DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Wesley has turned up at Willow’s to take her out to lunch, while Buffy has caught Clem out in his tailing of her, calling the number in his notebook, and is surprised to hear Spike on the other end of the line…

*************

Chapter 7: Catch As Catch Can

Her voice was the last he expected to hear, and Spike froze in mid-shrug, his jacket half on, half off, as the whisper of his name leapt the distance of the phone line, breathing into his ear as if she were pressed against him, instantaneous goosebumps erupting along his arms.  “Buffy?” he said, and waited for some type of response, an avowal, denial, something.

What came was silence.  Not the dial tone of a line disconnected.  Not a voice telling him he was imagining things.  Only the distant sound of traffic filtered through the wire, a far-off horn announcing for him that she was actually still there.

“Buffy?” Spike repeated.  “Pet, if that’s you…are you OK?  Is something wrong?”  The question of how she’d gotten his number in the first place was quickly dismissed in light of his wonder about why she’d called him.  There would be time enough later to get the answer to that, he figured.

“I’m…fine.”

It was her, but she sure as hell didn’t sound fine.  She sounded like she was in shock, and Spike’s frown was immediate.  “You’re not hurt, are you?  Listen, stay where you are.  I’ll be---.”

“Why are you having me followed?”

Her words were icy, stilling his body as the realization that Clem had been caught out answered his previous query.  The shock of it was quickly replaced by a vague sense of awe and respect, though, as the implication of it sank in.

He’d called Clem, not only because he trusted him to keep his mouth shut, but also because he was one of the best in the business.  When it came to getting information about people, following them around to detail their lives, nobody was faster or more reliable than Clem.  Spike’s old friend had an affable manner about him that encouraged people to talk, and a way of staying invisible when the situation called for it.  To think that Buffy had found him out, in the first morning of his going on the job, told Spike one of two things.

Either being involved with Angel Wilkins had taught her how to spot Clem’s sort, or she was a helluva lot more resourceful and intelligent than Spike had given her credit for.  Considering how smart he thought she was already, the latter as a possibility frankly scared the shit out of him.

And excited him, too.  No point in denying that.

“Is Clem there?  Did he give you my number?”

“Is that his name?”  She surprised him by giggling.  “I should’ve known.  Anyone with those ears has to have a moniker like Clem.”  There was a pause.  “And no, he’s not here.  He lammed off once I got his little notebook.”

Spike grinned, in spite of himself.  Whoever she was, she was good.  Clem never lost that damn notebook.

“You haven’t answered my question,” she was saying.

“And which one was that?”  He knew which one.  He was stalling.  How did he want to handle this?

“Spike…”  It came out as more of a sigh, and his eyes drifted shut as he remembered the warm flutter of her breath along his neck, each rise and fall of her shoulders as she’d slept curled against his chest.  “Don’t do this.  I told you last night.  Just…please.  For my sake…for your sake---.”

“My sake wants you to stop lyin’ to yourself, luv.”  His tone was rougher than he wanted and he grimaced, running a hand through his hair.  Fuck.  That was going to piss her off even more.  Need to try a different tactic.  Can’t let her just hang up.  “Listen, let me explain it to you in person.  Buy you lunch or something.”

“That’s not a good idea.”

She hadn’t immediately said no.  He latched on to the hope she offered and pressed onward, cradling the phone in his shoulder as he began pulling open drawers in his dresser.  “It’s just a meal, Buffy.  It’s not like you don’t have to eat some time or another.”  Grabbing a clean pair of socks, he began pulling at his shoes, kicking them off as he began sliding out of his jacket.  “You pick the joint.  Someplace public.  You won’t have to worry about Big Bad Spike takin’ advantage of your honor then.”

“I shouldn’t---.”

“Please.”  The entreaty surprised even him.  “I just want to talk.  We did that first before anything else, remember?”

He certainly remembered.  Though the thought of her undeniably elicited memories of satin skin and honeyed lips, it also evoked the sound of her laughter, the flash of self-righteousness in grey-green eyes when she argued her point.  Beneath the gorgeous exterior was a mind and spirit that had called out to him, challenged him to stand up for himself, and there was no way he could ever forget that.

The silence was interminable.  Even as he was pulling off his shirt, scrounging through his closet for a clean one, Spike felt his impatience sharpen, his need for her to say something---anything---eating at his flesh.  Either hang up or answer me, he wanted to scream.  Just bloody choose something.

“There’s a diner across the street from St. Christopher’s,” Buffy finally said.  Her voice was quiet.  “Nobody but the locals should recognize me down there.  If you’re not there in half an hour, I’m leaving.”

“I’ll be there in twenty,” Spike vowed, his heart singing at the opportunity she was giving him. 

*************

Her hand was shaking when she hung up the phone.  What the hell are you doing? Buffy chastised herself, staring blankly at the open page in front of her.  Meeting with Spike?  Are you crazy?

It’s just lunch, she argued back.  And in public.  So no kissing or…other stuff.  Food.  Sustenance.  And talking.  Just talking.  Nothing wrong with that.

That’s why you picked Mickey’s place to meet him at, the devil on her shoulder whispered.  Because it’s across the street from the hotel.  You know, just in case…

No, she vowed silently, and grabbed her things from the booth before pushing open the glass door.  We’re just going to talk.  Spike needs to understand that he can’t be doing things like having me followed.  If Angel had been with me today, things could’ve gotten ugly.  I don’t want Spike to end up getting hurt.

As her heels clicked along the sidewalk, leading her to the spot in the alley where she’d tucked her purchases before confronting Clem, Buffy almost found herself believing her unspoken reasoning.  It was for his safety she was doing this.  He had to know that being involved with her wasn’t safe, and if that meant having lunch, then so be it.

Still, the small niggle of delight at seeing Spike again tickled in the depths of her stomach, and there was the faintest of smiles curling her lips as she stepped to the curb to hail a taxi. 

*************

It felt like every eye in the restaurant was on her as Willow slid into the chair Wesley had pulled out for her, shooting him a nervous smile when he sat down opposite.  Unconsciously, she straightened her blouse over her skirt, throwing her shoulders back as her gaze kept darting over the elegance of the other occupants, the dark wood of the long bar that dominated the room, the plethora of models and ornaments that dangled from the ceiling.

“Is something wrong?” Wesley asked.  “You seem uncomfortable.”

Willow leaned forward, keeping her voice as low as possible.  “You brought me to the ‘21 Club,’” she said.

“Well, yes.”  He smiled, picking up the menu in front of him as if nothing else was wrong.  “The food here is really quite exquisite---.”

“You brought me to the ’21 Club,’” she repeated, her words a little clearer, her tone a little more nervous.

He looked at her over his menu, a frown beginning to overtake his earlier smile.  “And is there something wrong with that?”

“Don’t you think I’m a little…”  She gestured toward her simple clothing.  “…underdressed for this sort of place?”  Underdressed was an understatement for how she was feeling at the moment.  When he’d suggested lunch, she’d imagined a quiet little café, or maybe a deli.  Never in her wildest dreams did she consider that he’d bring her to one of the most upscale restaurants on the entire island.  More money walked in and out of its doors than she could even imagine, and the fact that she could spot at least three high-profile personalities without even having to turn her head did nothing to boost her already faltering ego.

He seemed confused for a moment, carefully studying the neat lines of her blouse before glancing at the other patrons.  “You’re not honestly concerned about your apparel, are you?” Wesley asked.  “Because you look absolutely lovely.  I suppose I should’ve said something to you earlier, but I’ll admit I was little flummoxed by seeing you had…guests when I arrived.”

“Oh, they’re just friends, like I said---.”  She cut herself off, the compliment he had just paid her finally sinking in.  Blushing, she hastily picked up the menu before her, and covered her face with it.  “So what’s good to eat here?” she chirped.

She didn’t see his amused smile.  “You really can’t go wrong in anything you select,” he said.  “Just choose whatever catches your eye.”

Willow bit at her lip as her gaze scanned the choices.  He’d called her lovely.  So, OK, it wasn’t the first time anyone had ever said she was pretty, but usually those kind of compliments only came from Spike or Giles when she was feeling particularly low.  Guys just didn’t usually see her in that sort of light, not even Xander when she’d practically been throwing herself at him before he met Anya.  She’d always chalked it up to the intelligence thing; most men were intimidated by smart women.  It was a theory that she’d shared with Spike, but he’d just rolled his eyes and snorted in disgust.

“Smart dames are the only way to go,” he’d said.  “Eye candy’s all well and good for the occasional spot of fun, but when it comes to the long haul, a bloke needs someone who’ll keep him on his toes.”  He’d given her a quick kiss on the forehead then, staring down at her with an intensity that still managed to shake her when she remembered it.  “It’ll happen, Red.  Trust me on this.  ‘Cause the prat that’s too blind to see what a skirt like you has to offer isn’t worth the time you’d spend fussin’ about him.”  His smile had been cocky.  “And if somebody argues any different with you, just be sure to send him my way.  It’ll be my pleasure to knock some sense into him.”

All too quickly, the waiter had come and taken their orders, leaving her bereft of a menu to hide behind, and Willow was left facing Wesley, a nervous smile plastered across her face.  “So…” she started, her mind searching desperately for something to talk about that wouldn’t leave her sounding like a fool.

“So…” Wesley echoed.

“This place used to be a speakeasy, right?”  Oh, that’s good, she thought excitedly.  Local history.  Colorful yet impersonal.  And facts.  I can talk about facts.  Maybe that will help me warm up to the more delicate issue of questions about his boss.

“Yes, though its owners were never actually caught at the time of Prohibition.  They proved just a bit too wily for federal agents.”

“I heard that their famous wine cellar wasn’t even in this building,” Willow rushed to say.  “That it was next door.  At number nineteen.”

He nodded.  “Yet another reason why they were able to escape justice for their crimes,” he commented.  He gazed at her in speculation.  “You seem awfully well-versed in that type of lore,” he said.  “Outside of its patrons and the law, the details of the cellar are known only by a select few.”

“You’re forgetting the incredibly curious,” she replied.  “The facts are all there.  You just have to go looking for them.”

“And is that a hobby of yours?  This…fact-finding?”

Too late, she realized what she’d done, and Willow ducked her gaze, brushing imaginary dust from the tablecloth.  Crap, she thought.  This isn’t supposed to be about me.  This is supposed to be about him.  Good thing Giles isn’t here to tell me how badly I’m doing at this.

Out loud, she said, “I like to read.  It helps…pass the time.”

He smiled.  “And what else do you do to pass the time?  Because I find it very hard to believe that someone as intelligent as you has a lifetime ambition of being a coat check girl.”

This was better.  “I’m a student,” she said, venturing forth with the cover story they’d concocted for her.  “Or I will be.  Once the winter term comes around.  That’s why working at Heaven is just what I need.  Days free for classes and all that.”  She took a sip of her water, wetting her mouth that had suddenly gone dry.  “What about you?  I wouldn’t have pegged you for running a club.  How’d something like that happen?”

“Running Heaven is actually much more demanding than you might think.  There’s all the paperwork---well, you’ve seen that---as well as a host of other responsibilities.  It’s quite challenging, really.”

“And you don’t have to worry about getting deported or anything?  I know Giles still has nightmares about some of his immigration issues.”

“I actually have dual citizenship,” Wesley explained.  “I was born here, but raised in England.  Makes life much simpler in the long run.”  He paused, blue eyes meeting hers in contemplation.  “This…Giles.  He’s just a…friend, right?”

She nodded.  “Friend, mentor, that kind of thing.  He and Spike are pretty much my family these days.  Them and Xander.  He’s the non-Brit in the mix.  I mean, you saw the way they acted.  They can get a little…protective of me.”

“And that…doesn’t bother you?”

“Oh, no.  Well, sometimes, but most of the time, no.  I think it’s sweet, but that could just be my soft spot for Englishmen showing through.”

He had just swallowed a sip of water as she spoke and found himself choking at her implication.  Willow blushed as she watched him hurriedly cover his mouth with his napkin, her eyes widening as she realized what she’d said.  No wonder I don’t have a boyfriend, she thought as her embarrassment caused her stomach to clench in knots.  There’s no room in my life for anything but my oversized mouth.

“My…apologies,” he managed, his voice muffled by his napkin.  “Must’ve…gone down…”  He cleared his throat.  “…the wrong way.”

Her eyes were downcast, her fingers twisting in her lap.  “I should probably go,” she said quietly with a small shake of her head.  “I think I’m out of feet.”

“…Pardon?”

She couldn’t even look up to see the dismay at her suggestion darkening his gaze.  “Feet,” she repeated.  “I stuck one in my mouth last night, then used my other to start over with you, and now I’ve managed to use up a third one by landing it straight in the middle of my mouth again when I didn’t even know I had a third one.  So, I should probably let you have lunch in peace.  Free of me and my ever-increasing feet.”

His chuckle was the last thing she expected to hear, and Willow’s head shot up to see him smiling at her.  “You really are the most…delightful person I’ve met in a very long time,” Wesley said.  “Please, don’t go.  I’m afraid I’m just as nervous as you are, and if you were to leave, well, my confidence would be shot entirely.”

“You’re…why are you…huh?”  Completing a sentence seemed impossible at the moment.  All she could do was stare at him and wonder why he wasn’t firing her on the spot.

“I have a small confession to make,” he said, leaning slightly forward.  “I was rather hoping that we could use this lunch to…get to know each other better.  Work won’t be conducive to that, I fear, and, frankly, it seems foolish of me not to…”  His words trailed off as something over her shoulder caught his eye, and Willow saw a shutter immediately come over his gaze, his jaw hardening.  “Damn,” he muttered.

“What is it?” she asked, twisting in her chair.

She saw right away what had captured his attention.  In the doorway, Angel stood with a smaller man she didn’t recognize, looking over the crowd.  When his eyes fell on their table, a curious smile lifted the corner of his mouth and she heard Wesley’s chair scrape against the floor as he rose to his feet.

“I’ll be right back,” he said.

*************

His dark gaze jumped from Wesley’s approaching form to the cute redhead who was seated at his table, making it impossible for Angel not to smile when the Englishman stopped in front of him.  “Is that the new coat check girl?” he asked of his employee.  “I saw her last night at Heaven, but damn, I didn’t see those gams.  Nice work, Wes.”

“Her name’s Willow, and you’re engaged, remember?”

He sneaked another peek at the young girl’s legs and whistled under his breath.  “Being engaged doesn’t make me blind,” Angel said.

“No, it makes you unavailable.”

Rolling his eyes, Angel shook his head, reaching up to straighten the other man’s lapels.  “Wes, Wes, Wes.  Just because I’m getting hitched doesn’t mean I have to put the nix on other dames.  But for you, I’ll leave this one alone.  Just make sure to let me know if she’s a natural redhead, all right?”  At his side, his companion chuckled, widening Angel’s leer, but he quickly dropped it in the face of Wesley’s stony silence.  “Kind of glad I ran into you, though,” he said, suddenly all business.  “There’s a job I need for you to do.  Someone I need some information on.”

“Oh?  Who?”

“Guy by the name of Xander Harris.  I met him at Heaven last night.  He seems jake but I’ve just gotta be sure, you know?”

“Oh, of course…”  Wesley frowned.  “What did you say his name was again?”

*************

His face was pensive when he slid back into his seat, and Willow’s smile was hesitant.  “Is everything all right?” she asked.  “There’s not some Heaven emergency, is there?”

“Oh, no,” Wesley replied.  “Just some…business Angel would like me to look into.”  Replacing his napkin in his lap, his gaze was measured as he looked across the table at her.  “I was thinking.  Perhaps you should invite your friends to the club.  Let them see what exactly you’ve gotten yourself into there.  It might dispel some of their worries if they were to see the atmosphere you’ll be working in.”

“Oh, they’ve already been.  Well, Spike and Xander have.  Last night.”

For some reason, he didn’t seem pleased with her answer, but she was left to wonder on it in silence as the waiter approached with their food.  It was only after they were left alone again that she found herself able to speak up.  “About what you were saying earlier,” she said.  “The…getting to know each other part of the conversation.  Was that a work-related statement or a…something else-related statement?  Because for the life of me, I can’t figure it out.”

Absently, Wesley pushed his food around on his plate with his fork, assessing his next words before replying.  “Let’s just say,” he finally said, “that for the purposes of this lunch, neither one of us work for Angel Wilkins or his father.  That…we’re just two people, who happened to meet up completely by accident, and discovered they just might have something in common.  Of course, this person finds the other person remarkably lovely, and charming, and thus hopes that it doesn’t stop with a mere lunch, but then again, that would be completely up to the other person’s discretion.”

It was the second time he’d called her lovely, and she felt her skin warm at the appreciative stare he was giving her over the top of his glasses as he waited to gauge her response.  “I think the other person could allow her discretion to be persuaded,” Willow said with a small smile.

There was no mistaking his pleased grin.  “So, you like to read,” he said, attacking his food with a renewed fervor.  “Would it be presumptuous to think you might have read Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene?”

She brightened immediately.  “Oh my God!” she exclaimed.  “I love that book!  Of course, my father called me as soon as it was published and told me not to read it, which only made me go out right then to see what the hullabaloo was about.”  She shook her head.  “Sometimes, it scares me how ignorant people can be sometimes.  If they’d only read the book, they’d know that it wasn’t trying to encourage anti-Semitism at all…”

He watched her as she prattled on, amused at the vivacity of her arguments, occasionally offering his own insights when she’d pause for a moment to breathe.  Part of him wanted to believe that it was merely a coincidence, that the fact that Angel had spent the evening with Willow’s friend was a strange twist of fate.  It would make everything so much simpler, he thought.  But, as she drew him further and further into the discussion, Wesley couldn’t fight the feeling that there was more to her than met the eye.  The student story was a good one, but he was convinced it was just that---a story.  And her friends…

His quick look at Xander and Giles hadn’t told him much, but he’d seen and heard enough from that Spike to know a tough cookie when he saw it.  Maybe he was just a friend, but that kind of friend didn’t leave him in a warm place regarding Willow.  He needed to find out more about what exactly she was doing, what her interest in working at Heaven really was.

Of course, it would be much simpler all around if he didn’t find her so damn attractive…

*************

He was barely through the front door of the office building when Holland caught up with him.

“You’re running a little late this morning, aren’t you, Lindsey?” his boss said with a jovial smile.

His answering smile was polite, even though the itch at being waited for like a child crawled along his skin.  “I was on the phone quite late with one of our clients,” he said.  “I’m sorry, sir.  It won’t happen again.”

“Ah, yes.”  Holland nodded as if they shared a secret.  “He called me, too, actually.  It seems he and his partner are a little worried about the assignment they’ve given us.”

“I assured him---.”

Holland held up his hand to cut him off.  “I’m sure you did,” he said.  “But, be that as it may, the Senior Partners and I believe that it might be best for everyone involved if you were to go and supervise this particular case in person.”  He reached into his jacket pocket, and extracted a small envelope.  “Your arrangements have already been made.  I’m sure you’ll find them satisfactory.”

Lindsey frowned.  “You want me to go to New York?” he asked, and then realized that it was a foolish question.  “My caseload---.”

“---has already been taken care of,” Holland finished.  “I’ve redistributed your files between Lee and Gavin.  They will handle things while you’re away.”

There was no point in arguing, and he knew it.  The frustration he’d felt in the night returned, churning inside like a hornet’s nest beset by fire, but he stifled any urge to let that show in his face.  “Of course,” he said, eyes calm.  

Inwardly, he raged, his gaze steady as he watched the older man walk away.  Final straw, he kept thinking.  I’m getting this done, and then this camel is getting out of this place.

Before it breaks more than my back…

 

To be continued in Chapter 8: Two Beautiful Cracksmen