House Of Cards

Authors note: Great to hear people from people still rooting for our intrepid couple. After a lazy lock down where I had all the time in the world to write, I frustratingly got writers bloc, but, I seem to now be out of the starter blocks. Snag is, I start back to work next week, so bear with me...

Chapter Two

As Ella was very tired they decided to get the taxi straight over to Elizabeth's house and order something in for dinner. The journey over felt a little strained and awkward. Robert had gone quiet, trying to gather his thoughts and was intent on staring out of the window as the city passed them by and Elizabeth quietly hummed to Ella. The driver, assuming they were a married couple who'd maybe just had a fight, obligingly filled the void with a monologue about his beloved Chicago Bears.

They arrived to everyone's relief at the house and Robert paid the driver as Elizabeth got out and started up the steps. He caught her up at the front door as she struggled holding Ella while rummaging in her bag for the key.

"Can I help?" he offered.

She looked at him. "You can take Ella, or root through my bag for the key."

He gave a small smile, deciding which one held less danger. "I think I'll take Ella, if that's okay with you?"

She carefully passed her into the waiting crook of his right arm. Her hands lingered in case he struggled, but she noticed he held Ella's heavy two year old load no problem.

"I got her, don't worry," he said sensing her hesitance. She smiled and turned, rummaging in the depths of her 'mom' bag and eventually withdrew her house keys with a triumphant flourish.

She unlocked the door and nudged it open, smiling with relief as the familiar smell of home greeted her and she stepped forward. She placed her bag and keys on the bureau and turned, surprised to see Robert still standing under the porch.

"Well, are you coming in then?"

He gave a small smile and stepped forward, closing the door behind him. They both looked at each other, feeling awkward by his unusual presence in her home.

"Do you want to order some food if I put her down?" Elizabeth said, breaking the silence.

"Sure," he said, carefully handing Ella back to her mother.

"Right, well the kitchen is through there," she said nudging her head, "and there are some take out menus stuck on the fridge."

He nodded, watching as she turned and began to climb the stairs, then looked briefly around him. He couldn't quite believe he was here in her home and tried to damp down the nervousness he was feeling in his gut. He followed her directions and found the kitchen feeling around for a light switch. It was small in comparison to his and he grinned noting the dirty dishes still stacked in the sink. Locating the menus he pulled them off the side of the fridge. Not sure of what she wanted or liked, he decided to play it safe and opted for pizza, ordering the same type he'd bought for her when she was pregnant. Then at a loss for what else to do, he made tea.

Elizabeth got Ella down to sleep and hesitated outside of the bedroom door. Right now, she wanted nothing more than a hot shower and bed, and she regretted for a moment inviting him and wondered just what the hell she'd got herself into. She could hear him moving about downstairs and decided to delay a little further and grab a shower, trying to rehearse speeches in her head. Towelling herself off afterwards, she felt a little more human and went into her bedroom to get changed. Normally she'd get straight into her pyjamas. Well she certainly wasn't prepared to go downstairs wearing her pj's with Robert Romano in her house. She wanted there to be absolutely no mixed signals and opted for an old pair of Mark's sweat pants and a comfortable sweatshirt. Descending the stairs she found him sat on the couch in the living room. She smiled as she saw two cups of tea sat waiting on the coffee table. "You made tea."

He startled at her voice and turned. "Your powers of observation never fail to impress, Lizzie."

Crossing her arms she raised an eyebrow. "Did you warm the pot first?"

"What?"

"Did you warm the pot first?"

"If you're asking if I performed one of your bizarre English tea making rituals, the answer is no. Drink the tea you ingrate," he said reaching for his own cup.

She smiled and glanced at the armchair, but decided to sit down next to him. Reaching for the tea, she took a sip and savoured the warm liquid, before relaxing back into the couch. "Not bad," she said.

Robert rolled his eyes. "Gee thanks."

"So what did you order?"

He shrugged. "Pizza. Is that okay?" He looked at his watch. "Should be here any minute," he said just as the doorbell rang. They both started to rise and he stayed her with his hand. "I got this. Least I can do." And he went off to the front door.

She got up after him anyhow, and went into the kitchen to retrieve some plates and napkins. Then on reflection, she went back and opened a bottle of wine and grabbed two glasses.

Robert looked up when she entered with the wine. "Classy," he said. "Hope it's a good year?"

"It's a good price."

She made an approving noise when she opened the box. "Ohh, my favourite, good choice. God, I'm actually starving! I don't think I've eaten since breakfast."

"Ah, that's right...porridge."

Her hand stopped, a pizza slice, held mid air. "How on earth do you know that?"

He looked at her and nudged his head at the kitchen. "Saw the dishes in the sink. Sloppy housekeeping Lizzie."

"Oh, piss off, mister judgey..you try juggling a toddler, a career and trying to keep a tidy house."

"I wasn't and wouldn't. I did however load the dishwasher for you."

On familiar ground sniping at each other and actually realising they hadn't eaten all day, they ate the rest of the pizza in comfortable silence.

"You mind if I use the bathroom," Robert asked when he was finished. She gave him directions and cleared the mugs and plates away to the sink, then rolled her eyes as she found herself loading them into the dishwasher.

When he came back she had poured two glasses of wine and was sat waiting for him. She patted the seat next to her and he gave a small smile and sat. She passed him a glass of wine and watched as he took a sip and pulled a face before placing it back down on the table.

"Oh, I'm sorry, is it not up to Sirs usual high standard?"

He snorted. "Good for cooking with maybe. Got any Scotch?"

"No, and what do you know about cooking?"

He cocked an eyebrow. "I cook."

"You do?"

"Look at me Lizzie. I'm a single middle aged, man who lives alone. Do I look like I live on take out, or processed crap?"

"Fair enough," she said and reached for her own glass of wine. She took a sip and tried very hard not to wince. She hated to admit it, but now that he'd mentioned it, the wine was pretty rank. She placed the glass back down on the table and looked at him to find him wearing a knowing smirk.

"Oh, shut up," she said.

"Never said a word."

"No, and on that note..do you feel like talking about today?"

His mood seemed to darken before her very eyes and she could almost see behind his, the cogs turning in his head.

"Can I ask you something first?" he said.

"Of course."

"Why did you ask me here tonight?"

"What?"

He raised an eyebrow to let her know he knew she'd heard him just fine.

Under his scrutiny, she reached for her glass and turned back to him. "I suppose because you were so clearly upset earlier...you obviously wanted to talk...but then I got paged."

His expression was unreadable and she took a sip of wine, feeling his eyes on her the whole time. She placed the glass back down on the table and met his gaze once more.

"Did you?"

"Did I what?" she asked confused.

"Did you really get paged?"

"Yes," she said, but she could tell he really didn't believe her. "So now, let me ask you, why did you agree to come here tonight?"

"For the fine wine and dining experience."

"Oh for Gods sake, you are such an ass! Look, I invited you here, into my home so that you can tell me what the hell is going on inside that thick skull of yours! It's late and I'm tired so either talk to me or.."

"Or what? Leave?" he said, beginning to stand.

She pulled him back down. "Oh, sit down and stop being an arse Robert! I know exactly what you're doing and I'm not playing!"

"And what is it that I'm doing?"

"You're trying to pick a fight so that you can leave, because God forbid you actually share with someone the fact that you're scared out of your mind!"

Robert bit back his response and neither spoke for a minute as the air seemed to crackle around them with tension.

She tried once again. "Look, I know its out of your comfort zone and not exactly your strongest forté, but Robert, you need to trust me. If you don't, I'm scared you're going to hurt not just yourself, but others too."

"Elizabeth, what do you expect to happen here? If you think I'm going to sit on your couch and boo-hoo like some pre-pubescent who's upset 'N Sync just split, I'm not going to do that."

"Well then, what do you want to do, Robert? I'll ask you again, why did you agree to come here tonight?"

"Because you asked me to."

"Oh for Gods sake!" she said beginning to lose her temper. "It's like talking to a brick wall!"

"Look...I'm sorry," he said. "I'm just..."

"Just what?!"

"I'm just not good at this,' he said waving his hand between them. "I'm not used to talking about 'feelings' and..."

"And what?"

He looked down and began fiddling absently with the bandage covering his left arm. "I'm nervous."

"Nervous? About what?"

"That I'm going to say, or do something stupid and you'll never want anything to do with me ever again," he said so quietly she had to strain to hear.

"Robert." She reached out to stop his hand from fidgeting. "You're miserable...that much is obvious, but right now you're also making me miserable, and believe me I have enough miserable in my life already...but I'm here with you, right now, begging you to talk to me, to tell me what you're feeling and to let me help you, and I promise you, I'm not going anywhere."

He ran a hand over his face and rubbed his eyes before fixing her again with his stare. "Then I guess we should really start with the elephant in the room."

"The what?"

"You know...about earlier…in the lounge," he said and Elizabeth immediately looked away, uncomfortable.

"See that...that, right there is exactly what I don't want. Elizabeth, I don't want you to feel awkward or nervous around me."

She smiled awkwardly and looked back at him.

"Sorry. I don't mean to."

He lifted his hand to cup her cheek just as he had earlier that day and looked her dead in the eye, daring her to break the contact, to push him away. She sat still, watching him back, until in a gentle voice he spoke. "I have no agenda here, and I need you to believe me."

"I'm trying to, Robert, I really am."

She could see the scepticism haunting his eyes, so she reached up her own hand to cover his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Really," she said.

He dipped his eyes and gave the slightest of nods. "Thank you."

Wrapping his thumb around her hand he lowered them both and found her eyes again. "Look, the truth is my life is falling apart, and right now, all I want...all I need..is a friend."

She had to admit a certain amount of relief and squeezed his hand. "I believe you."

He looked down and turned his hand over, allowing his fingers to slip between hers, giving a grateful squeeze, pleased when she reciprocated. Turning his dark eyes back on hers he spoke quietly. "I also don't think I'd be way of base, if I said maybe you could use a friend too?"

"True enough," she chuckled and smiled. "Okay, so we've made progress and have the friends part down at last. So go on then," she nudged. "Tell me what's going on in that big head of yours?"

He leaned back into the couch and closed his eyes, and she watched as he struggled to come up with the right words.

Releasing her hand, he rubbed his face and sighed heavily. Opening his mouth to speak, he rolled his eyes briefly when no noise came forth and instead placed his hand behind his neck, leaning back against it. She watched and waited patiently until after a minute he spoke. "I'm not really sure where to start."

"Well as Julie Andrews once famously coined...why don't you start at the very beginning?"

He looked at her and grinned. "That would have been so much more awesome if you'd sang it."

"Ha-ha, now stop stalling. Tell me what you're feeling."

He closed his eyes once again and then suddenly said, "Did you ever build a house of cards as a kid?"

"A what?" she said trying to keep up with him.

"You know, you take a normal deck of playing cards and you build it up…like into a pyramid? Each card delicately placed, balanced."

She nodded.

"But, then you make a mistake, a wrong move...and it all falls down?"

She nodded, going with him.

"Well, that's me Lizzie...that's the state of my life. I've spent years building my career and I've put it above everything. I built this perfect house of cards so carefully, and then in one night, in one fucking stupid move, it all came falling down….and now I'm left with nothing, and ….I….I can't see how I'm going to get it back," he finished his voice breaking.

She could see tears glistening in his eyes and her heart went out to him. "Oh, Robert, let it go, just let it out."

"I can't," he choked out covering his eyes behind his hand.

Elizabeth sighed and nudged herself closer towards him. Lifting her own fingers to his, gently she pulled his hand away, keeping hold of it as he tried to resist.

"Yes, you can Robert. You clearly need to talk and I want to help you..so please let me help."

He stared at her and opened his mouth to speak just as Ella let out a cry from upstairs, and they both turned their heads to look in that direction.

Elizabeth turned back to him. "Hold that thought, mister," she said rising up. "I'll be back in a minute."

He nodded and watched her disappear up the stairs and glanced at his watch. To his surprise, it was nearing midnight. He got up and moved the awful wine back to the kitchen. When he returned he glanced around the room properly. Nicely decorated in pastel colours he wandered over to the mantelpiece to look at the pictures displayed there. A nice selection showed Ella's short life so far from baby to toddler. A silver framed 10x8 showed Elizabeth gazing lovingly at Mark Greene as he cradled his new baby daughter.

He jumped slightly when Elizabeth suddenly appeared next to him and saw what he was looking at.

"Sorry," he said. "Wasn't snooping I promise."

"It's fine Robert."

"Nice picture," he said. "Mark looks like the proudest daddy ever."

She gazed fondly at the image. "He does doesn't he? That was the first time he ever held her."

Robert tried to sneak a sideways look at her hoping he hadn't managed to stir up painful memories, but she caught him looking.

"You know, just because Mark's gone people are terrified of even mentioning his name around me." She turned back to the picture. "Thank you for not being one of them."

He nodded. "So is Ella okay?" he asked.

"Oh, she's fine; just cried out in her sleep. So, where were we?"

He smiled. "It's late and I should go."

"Robert," she said reproachfully.

"No really, we're both on tomorrow, and you said yourself you were tired," he said tapping his watch for good measure. "I should call a cab."

She regarded him. He looked knackered, like he'd been through the wringer and she had to admit herself, she was exhausted.

"Okay," she relented. "But well, why don't you just crash here tonight?"

"What?"

"Why not? Why sit round waiting for a cab when there's a perfectly good guest bedroom here?"

"I, err, I….wouldn't want to impose."

"You wouldn't be imposing," she said amused by his stammering reaction.

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Honestly?"

"Always."

"I got nothing," he admitted.

"Look Robert, I think we know each other well enough now, to know that I wouldn't offer if I didn't want you to."

He nodded and smiled at her gratefully. "Well, okay then. If you're sure?"

She nodded. "Good, and now that that's settled, in the morning you can spring for another cab for Ella and I."

"Ahh, I now see the method in your madness," he smiled.

"C'mon, I'll show you where the guest room is."

He followed her up the stairs until they reached the guest room. "So, this is you," she said when they reached the room. "There's a bathroom through that door and, I'm just across the hallway if you need anything."

"Thanks, but I'm all good."

"Okay. Well, good night then."

"Good night, Lizzie...and thank you."

She cupped his cheek in her hand and he closed his eyes leaning into her touch. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on his other cheek before leaving him there.

TBC