"Prague is supposed to be a really pretty city," Minnie said. "I can't wait to get there."
Denise nodded, a bit absently. Most of her attention was on the airplane coming in for a landing. The same airplane that would—finally! this had to have been the longest summer on record—take them to their new home in Prague.
She glanced down at her suitcase. She and Minnie had done their best to follow the instructions Eddie had sent them concerning weight and dimensions. She thought they were well within the parameters, but . . .
With Eddie, you never knew. He could be such a damned perfectionist, sometimes.
The plane landed. Very smoothly, it looked like.
"I'll bet he's a really good pilot, even already," Minnie opined.
Denise wouldn't have taken that bet on any odds. She'd never known Eddie not to be good at something, if he really put his mind to it.
The plane taxied toward them. Then, as it neared the hangar, swerved to the side.
Denise's jaw dropped.
"Oh, wow," said Minnie.
There was silence, for a few seconds, until the plane came to a stop not more than ten yards away. At that distance . . .
"It's you," said Minnie, in what Denise judged to be the most needless statement in human history.
It sure was. Denise Beasley, in the flesh—or as close to it, anyway, as a painting on a plane's nose could possibly be.
Yeah, sure, Denise had never worn an outfit like that and never would. Not that she minded the décolletage or the amount of leg showing. What the hell, she did have great legs. And if her bust wasn't exactly in Playboy bunny territory, nobody had ever mistaken her for anything but a mammal since she was twelve years old.
The problem was simply that the fancy dress looked completely impractical. Denise Beasley didn't mind being scandalous but she drew the line at tripping over herself.
Still. Under the circumstances. She was not about to complain.
"Oh, wow," said Minnie. "Do you look great or what?"
Eddie was gazing down at her, now. Denise stared back up at him, not knowing what to say.
Minnie let out a whoop and clambered into the cockpit. A moment later, she reemerged, with a flyer's cap on her head and a big smile on her face and an upthrust thumb.
"There's a cap for you too!" she hollered.
Denise finally managed to speak. "Eddie, is—ah—this why you spent the whole summer . . . Not paying any attention to me. You know, if you wanted to impress me, you didn't have to do this."
"Sadly, that statement is quite false. Besides, I wasn't trying to 'impress' you, Denise. What good is that? I simply needed to make very clear that my intentions were . . . ah. What's the word?"
"Lustful," suggested Minnie. Again, she stuck up her thumb.
Eddie shook his head. "In part, yes. Absurd to deny it"—he leaned over and pointed down at the painting—"as I believe the illustration makes clear. But I assure you the principal thrust of my intentions are entirely what you would call 'honorable.' "
Denise stared at the painting. "Ah . . . Eddie. Is this . . . ah . . ."
"A German girl, I would simply have gotten a very nice pair of shoes to indicate my desires. Given that it was you . . ."
Again, he shook his head. "The quandary I faced. Even worse than the one Thorsten Engler faced, I think. At least Caroline Platzer considered herself an adult."
"So do I!" said Denise fiercely.
"Sadly, that statement is also false. Must be qualified, at least. Normally, it is true enough, you consider the age of sixteen—"
"Sixteen and a half!"
"I stand corrected for my grievous error. Sixteen and a half, to be well-nigh a synonym for 'maturity.' But there are other issues which cause you to flee into that tender age like a rabbit into a hole."
What was she to say? Damn it, Eddie was twenty-three years old. Practically twice her age!
Well. Once and a half times, anyway. Still a cradle robber, no matter how you sliced it.
Not that she had any attachment to cradles, of course. But . . .
She realized, finally, just how high and rigid she'd made that wall. Eddie Junker, her best male buddy. Eddie Junker, whose company she enjoyed as much as Minnie's. Eddie Junker, whom she relied upon for . . . oh, so many things.
But not—but never—he was way older—
"Okay!" she said. "I'll admit you probably did have to do something like this."
She searched her mind and soul. Sure enough. She still had no attachment to cradles.
"Eddie, I'm sorry. I'm just not ready to get betrothed yet." She swallowed, then added, in a small voice: "If I was, it'd be you, for sure. But I'm just . . . not ready. I'm only sixteen. Well, okay. And a half. But still."
As usual, Eddie's reaction was imperturbable. He simply nodded and said, "I figured as much. Not a problem. I am a patient man. I simply wanted to eliminate any misconceptions."
He hopped down from the plane. Very gracefully and lightly, for such a thick-looking man. Once on the ground, he grinned at her. "Such as any notions that I simply wish to be your good friend. And have no lustful designs on your body."
Denise grinned back. Lustful designs on her body, she could handle. In fact, now that she really thought about it, she figured lust and Eddie Junker would go together about as well as bacon and eggs. As long as there were no cradles involved. Yet, anyway.
"Well, in that case. Let me explain an American custom."
After she was done with the explanation, Eddie looked back up at Minnie, who was still in the cockpit. "You will find some paints and brushes in the back. Hand them down to me, if you would."
The implements in hand, Eddie advanced upon the illustration.
"What are you doing?" asked Denise, a little alarmed. The more she looked at it, the more she really really liked that painting on the nose of the plane.
"It needs a caption."
"Oh. Yeah. Like Memphis Belle, you mean. Or the one on the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Nose Gay, or something like that."
"I am not actually planning to destroy entire cities to demonstrate my affections, Denise. But I think this will do nicely." He went about his work.
When the caption was finished, Denise and Minnie studied it carefully.
My Steady Girl.
"Oh, wow," said Minnie. "That is just so cool."
Denise didn't say anything. Her mind was already at work, figuring the problem. Going steady, after all, had certain traditional obligations—if you insisted on using such a silly term for it.
"Can we postpone the trip to Prague? I need another day."
"I suppose," Eddie said. "Don Francisco will probably be curious, but he's a good boss. He'll accept any reasonable explanation."
He cocked his head, apparently expecting her to provide said reasonable explanation.
Which she certainly had—about as reasonable as reasonable ever gets—but she wasn't about to explain it to Eddie.
Artemisia Gentileschi, she figured. An up-timer would know more modern methods, sure. But, first, those methods were likely to be invalid before too long. And, second, they'd probably blabber. Denise and her reputation, yackety-yak-yak.
Denise thought Artemisia would keep her mouth shut. And she was sure that the artist knew what Denise needed to know. If ever a woman looked like she really had a reputation, it was Artemisia Gentileschi. But only had two kids to show for it. And she must be . . . what? At least forty years old, or some such astronomical age.
"Never you mind," she said. "If Don Francisco asks, I just needed to get some advice. And, uh, steady girl supplies."
She studied the illustration again. Amazing, really, how much leg he'd shown. Poor Eddie. He must have been thinking about it for months and months.
She smiled, sixteen-and-a-half going on forty. "A lot of steady girl supplies, I'm thinking."