you may be a sinner, but your innocence is mine

Summary: Tumblr prompt: “You live across from me in our apartments and we smile when we see each other but we don’t really know each other and oh you’re the stripper at my friend’s stag do/hen night fuck this is really uncomfortable.”

 

Characters: Janeway, Chakotay

Codes: Janeway/Chakotay

 

Disclaimer: Characters are Paramount’s. No infringement intended.

 

Notes: I decided to up the angst ante on this one, so it’s not just a friend’s hen night. And I may have stretched the ‘we don’t really know each other’ part as well.

Rated M

“Oh my God, Kathryn. He’s out there again.”

 

Phoebe peeks through the blinds, her voice hushed, although Kathryn knows there’s no chance anyone outside the apartment could possibly hear.

 

“Phoebe, come away from the window,” Kathryn sighs. It’s the third time she’s had to reprimand her sister for this today. “You’re acting like a stalker.”

 

“Oh my God!” Phoebe flutters a dramatic hand to her chest. “He’s taking his shirt off. Who takes their shirt off to water plants? Not that I’m complaining. God, Katie, how can you stand it? If I lived opposite him I’d be a complete slobbering mess.”

 

“You already are,” Kathryn points out from the couch, not taking her eyes off her laptop. “Do you think you could stop drooling for long enough to come over here and help me? You did promise.”

 

Phoebe lets the blind drop with a gusty sigh and traipses over to her sister, slumping onto the couch. “He’d just so dreamy. What’s his name? Do you know if he’s single? I mean, the way he looks, probably not, but –”

 

“Phoebe.” Kathryn shoves her glasses to the top of her head and regards her sister in exasperation. “I don’t know his name, I have no idea if he’s single, and why are we even talking about this? My wedding is less than six weeks away and I have a thousand details to figure out. Beef or lamb?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

Kathryn tilts her laptop in Phoebe’s direction and taps on the screen. “For the meat course at the reception. Beef or lamb?”

 

Phoebe squints at it. “Lamb, I guess.”

 

“Great.” Kathryn taps a couple of keys. “Okay, that’s the menu sorted. What colour tablecloths?”

 

“Are you serious?”

 

“Yes, Phoebe, I’m serious!”

 

“Okay, okay. What’s wrong with white?”

 

“Nothing. White it is. Should we serve drinks in the foyer or have everyone taken directly to the dining room when they arrive? The foyer has that gorgeous courtyard, but it might be easier to go straight to the reception room, and I’d hate Aunt Martha to get confused and wander off …”

 

“The foyer. Aunt Martha will be fine.”

 

“Great. Australian sparkling white or French champagne?”

 

“Kathryn.” Phoebe sits up and grabs her sister’s hands. “Honey, whatever you choose will be fine.”

 

Kathryn draws her hands away. “French, then. Moving on – candles on the tables or tea lights?”

 

“Kathryn!” Phoebe reaches over and shuts the laptop lid. “Why are you stressing over all the small things when you haven’t picked out a dress or decided where to go on the honeymoon?”

 

“Mark is organising the honeymoon,” Kathryn retorts, flipping the lid open again. “And I still have a few weeks to find a dress.”

 

“You’re letting Mark take care of the honeymoon?” Phoebe’s nose wrinkles. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

 

Kathryn shuts the lid, pushes her laptop onto the coffee table and turns to face her sister. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Remember your first romantic getaway?” Phoebe says pointedly. “When you thought he was taking you to a fancy hotel in New York and you ended up in New Jersey at a lecture series on nineteenth-century philosophers? Or your birthday weekend, when you wanted to go to a beach in Mexico and he chose to drive to Vegas and your car broke down in Death Valley? Or, oh my God, when he decided he was going to propose, and whisked you away to freaking Utah because there was some science fiction convention in Salt Lake City and he dressed up as Chewbacca and asked you to marry him in Wookie language? Katie, you cannot tell me that was the proposal of your dreams.”

 

“Okay, okay!” Kathryn can’t help laughing. “So he’s a little off-beat. I love that about him, all right?”

 

“Kathryn.” Phoebe stares at her. “He’s not a little off-beat. The man is seriously weird. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very fond of him too. But Kathryn…” She hesitates, then takes her sister’s hands again. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I’ll hate myself if I don’t ask. Are you sure you love Mark enough to marry him?”

 

“Of course I –” Kathryn blurts, then takes a breath. “Phoebe, you probably won’t understand this. But what Justin and I had – that was a once in a lifetime thing. I’ve accepted that. He died, and I’ve moved on, and Mark makes me happy. Can’t you accept that too?”

 

“I think you’re wrong,” Phoebe says slowly. “I think you’re just scared. You closed yourself off after Justin died. Don’t get me wrong – I understand why. And Mark is safe and dependable, and he’s crazy about you. But I don’t think you’re crazy about him. I think you believe that feeling secure with someone is a good enough reason to marry him. And I think you’re wrong.”

 

Kathryn turns away to hide the angry tears pricking her eyes. “No, Phoebe, you’re wrong,” she says tightly. “I do love him, and I’m going to marry him, and I’d thank you to keep your opinions to yourself from now on.”

 

“Okay,” Phoebe says gently, after a short silence. “I’m sorry.”

 

Kathryn nods curtly.

 

“So,” Phoebe’s voice lightens, “if there’s going to be a wedding, there’s going to be a bachelorette party, right?”

 

“Oh, Phoebe, no –”

 

Phoebe cuts her off. “It’s non-negotiable, sis. And as your maid of honour, you can leave the details entirely to me.” She rubs her hands, smile quirking to one side. “This is gonna be fun…”

 

The sun is low in the sky by the time Phoebe leaves, no longer beaming directly onto Kathryn’s balcony. Relishing the drop in temperature, she takes a fresh cup of coffee outside with her and settles onto a wicker chair with a novel. She’s done good work today: the reception details are finalised, the flowers ordered, and she’s made a couple of appointments at bridal stores – appointments Phoebe insists on attending with her to ensure she doesn’t end up wearing something nun-like to her wedding. As Phoebe’s definition of ‘nun-like’ encompasses anything that doesn’t display cleavage or leg, Kathryn makes a mental note to bring their mother along to balance out the opinions.

 

“Hey there,” she hears, and glances up from her book.

 

Her tall, dark and handsome cliché of a neighbour has just emerged onto his balcony, directly opposite hers, less than ten feet away. He’s put his shirt back on, she’s relieved to note, although she can’t help letting her gaze travel over the broad shoulders, the long legs in jeans.

 

Blushing slightly, she raises a hand. “Hi.”

 

“Gorgeous day,” he says companionably.

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

Kathryn mentally kicks herself. Her job requires her to lecture at conferences, speak eloquently to academics, engage bored college students. She is not known for being tongue-tied. But from the minute her new neighbour moved in a few weeks ago, she appears to have developed a chronic case of muteness.

 

Fortunately, it only appears to manifest in his presence.

 

“How are they coming along?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

Mr Tall-Dark-and-Handsome gestures to the spindly, pathetic row of plants in the box along her balcony railing. “Whatever it is you’re growing there. Tomatoes?”

 

“Oh. Yes. Trying to, anyway. They’re some exotic variety a friend gave me. Uh, Talaxian?”

 

“Tlacolula?” he suggests.

 

“That’s it.” Kathryn puts her book down. “How did you know?”

 

He grins and indicates his own balcony, a riotous jungle of lilies and amaryllis and ferns and other plants Kathryn doesn’t recognise. “It’s kind of my job. I’m a landscape gardener by day.”

 

“And a superhero by night?” She can’t help smiling back at him; with those dimples, he could probably coax an answering smile from a plank of wood.

 

She’s surprised to see his smile dim a little. “Sometimes, if it’s requested,” he answers a little cryptically, then leans on the railing. “I could give you some tips, if you like.”

 

“On being a superhero?”

 

“On growing tomatoes,” he says, laughing.

 

“Oh.” She smiles. “I should warn you, gardening and cooking abilities skipped a generation in my family.”

 

“Well, those happen to be two of my talents,” he answers easily. “If you like, I could come over and take a look at your tomatoes. And after, you can come over here and I’ll cook you dinner.”

 

“Oh.” Kathryn blinks. How had the conversation taken this turn? “Uh, I don’t think –”

 

“Sorry,” he cuts in, and she can’t help thinking how adorable he looks when he blushes. “Of course you’re not going to invite some stranger into your apartment. My name’s Chakotay.”

 

“Kathryn,” she responds.

 

“Nice to meet you, Kathryn. So, now that we’ve been introduced –”

 

“I can’t,” she says quickly. “I’m, uh, busy tonight.”

 

She isn’t. Mark’s out of town and she has no plans. No plans that include spending an evening alone with a very handsome near-stranger, anyway. Mark might not be the jealous type, but she’s pretty sure even he isn’t laid-back enough to be okay with that.

 

Chakotay’s smile fades again. “Of course. Some other time, maybe.”

 

“Some other time,” she agrees non-committally. “Well, if you’ll excuse me…”

 

“Sure. See you later.”

 

Kathryn gathers up her book and makes her escape inside, wondering why her light and airy apartment suddenly seems a little claustrophobic.

 

=/\=

 

“Hey, let me help you with that.”

 

The huge bag of groceries she’s been trying to balance on her upraised knee as she fumbles to fit her key into the foyer door is abruptly lifted, and Kathryn lets her foot drop in relief. “Thanks,” she sighs, then looks up at her rescuer.

 

Mr Cliché.

 

“Oh.” She blushes and immediately wishes she would stop doing that every time she looks at him. “Thank you.”

 

Chakotay weighs the bag in one arm and she tries not to notice how the movement makes his arm muscles flex and bunch under his T-shirt. “You know,” he teases, “this is a whole lot of groceries for someone who claims she doesn’t cook.”

 

“I’m throwing a dinner party tonight,” she answers, then admits, “I have no idea what I’m doing. My sister talked me into it, and I may have been a little bit drunk when I agreed.”

 

He laughs. “So what are you cooking?”

 

“I don’t know. I just walked around the market and picked up things that looked nice.”

 

Eyebrows raised, he asks, “You’re going to wing it?”

 

“Well, sure.” She’s starting to get a little annoyed. “It can’t be that hard, can it? I’ll just throw a bunch of vegetables in a pot, and maybe roast a chicken or something.”

 

Chakotay peers inside the bag. “I see aubergines, tomatillos, avocadoes, chillies and herbs, oh, and chicken breasts… You know, this could be the basis for a couple of traditional Mexican dishes.”

 

“It could?” Kathryn leans against the door, studying him. “Are they hard to make?”

 

“No, but you do need to know what you’re doing. Or at least have a recipe to follow.” He shifts the bag to his other hip. “I believe I mentioned that cooking is one thing I do pretty well. I could get you started, if you like.”

 

Kathryn chews her bottom lip, noticing absently that Chakotay’s gaze fixes on her mouth as she does so. “You’re very kind,” she says hesitantly, “but don’t you have something better to do than give me a cooking lesson?”

 

“Actually, no.” Chakotay smiles. “So, what do you say?”

 

“I say you might as well come upstairs,” she replies, pushing open the door before she can think better of it.

 

She leans against the bench as Chakotay moves with ease around her kitchen, collecting items from pantry and refrigerator. “Okay,” he says eventually. “You have the makings of chicken enchiladas and Mexican rice here. I’ll need to go grab a few things from my place in a little while, but you’ve got the basics.” He looks at her. “Where do you keep your pans?”

 

Kathryn indicates the large drawer next to the oven. Chakotay crouches to rifle through it, and she tries not to admire the way his jeans tighten over his thighs or the smooth line of brown skin that shows above his belt as his T-shirt rides up.

 

He straightens, and she snaps her gaze back to mid-air.

 

“I’ll show you how to make the tortillas,” he says, and when she looks at him she sees something flicker in his eyes and realises he’d caught her looking. Flushing, she turns away to pick up a mixing bowl and starts sieving flour into it under his instruction.

 

Two hours later, the chicken is simmering in sauce, the rice is in the oven and Kathryn’s kitchen smells amazing. She wipes a hand across her brow, leaving a floury streak that complements the tomato paste on her shirt and the lime juice she’s dripped onto her pants, and grins at Chakotay. “This is actually fun,” she admits. “And I never thought I’d say that about cooking.”

 

Chakotay leans against the counter, wiping his hands on a towel; she notes that he still looks as pristine as he did when they started. “Wait until your guests taste it,” he grins.

 

“I feel bad,” she confesses. “You’ve spent your afternoon cooking a meal you’re not even going to eat.”

 

He shrugs. “It was my pleasure.”

 

“Come for dinner,” she says impulsively, then feels the colour rising in her cheeks. “Um, I mean, if you don’t have plans already.”

 

“I’d love to,” he says simply. “If you think your guests won’t mind.”

 

“Of course they won’t mind.” Kathryn is already half-regretting the invitation, but she can’t back out now. “My sister certainly won’t.”

 

“Your sister?”

 

“Phoebe.” Kathryn chews her lip and watches as his gaze drops to her mouth again. “You’ll like her. She’s lots of fun.”

 

Chakotay’s eyes meet hers. “Must be a family trait.”

 

His voice is warm, and Kathryn shifts nervously. “I’m not sure fun is an adjective people usually apply to me.”

 

“Then they’re idiots,” he says, and he steps a little closer, his hand coming up to her face.

 

Instinctively, she flinches back.

 

He pauses, then lets his gaze drift to her temple. “You have flour on your forehead. I was just going to –”

 

“Oh,” she says, feeling flustered and stupid.

 

Chakotay steps back. “So is there a dress code for this dinner?”

 

“What? No, of course not. What you’re wearing is fine.” She glances down at herself. “What I’m wearing, however, needs a trip to the laundry.”

 

“I can keep an eye on the food if you need to go change.”

 

“Are you sure?” Kathryn hesitates. She wants a shower, and it feels just a little illicit to be taking one while there’s a man in her apartment who definitely isn’t her fiancé.

 

“Go,” Chakotay says, waving her off. “I’ll take care of it.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

She showers in record time, trying not wonder if Chakotay is secretly snooping through her bookshelves or reading her mail. She shrugs into her new shift dress that matches the colour of her eyes, slips into sandals and ties her hair back in a messy ponytail. A slick of lip gloss, a touch of mascara and she’s ready. The whole process has taken less than twenty minutes, and she still has a quarter hour until her friends are due to start arriving.

 

When she emerges, she sees that Chakotay has laid the table, including candles in silver sticks and flowers he must have ducked home to cut from his own balcony garden.

 

“Wow,” she says, wondering why her stomach feels like she’s about to dive off the high board. “This looks beautiful, Chakotay.”

 

He turns from chopping limes at the kitchen counter, his eyes smiling. “You know, that’s the first time you’ve said my name. I like the way you say it.”

 

Kathryn’s skin warms up. “Am I not saying it right?”

 

Chakotay puts down the knife and closes the distance between them. “You’re saying it exactly right.” He picks up her hand. “And you look beautiful, too.”

 

Her breath catches in her chest.

 

The doorbell rings, and they each take a step back.

 

“Excuse me,” Kathryn mumbles, and hurries to the door.

 

“Hey, Katie.” Phoebe shoves a bottle of wine into Kathryn’s hand and pushes past her. “Wow, this place smells amazing! Did you order takeout or –”

 

Her voice trails off abruptly as Chakotay ambles out of the kitchen.

 

Phoebe stares at him, then turns to Kathryn, eyebrows raised.

 

Kathryn clears her throat. “Uh, Phoebe, this is my neighbour Chakotay. Chakotay, my sister, Phoebe.”

 

Collecting herself, Phoebe shakes Chakotay’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

“You, too. I hope you don’t mind me crashing this party.”

 

“Chakotay did all the cooking, so I invited him to join us,” Kathryn interrupts in a rush.

 

“You did the cooking,” he corrects her. “I just helped.”

 

“If by ‘helping’ you mean ‘decided what to cook, prepared most of it and stopped me from setting my kitchen on fire’, then sure, you helped.”

 

“Don’t forget ‘setting the table and mixing the drinks’,” Chakotay grins.

 

Phoebe’s head switches back and forth as they talk.

 

“You mixed drinks?” Kathryn asks.

 

Chakotay holds up a martini glass. “Margaritas.”

 

“Is there one of those for me?” Phoebe asks.

 

“Of course.”

 

The moment Chakotay’s back is turned, Phoebe turns to her sister, her grey eyes wide with expectation. Kathryn shakes her head quickly, making a ‘zip it’ motion across her lips.

 

“Later,” Phoebe mouths, then turns back to Chakotay with a smile, accepting her drink.

 

By the time the others have arrived, Phoebe and Chakotay are trading quips like old friends. Good, Kathryn thinks, telling herself that setting them up is what she had planned all along. Phoebe definitely likes him, and he seems to like her.

 

She checks her wristwatch; it’s half an hour past the time she’d planned to serve dinner, and Mark still isn’t here. Not that it’s unusual for him to be late. He often gets sidetracked at work, or caught up in whichever esoteric theorem he’s puzzling over at the time.

 

She knocks back the last of her second margarita and stands, slightly unsteady on her feet. “I think we should eat,” she says brightly.

 

“We’re not waiting for Mark?” asks Phoebe.

 

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll turn up soon.” Kathryn pastes a smile on her face and urges her guests to the table. “Phoebe, maybe you could pour the wine?”

 

She escapes into the kitchen and leans against the sink, head bowed.

 

“Are you okay, Kathryn?”

 

Kathryn jerks herself upright, making sure her mask is in place before she turns to face Chakotay. “I’m fine. Since you’re here, would you mind helping me serve?”

 

“Sure.” Chakotay takes the rice out of the oven and starts spooning it onto the plates she’s set out on the counter. Kathryn moves beside him, carefully lifting the enchiladas out of their warming tray. Their elbows bump once or twice, and she draws back, careful not to touch him again.

 

She hears the apartment door open just as they finish dishing up.

 

“Oh, that must be Mark,” she says. “Excuse me.”

 

Chakotay carries the first plates out to the table. Amid exclamations of ‘oh my God’ and ‘this looks delicious’, Kathryn can feel his gaze as she leans up to kiss Mark on the cheek. She feels self-conscious and she doesn’t want to examine why.

 

Mark catches her hand in his as she moves away. “Hey,” he whispers in her ear. “I’ve been away for a week and that’s the hello I get?”

 

“We have guests,” she mutters, blushing. “Can we save the proper hellos for later?”

 

“Sure.” He raises her hand to his mouth, kisses her knuckles, then looks over to the table. “Hi, everyone. Sorry I’m late.”

 

There’s a chorus of greetings, and Mark fixes his attention on the one person in the room he’s never met before. “Hi,” he says, holding out a hand. “I’m Mark Johnson, Kathryn’s fiancé.”

 

Chakotay flicks a quick glance at Kathryn, then smoothly clasps Mark’s outstretched hand. “Chakotay,” he answers. “Kathryn’s neighbour.”

 

“Just Chakotay?” Mark’s grip seems to have tightened, Kathryn notices, and he’s standing a little straighter. “One name, like Madonna?”

 

Chakotay smiles easily. “Tribal custom. I have other names, but they’re private.”

 

Phoebe, sensing the rising tension, interrupts. “Chakotay, come sit next to me. Mark, maybe you could help Kathryn with the food?”

 

After a moment, Mark stops eyeballing Chakotay and drops his hand. “Sure thing.”

 

He follows Kathryn into the kitchen.

 

“So who is this guy?”

 

Kathryn busies herself dressing the salad. “My neighbour, as he said. I invited him for Phoebe.”

 

She tells herself it’s not a lie. Not really.

 

“Okay then,” Mark says, mollified. He dips a finger in the enchilada sauce on the nearest plate. “Hey, this is good. Where did you order it from?”

 

“Mark!” Kathryn swats his hand. “Consider that plate yours.”

 

He laughs, picking up the plate and ambling to his place at the table next to Kathryn, who finds herself sitting directly opposite Chakotay.

 

She tries to ignore the fact that Chakotay’s gaze rests on her throughout the meal. Which is delicious, she realises, finding herself able to eat more than she’d thought the knot in her stomach would allow. She focuses on the food, on making sure everybody’s wineglass is kept filled, on talking to Tom about his new job as an instructor in the elite Navy piloting program and B’Elanna about the experimental marine engine she’s designing.

 

She tries, very hard, not to notice Chakotay’s long tapered fingers as he forks up his meal, or his full lips as he talks and smiles, or his dark eyes as he centres his gaze on her.

 

When the plates are scraped clean, she carries them into the kitchen and stacks the dishwasher, taking advantage of the moment of solitude to regain her equilibrium.

 

“Here’s the last of them.”

 

At the sound of his voice, Kathryn jolts abruptly and smacks her head on a cabinet. “Ouch.”

 

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Chakotay apologises. He bends to stack the last plates in the dishwasher, then straightens up. He leans a hip on the counter, watching her, and Kathryn forces herself not to blush.

 

“You didn’t mention you were engaged.”

 

“I, uh, it never came up.”

 

“You don’t wear a ring.”

 

“Mark doesn’t believe in them. He says it’s ridiculous to waste a month’s salary on a shiny bauble made from compressed carbon.”

 

“Oh,” says Chakotay, then glances away.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing,” he says. “Guess I’m just a hopeless romantic about stuff like that.”

 

“Me, too,” she says without thinking, then blushes furiously. “I mean, uh, he’s right. The money is better spent on more important things.”

 

“Well,” says Chakotay, pushing off from the counter. “It’s been a nice evening, Kathryn. Thank you for inviting me.”

 

“You’re leaving?”

 

“I have to go to work.”

 

“Gardening? At night?”

 

“No. I have a second job.” He hesitates, then steps forward, taking her naked left hand in his. “Good night, Kathryn.”

 

He presses those beautiful, sculpted lips to her cheek for a moment, but before she can reply, he’s gone.

 

She stands in the kitchen holding her fingertips to the spot he kissed until Phoebe comes looking for her.

 

=/\=

 

Kathryn manages to avoid her sister’s calls for three days before Phoebe finally shows up at her office unannounced.

 

“Spill,” Phoebe demands, when she’s harassed Kathryn until she agrees to leave the office for lunch.

 

They’re sitting at an outdoor table at Kathryn’s favourite café, and she’s glad of the bright sunlight; it gives her an excuse to hide behind sunglasses.

 

“I know you like him,” Phoebe continues when Kathryn remains silent. “And he likes you, too. All those scorching glances across the table, and the way he’d watch you whenever he thought nobody was looking. I’m amazed Mark didn’t pick up on it.”

 

Kathryn picks at a fingernail.

 

“Uh-oh,” Phoebe says, watching her. “He did pick up on it. Is there trouble in paradise?”

 

“Of course not. Mark asked me if there was anything going on between Chakotay and me. I said there wasn’t. End of story.”

 

“Right.” Phoebe slurps on her Diet Coke. “You know, your face changes when you talk about him. And the way you say his name…”

 

Kathryn glares at her, then realises the effect is somewhat diminished by her enormous black sunglasses. “It does not. And I say his name like anybody else would.”

 

Cha-ko-tay,” Phoebe purrs, licking her lips exaggeratedly. “You say it like that. Like he’s got his fingers in your –”

 

“Phoebe!”

 

“Hair,” smirks Phoebe.

 

Kathryn sets down her coffee with a firm click. “I am not talking about this with you.”

 

“Okay then,” Phoebe says airily. “Let’s talk about shopping for wedding dresses. Five o’clock today, right?”

 

Shit, today? Kathryn fidgets. “Actually, I was thinking I might call and postpone. I’m not really in the mood…”

 

“Your wedding is less than four weeks away, Katie. Exactly when are you planning on buying a dress?”

 

“It’s not that big a deal,” she protests.

 

“When you were engaged to Justin, you had your dress picked out six months before your wedding day.”

 

Kathryn’s eyes fill with tears and she looks away. “Maybe I’ve just learned to be less dizzy and more practical since then.”

 

“How is it practical to leave buying your wedding dress to the very last minute?”

 

Kathryn takes off her sunglasses and wipes angrily at her eyes.

 

“Oh, Katie.” Phoebe’s voice softens. “It’s not too late, you know.”

 

“To buy a dress?”

 

“To call off the wedding.”

 

Kathryn storms to her feet so quickly the table rocks. “Enough,” she hisses. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. And I need to be alone right now, so if you’ll excuse me…”

 

Without waiting for a reply, she grabs her bag and charges out into the street, ignoring Phoebe calling after her.

 

She walks fast, aimlessly, until the ache in her throat subsides and her breathing evens out, and only then does she take note of her surroundings. She’s at the entrance to the market where she bought the ingredients for Saturday night’s dinner.

 

Taking a deep breath, she enters the market and drifts from stall to stall, filling a basket with peppers, tomatoes, avocadoes. She buys a pound of rice, flour and oil. She decides she’ll stop by the butcher’s for chicken on her way home, and the corner store for tequila and margarita mix.

 

She’s pretty sure she can remember the basic steps of the recipes Chakotay taught her. And what she can’t remember, she can google.

 

As she leaves the market she spies a florist’s stall displaying an abundance of orchids and calla lilies. They remind her of the flowers Chakotay arranged on her table, so she drifts over toward the stall.

 

Then she sees him.

 

He’s walking slowly toward the florist’s stall, dressed in a khaki shirt and pants she assumes is his work uniform. His smile is wide and white, dimples scored deep. He has his arm around the slender shoulders of a beautiful woman, tawny-skinned, her hair hanging down her back like a shiny black waterfall.

 

They look good together.

 

Kathryn turns on her heel before he can see her. She puts on her sunglasses and walks calmly out of the market. When she gets home she puts the food in the fridge, strips off to tank top and shorts, pours herself a glass of wine and lies on her bed, watching the dust motes dance as the ceiling fan slowly rotates.

 

She gets up at four-thirty, showers, and makes it to her bridal shop appointment on time.

 

Sometimes, over the next couple of weeks, she sees Chakotay on his balcony pruning and watering his garden, and she quickly goes into her bedroom so she’s not tempted to peek at him through the blinds, or go out and talk to him. Occasionally she’ll see him at the mailboxes or taking out his trash. He’ll smile and wave, but he makes no move to come over to speak with her, so she smiles and waves back.

 

She’s snappish with Mark, sullen with her friends and co-workers. Everybody puts it down to the stress of her impending wedding. And they’re right; but what she doesn’t say, what she can’t tell anyone, is that she’s starting to wish there wasn’t going to be a wedding.

 

=/\=

 

“You are not wearing that,” Phoebe says emphatically when Kathryn emerges from her bedroom. “This is your bachelorette party, not Sunday church.”

 

Kathryn glances in the mirror, studying her high-necked blouse and pencil skirt. “You’re being ridiculous, Phoebe.”

 

“Uh, no. I am not.” Phoebe riffles through Kathryn’s closet and drags out a couple of hangers. “Here. Pick one of these.”

 

“No. What I’m wearing is fine.”

 

“Sure, if you’re planning on hosting a bake sale at the county fair. No arguments, Katie. Take that outfit off and put this on.”

 

She tosses one of the hangers to Kathryn, who catches it and holds it up. It’s a silky jade-green number, short and strappy, that Kathryn vaguely remembers buying on sale last year after much nagging from her sister. She doesn’t want to wear it, but she’s too tired to fight, so she sighs. “Okay.”

 

“Really?” Phoebe perks up. “Great! And wear these shoes.” She dangles a pair of strappy black sandals from her fingers.

 

Kathryn wiggles into the dress.

 

“Take off your bra,” Phoebe advises. “Your straps are showing.”

 

“I think I have a strapless bra somewhere…”

 

“Forget it. You don’t need one.”

 

“Are you calling me flat-chested?”

 

Phoebe laughs. “No, honey, I’m calling you perky, and you may as well use it before you lose it. And leave your hair down,” she adds as Kathryn starts to pull it into a ponytail.

 

“Fine. Are we ready now?”

 

Phoebe comes over and turns Kathryn to face the mirror. She slips an arm around her sister’s waist. “We are seriously hot,” she declares. “And this is going to be fun, Katie, so smile.”

 

The cab drops them off downtown, in front of a modest-looking building. Behind a pair of iron gates Kathryn can see a paved terrace, where the firefly glow of a pair of dancing cigarettes pinpoints the darkness. Heavy beats thump, muffled, from inside. Phoebe presses a buzzer and after a short conversation with a disembodied voice, the gates swing open.

 

“Where are we?” Kathryn asks.

 

“Delta,” Phoebe answers enigmatically.

 

“And what’s that?”

 

“You’ll see.” The blacklight flashes over Phoebe’s grin as she pushes open the heavy door, beckoning Kathryn inside.

 

Pounding music washes out of the open doorway, settling into Kathryn’s bones. With some trepidation she steps over the threshold. She takes in the pulsing lasers, the bar that extends the length of one wall, the raised stage, the gold-barred cages, and balks.

 

“Phoebe Janeway,” she yells above the music, “have you brought me to a strip club?”

 

“You betcha,” Phoebe hollers back. “Isn’t it great?”

 

Kathryn groans.

 

Phoebe catches sight of someone waving. “Come on, the girls are over there,” she says in Kathryn’s ear, tugging at her hand.

 

‘The girls’ have managed to crowd into a corner slightly away from the blaring speakers, so it’s possible to talk without screaming. Kathryn squeezes in next to Annika, who looks a little uncomfortable.

 

“I’ve never found it necessary to attend a male strip show before,” she admits when Kathryn questions her.

 

“Neither have I.” Kathryn sips the fruity – and most likely extremely alcoholic – concoction Phoebe dumped in front of her. “We can be squeamish together.”

 

The sound level in the club suddenly drops, and Kathryn turns to see why. Spotlights play over the empty stage. And then the music starts again, the beat slower and raunchier than before.

 

“Woohoo,” screams Phoebe beside her, hands clapping above her head, as a male figure appears on the stage.

 

He’s broad, heavily muscled, and dressed in something bright red and completely outlandish. “Who the hell is he supposed to be?” Kathryn yells in Phoebe’s ear.

 

“The devil, obviously,” Phoebe yells back, and Kathryn rolls her eyes as the man begins to gyrate, slowly peeling off his layers until he’s left in just an obscene satin g-string. Kathryn covers her eyes.

 

“God, Phoebe,” she says as the near-naked devil disappears backstage. “This is so not my scene.”

 

For a minute Phoebe’s brash confidence falters, and she bites her lip. “I just want you to let your hair down for a while, Katie.”

 

The next dancer comes out as a police officer, in a uniform tighter than anything a real policeman would wear. Kathryn sinks a little in her seat, slurping her drink.

 

By the third performance – this time a cowboy in chaps and leather fringe – Kathryn is half-drunk and actually beginning to enjoy herself. Annika notices. “Perhaps I’ll follow your lead,” she comments, taking a long draught from her own cocktail.

 

Then the stage goes dark and silent again, and Phoebe sits up straighter. “Here we go,” she mutters to Kathryn. “This one’s for you, honey.”

 

A spotlight settles onto centre stage, and into the circle of white light stalks a man dressed in dark leather. Fake weapons are strapped to his thighs, and he wears a hooded cloak and a mask.

 

“Oh my God,” Kathryn giggles. “It’s the Green Arrow.”

 

Phoebe elbows her gleefully. “I knew you’d get a kick out of it. That’s why I requested that costume.”

 

“Requested?” Kathryn asks, confused, but before she has a chance to clarify, Phoebe is standing on the cracked vinyl seat beside her and waving her arms.

 

“Over here,” she’s yelling.

 

The man on stage starts stalking toward their table. Phoebe hops down and shoves Kathryn out of the booth, almost sending her sprawling into the arms of the leather-clad man standing in front of her.

 

She could swear he hesitates for a moment when she looks up at his masked and hooded face. But his pause isn’t long enough for her to gather her wits, and before she can blink, he takes hold of her hand and starts moving backward, tugging her with him.

 

As soon as they reach the stage the music winds up again. And Kathryn, to her growing horror, finds herself standing beside a stripper’s pole, facing a cheering club full of people, as her masked companion begins to move seductively around her.

 

“I don’t –” she begins, but he touches his finger to her lips.

 

“Just go with it,” he murmurs in her ear.

 

His voice is familiar. She frowns, trying to place it, as his hands cup her hips from behind.

 

From the cheers and catcalls coming from her table, she guesses he’s miming some pretty intense pelvic thrusts. But apart from the hands holding her steady, he’s not touching her at all.

 

There’s a whoop from the crowd, and she sees his cloak slide to the floor in front of her feet. She turns to get a better look and his palms slide up along the outside of her arms, skimming her neck. One finger tips her chin up, and then he’s moving in close, his chest almost touching hers. He winds down to a deep crouch and swivels his way back up, and when he’s upright he pulls off his shirt.

 

Up close, she notices, he has a really, really nice chest. And shoulders. She’s always been a sucker for pair of broad shoulders.

 

He takes hold of her hand and tugs her toward him, turning her so her back is against his chest. Except that he’s still not actually making contact. She wonders if this is normal for strippers. For some reason she’s always assumed getting a private – or in this case, not so private – dance was more of a hands-on experience.

 

He moves around her for a while, the motion of his hips suggestive but never actually delivering on its promise, and she lets some of the rigid tension begin to drain from her shoulders. “Okay?” he says, low in her ear.

 

She nods, while wondering why on earth he cares.

 

“I’m going to take my pants off now,” he says.

 

She can’t help it: she giggles.

 

His answering smile, below the mask, sets off butterflies in her stomach, but then she’s distracted by the rip of Velcro. He flings his pants to the floor and someone whistles. Kathryn covers her eyes, but she can’t help peeking through her fingers.

 

She isn’t sure if she’s more impressed by the leather-clad package in front or the very fine naked ass in back.

 

“Almost done now,” he mutters as he moves up close again. “You just have to take off my mask.”

 

He dips his head a little so she can reach. As she tucks her thumbs beneath the mask, she looks into his eyes. And in that moment she knows who he is, and her poor, confused little heart seizes as though a hand has reached into her chest and grabbed hold of it.

 

There are already tears in her eyes as she pulls off the mask. She drops it into his hand. “Just tell me one thing,” she says tightly as his dark eyes gaze at her. “Did you and my sister plan this the night you came for dinner, or is this something you came up with after that night?”

 

He looks confused, but she doesn’t think she can stand there for one minute longer, and to be honest she doesn’t really care what his answer is. So she sends an accusatory glare in Phoebe’s direction, turns on her heel and leaves Chakotay standing alone on the stage.

 

=/\=

 

“Katie, you have to believe me,” Phoebe pleads over the phone. “I didn’t know. I had no idea! He said he was a gardener. How was I supposed to know he had a secret identity?”

 

“Are you honestly trying to tell me that out of all the strippers in San Francisco, you happened to unknowingly hire the one who lives in my building?” Kathryn pinches away the headache pounding behind her eyes. “It just seems awfully coincidental, Phoebe.”

 

“That’s because it is.” Phoebe sighs gustily. “Look, Kathryn, I’m really sorry this is the way it turned out. All I wanted was for you to have a good time last night.”

 

“I believe you,” Kathryn answers, tucking the phone under her chin as she moves about her kitchen trying to find a clean coffee cup. “And I forgive you.”

 

“Good.” Phoebe pauses, then adds mischievously, “You have to admit, one good thing did come of it.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“You got to see Chakotay practically naked.”

 

Kathryn can’t help snickering. “I’m hanging up now, Phoebe.”

 

“Wait. Are we dress shopping today?”

 

“No, Mark and I are meeting the photographer to scout locations.”

 

“Uh, Katie? You do realise the photos won’t matter if you don’t have the right wedding dress, don’t you?”

 

Kathryn rolls her eyes. “Definitely hanging up. Goodbye, Phoebe.”

 

She presses the ‘off’ button on her phone and glances at the fridge. There’s a calendar stuck to the front of it that Phoebe’s clearly been defacing: a big red love-heart adorns the square for next Saturday, and there are red X’s scoring out most of the days leading up to it. Kathryn picks up a red crayon and crosses out the days Phoebe hasn’t been here to mark off.

 

There are only six unmarked days left until her wedding.

 

Kathryn isn’t prepared for the cold fist that clenches her spine at this thought.

 

Jitters, she tells herself. It’s just jitters. Perfectly normal.

 

She drains her coffee, showers and dresses in jeans and tank top, timing her readiness for half an hour after the time she and Mark agreed he’d pick her up. As expected, she’s ready exactly on time for him to come rushing into the apartment, full of apologies. She gives him her usual understanding smile and picks up her bag.

 

The photographer is a sweet young Korean man named Harry Kim. He bounces in the backseat of Mark’s car, enthusiastically pointing out his favourite restaurants and galleries on the way to their first location. It’s a clifftop, several miles out of the city, and they have to traipse up steep winding paths to reach the top. “Look at that view,” Kim says excitedly as they reach the summit. “If we time it right, we’ll be here just on sunset. The pictures will be amazing.”

 

Kathryn tries to picture herself in a long white dress, a veil blown in the sea breeze, Mark clasping her hand, but when she imagines herself looking up into the face of her beloved, it isn’t Mark she sees.

 

Guilt makes her wrap an arm around Mark’s waist as they head back to the car.

 

Kim shows them the front steps of a gallery, all stark angles and imposing columns, where he’ll take their black and white shots. Kathryn nods and smiles. He takes them to an eighteenth-century church and points out the stained-glass windows. “It’s a pity you’re not getting married here,” he says cheerfully.

 

Mark explains, at length, why he’s an atheist. Kathryn covers a yawn behind her hand.

 

Kim directs them back to his studio. “One last location,” he promises. “It’s just around the corner.”

 

It’s a lush, private garden. Kim is friends with the owner, an elderly African gentleman named Tuvok, who allows Kim the use of the garden for photographs. Tuvok greets them at the gates. He is solemn and composed. Kathryn likes him immediately; she feels calm in his presence, and calm has been eluding her today.

 

Tuvok conducts a tour of the garden, explaining the Latin and common names of each exotic flower and plant, offering tidbits on their origins. Kathryn is enthralled. “How do you maintain all of this?” she asks. It must be a full-time job.

 

“I have help.” Tuvok glances around, spots what he’s looking for and makes a beckoning gesture. “This is Chakotay,” he introduces as his target approaches. “He has several assistants, but he is the main reason my garden looks the way it does.”

 

Kathryn feels the blood drain from her face. She knows Mark is looking at her with suspicion, but she can’t seem to look at anyone but Chakotay.

 

He’s a little sweaty, his khaki shirt smudged with dirt. He pulls off a work-beaten glove and offers his hand. “Hello, Kathryn,” he says, not smiling. “It’s good to see you again.”

 

She doesn’t want to take his hand, but politeness forces her to do so. She nods, not trusting herself to speak.

 

She can hear Kim saying oh-you’ve-met-already and isn’t-it-a-small-world. She can feel Mark’s eyes on her, accusing, and Tuvok’s, somehow understanding. She lets her hand slip from Chakotay’s.

 

“Well,” says Mark. He’s hiding it fairly well, but she hears the bitterness in his voice. “Thank you for the tour, Mr Tuvok. I think we’d better leave now.”

 

The ride back to Kathryn’s apartment is heavy with silence. Mark turns off the ignition. Neither of them move.

 

“We need to talk,” he says, eventually.

 

She knows he’s right. “All right.”

 

He unclips his seat belt and twists to face her. “Kathryn,” he says softly. “Do you want to marry me?”

 

“I –” She bites her lip.

 

How can she hurt him like this?

 

“Mark, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

 

He turns back, knuckles whitening on the steering wheel.

 

“You’d better go,” he says.

 

She unclips her seat belt and gets out of the car.

 

=/\=

 

Kathryn sits on the wicker chair on her balcony, cooling coffee in her hand, watching the sun setting behind the pines.

 

She has three missed calls from Phoebe – Mark must have told her the wedding is off – but she can’t seem to work up the energy to call her back. Tomorrow she’ll have to make a lot of calls. There are so many things to cancel.

 

Tonight, she doesn’t want to think.

 

Her doorbell rings, and she considers ignoring it, but she figures it’s probably Phoebe. And if Kathryn doesn’t answer, Phoebe will let herself in with her own key.

 

Sighing, she uncurls herself and pads barefoot to the door.

 

The man who stands on her doorstep is not the person she expected, yet somehow, she is not surprised to see him.

 

“Can I come in?” asks Chakotay.

 

She studies him. His eyes are wary and he holds himself taut. His hair is damp; he must have just showered. He’s wearing jeans faded to a comfortable soft blue and a white T-shirt that contrasts deliciously with his golden skin. Her pulse knocks and flutters and it’s suddenly hard to breathe.

 

She steps back, forcing herself to wrench her gaze away from his face. She can feel his warm eyes watching her as he follows her to the kitchen.

 

It’s appropriate, in a way, considering the kitchen is where it started.

 

“I broke up with Mark,” she blurts.

 

Chakotay looks like he doesn’t know what would be the correct response. “I’m sorry,” he settles on, eventually.

 

“So am I.” She busies herself taking glasses out of the cabinet, filling them with water, handing one to him.

 

She watches the movement of his throat as he swallows.

 

“I had no idea it was your bachelorette party I was booked for last night,” he says.

 

“I know. Phoebe told me it was just a coincidence.” Kathryn trails a finger around the rim of her glass. It produces a grating, bell-like sound, so she stops.

 

He looks nervous when he asks, “Do you think less of me for being a stripper?”

 

“Of course not,” she says, shocked. “It’s just a job.”

 

At last, he smiles, and her fingers itch to fit themselves into his dimples. “Tuvok is generous, but the pay from gardening barely covers my rent. I took the dancing job to make ends meet.”

 

“You could split your rent costs if your girlfriend moved in,” she says without thinking.

 

“My what?” Chakotay stares at her.

 

Kathryn blushes. “I saw you with her at the market a couple of weeks ago. Very pretty. Long black hair.”

 

He looks blank for a moment, then breaks into a wide smile. “Sekaya is my sister. We were shopping for a family dinner she was hosting that night.”

 

“Oh,” she says, then blushes more fiercely as an answering smile spreads across her face.

 

Chakotay puts down his glass and takes a step closer to her.

 

“I’m not imagining this, am I?” he asks. “There’s something …”

 

His voice trails off as he takes another step.

 

“You’re not imagining it,” she says, short of breath.

 

Chakotay steps closer. His hand hovers mid-air, then cups her face. “Kathryn?”

 

“Yes?” She can’t look away from his eyes.

 

“If you want me to go, you need to tell me now.”

 

Her hands have come up of their own volition, resting on his chest. She can feel his heart, beating strong and fast.

 

“I don’t want you to go,” she whispers.

 

Without further hesitation his lips are on hers. She gasps, a shiver running throughout her body, and he takes advantage of her opened mouth to slide in his tongue, suck on her bottom lip. She can’t help the low moan in her throat or the way her arms are wrapping around his shoulders and her hips are pressing into his.

 

His hands cup under her thighs, lifting her onto the counter, and she wraps her legs around him and sinks her fingers into his hair. He pushes his hands up under her tank top and hisses when he finds nothing but warm bare skin, and she throws her head back so his beautiful lips can kiss and suck her throat. She feels liquid, melted inside. She wants him so badly she can hardly breathe.

 

She tells him so, and his answering groan almost spirals her into orgasm.

 

She pushes on his shoulders, whispering, “Bedroom,” and he picks her up and she wraps herself around him, kissing his face and neck as he fumbles his way through the apartment. When he lays her on her bed she’s so frantic for him her hands are shaking, and she can barely unbutton his jeans and push his T-shirt off, but finally, at last, they’re naked and he’s bracing himself above her and his hot dark eyes are asking her permission.

 

“Yes,” she whispers, and the feeling of him as he pushes deep inside her is so intense, so right, she almost cries.

 

=/\=

 

Two months later she moves into Chakotay’s apartment. He gives notice on his night job, but sometimes she teases him into dressing up as the Green Arrow and dancing for her in their bedroom.

 

A few weeks after that they are married in Tuvok’s garden. She doesn’t wear a white dress and he doesn’t wear a suit, but when the photographs are printed and Harry hand-delivers the album, Kathryn thinks she’s never looked more beautiful.

 

He teaches her to cook, and to garden. For his birthday she presents him with a dinner she’s made from scratch: bean tamales cooked to his mother’s recipe and a salsa made from her home-grown tlalocula tomatoes. She sneaks him into the lab at the college she teaches at and shows him how to make molecular cocktails. He says he loves her voice, so she reads her favourite books to him aloud while his head rests in her lap. She usually doesn’t make it past a couple of chapters before he’s kissing her and taking off her clothes.

 

They run together every morning, and take walks along the beach at night, and go to the movies and the theatre and art galleries. They have Sunday lunch at his mother’s house and Phoebe comes over for dinner once a week. Sometimes he’ll wake her on a Saturday morning and cajole her into driving out to the desert or up into the mountains, and they’ll rent a cabin or pitch a tent and talk and laugh and make lazy, intense love and forget to eat. They adopt a shelter puppy and talk about children.

 

She has never been so happy.