for him if she was just a friend. But she was beginning to worry that she would be the one who ended up in pain.