Sometimes you moved ahead so fast that you needed some time to recuperate. Seated at his kitchen table with a cup of tea, Iain Scott glanced at his new fiancée and wondered what to do with her now. He did not feel any reluctance to do anything with her at all, but he was simply not used to entertaining someone else, especially not a woman he might soon call his wife.
Before the Hargreaves murder case, which had not come up until four days ago, he had had no inkling that one of his murder suspects would propose to him. It was something he could never have imagined. He had never assumed people could be that quick, especially since it was never his intention to treat women differently while conducting an investigation.
That he would say yes to a woman he had in fact just met would have been even more unthinkable before the case. He glanced at her. But who could have turned down the lovely Margaret Maxwell?
Lovely until she opened her mouth, that was. Some people would revise their opinion after that, although he had found her personality as charming as her appearance.
Now she sat quietly, Ailsa in her lap. Both of them were observing him curiously, as if he was supposed to tell them what to do next. It was his kitchen, after all, and they knew as much as he did about entertaining an adult of the opposite sex.
He would not have minded to look back and observe them in return, because there was plenty to see, but he supposed that it was up to him to get down to business. Margaret would have spoken otherwise. She had proven to be more than capable verbally. If she had something to say, she said it.
Iain had observed his appalling lack of food and was contemplating a trip to the tiny supermarket in the village. If the two were going to spend more time with him he would certainly need to buy some groceries, even if it was far from settled where Margaret was going to stay that night. She could stay here, with his parents or at her own house. He still had to ask, but he thought she also still had to make up her mind and he did not want to put any pressure on her.
"Why don't you go pick out a room while I make a shopping list?" he suggested to Ailsa. "You said you wanted to stay with me." There was some time left before they were to go pony riding and he had better give her something to do. They did an awful lot of moving the girl about, making her stay with his mother and then with him, so he hoped she would like it at least a little bit that she was not yet going home. Adults were so self-centred in their infatuations.
"Can I?" The girl jumped off Margaret's lap. Apparently she really did not mind too much that she would have to stay with another person yet again.
"Of course." He grabbed a piece of paper and started to write things down.
Margaret listened as the footsteps ascended the stairs excitedly. The footsteps ran around a bit upstairs. She wondered what Ailsa was seeing. She would have gone with her if she had not wanted to be alone with Iain -- to be silent, she thought with a guffaw.
She was not really as assertive as her public image made her out to be. People might expect her to take charge and order him around, but nothing could be further from the truth. She did not know what to do at this moment either and her physical shield had gone upstairs. It had been so comfortable to hide behind Ailsa. They were a great couple. Iain hid behind a shopping list.
Screwing up her face, she reviewed her life to see what had made her so hopelessly incompetent at this. She could not blame anything or anyone, because eleven years ago she had already been incompetent and it had merely never improved. It had remained the same. She knew why.
"You know, Iain," she said reflectively, "I've always wanted to be reasonably good at all of my favourite things rather than choose one activity to be exceptionally good at. Before Ailsa it was sports and studying that took up all of my time. I kept those priorities -- for a while, at least, because I had to drop one and I chose to drop my studies -- after I got my obligatory extra priorities of Ailsa and work, so there was never time for something new."
Iain could say he understood, but he did not. He chose the easy way out. "Men are new?"
"New to me." Margaret stuck out her tongue. "But I've heard they've been around for longer."
"But are men an activity you can be good at? What would you do if you were good at men?" he asked with interest.
Margaret sagged in her chair helplessly. She was not up to dealing with silly questions at full force. "Oh, stop it. You know what I mean. Does it bother you?"
"Not at all." Iain needed some time until he could conduct a proper conversation, though.
"But you don't want me to know what to do?"
"Are we having a problem?" He could not see any problems if they were talking and Margaret, for all her worries, talked very satisfactorily.
"We were silent."
He flashed her a smile. "But not anymore."
"No, we're not," Margaret had to admit. "But we were." And if it had not been for her, they would still be silent.
"I was making a shopping list, but I could do that out loud if you want." He glanced at it again. There was still plenty they could add.
"Iain, you only started making a shopping list because you did not know what to do with me." He had to admit that, so she would feel less incompetent.
"Maggie..." He swallowed a term of endearment. "Look into my fridge."
"What's in your fridge?"
"So you're not only making a shopping list because you don't know what to do with me, but it's still one of the reasons," she said.
"I do know what to do with you."
She was fairly sure he was not truthful and she looked at him challengingly. "And that is?"
"I'll tell you when my list is done."
"But you don't want me to come up with something to do?"
"Men are just like real people, actually," he said, studiously writing down some items on his list, highly unnecessary because they were already on there, but he had to stay busy. "There's really nothing special when it comes to doing things with them. And yes, I do mean the type of men you are referring to, because I suspect you may see me as one of them."
"How come you're so calm and clever and you know everything?" Margaret said in dissatisfaction. "I feel inferior."
He snorted at her and passed her the shopping list, so she could see what he had written last. Very calm and clever indeed.
"Can I pick just any room?" Ailsa asked breathlessly when she returned, as if there was some really exciting stuff upstairs.
"Well, apart from mine you may. Are you going to stay here while we go shopping for groceries?" Iain hoped she wanted to stay. Being engaged to Margaret proved to be difficult enough when it was just the two of them. It would be very hard if they had to mind their words for Ailsa's sake.
"We?" Margaret asked. On the whole she did not like things being decided for her, but in this case it was very good that someone did what she could not. She felt a little less inferior now that she had seen he kept writing down the same things on his shopping list, which turned out much less impressive than it had appeared.
"Yes, if you want to come."
"I'll stay here," Ailsa announced. She sensed she might not be wanted. It had something to do with those glances that excluded her. They were not interested in her at all at this moment. "You have good books." She would take a look at them and see if she could borrow the ones she had not read.
"Great. We won't be long." There were still things to discuss and walking to the supermarket was a great opportunity.
"Um," Margaret said when they left the house. "It is wise to take me into the village?" She had no idea what people might think, or what they might encounter on their way. "What about all those nosy old ladies patrolling the shops?"
"This is a village. They already know about you anyway." He shrugged and smiled. "Don't think they don't." They would have seen her already if she had been staying here for two days and they would have discussed the purpose of her visit the moment they had seen her.
"But I was staying with your mother." People might be curious at seeing her with the son.
"But they know my mother has a daughter -- not you -- and two daughters-in-law -- not you either -- so it follows that you must have something to do with me." He was after all the only unmarried son.
"I don't see how that follows."
"Village logic." Iain smirked. "It's female." She had to understand that. It was related to hunches and speculations.
"How can you be so sure?"
"I've been living here for over ten years."
"So you know everybody and everybody knows you. How horrible for me."
"Is it?" he asked. "You won't have to explain anything to anybody." They would already know everything.
"It's you who doesn't like explaining. I don't mind."
"Especially not to someone who won't understand anyway."
Margaret giggled as she imagined trying to explain the situation to someone who could not make any sense of it. There was a good chance that she might get carried away. "On the other hand...I don't really understand it myself and that's never a good starting point for mockery."
He recognised that she wanted to understand too much. "Don't ask why."
"You're not asking yourself how you ended up engaged to me?"
If he had to be truthful he would have to admit that he did, but it was something to which he had better not find an answer because it would be impossible. "If I look at you I know why." That was as good an explanation as anything.
Margaret did not want to blush. She opted for being witty instead. "If you had me on the phone you'd wonder?"
"Yes, I'd wonder," Iain said to tease her.
Now that Iain was unavailable, Mr. Scott had to enlist his wife's help to dispose of the branches in the front garden that were bothering him.
"He'll be married, you know, but I don't know when or if we'll be allowed to attend," she said as she was holding the ladder, because he might not yet be aware of that development. Iain had not told his father about it in her presence and she doubted whether it had occurred to Iain to inform him at all. Iain would think it too important to let it slip casually, but he also disliked making announcements. Perhaps he assumed that telling his mother equalled telling his father and in this case he would be absolutely right.
Mr. Scott had guessed as much, although he had not received definitive confirmation of any wedding plans from either party. The girl was just as reticent. "Yes, as if we don't understand. As if I'd seriously believe that girl telling me she doesn't belong to anybody. As if I'd seriously think she was only your guest. As if I'd seriously think we could ever get acquainted with someone like Margaret Maxwell." Their paths would not ordinarily have crossed. Iain was far more likely to get acquainted with her, if only because they were the same age.
"We're not exactly contestant material," Mrs. Scott agreed. Those people generally had a few screws loose.
"So why on earth did she want me to say she was your guest? Quite touchy about the subject, she was. I ran into her this morning and the television personality the nation is most afraid of locked herself in the bathroom when I said hello." He looked proud of this accomplishment.
"Are you sure you stuck to saying hello?" his wife inquired, not trusting him.
He looked innocent. "I mentioned Iain, I think. Scared her immensely. She insisted she was your guest and not his."
"Maybe because she was my guest. Maybe because she thought you didn't know who she was. And maybe because she's a bit afraid of being Iain's guest."
"She assured me she didn't want to be anything of anyone. I must say I don't understand her there. How could she be afraid of being Iain's guest?" His son even cleaned.
"It happens." The signs were clear and unmistakable. And it followed that if she was a bit afraid of Iain, she was also a bit afraid of his father. They did have some things in common, one of which was the ability pinpoint a problem far too accurately for most people's comfort. It appeared as though both had been doing that to Margaret.
Mr. Scott concentrated on the branch he was sawing off, asking himself when Margaret would move in permanently -- if she was going to do that at all. She might be one of those modern, independent women, although in that case she would not have agreed on marriage but she would have wanted to remain free and single.
Finally the branch dropped to the ground and he could think about the conversation again. "What is there to be afraid of? She even told me he was much nicer than I am."
Mrs. Scott snickered. "Indeed! Well, after you frightened her she might realise it's less scary to stay with Iain than with us. Well done."
The supermarket in the village was small and crowded. Margaret focused on carrying the basket while Iain picked things off the shelves. Sometimes he said hello to people, especially if they stared. Fortunately that was all they did. She studied them in return, but the clientele appeared to be a regular cross-section of rural society and not only gossipy old ladies whose primary concern was the love life of young male villagers.
"Well," Iain said when they were outside again. He was relieved. "That wasn't so bad. They didn't ask anything."
What was there to ask, Margaret philosophised. It had probably been all too clear. If someone had a formal visitor, he would not take her to a supermarket and he would certainly not let her carry the basket. That was probably what had given it away instantly. She carried the basket the way he had carried Ailsa's suitcase, as if it was a very natural and familiar division of tasks, and as if it always happened that way.
That made her wonder what people at the school had concluded about them. It was probably nothing to worry about if Ailsa was not going back there, but that was something they still had to discuss. She had asked him to marry her, but she could not invite herself to live at his house. He was the man. He ought to say when and where. "Iain?"
"Do they have a school here?"
"Yes, they have a school." He pointed in the distance. "It's right behind the church." He did not know if she was simply asking about a school, or also about something else. "For Ailsa?"
She was not already planning the school career for children that had not even been conceived yet, but that was a matter she should definitely not be pursuing at this moment. "Yes, for Ailsa."
Although he was pleased at her answer, he did not know how to continue. "When..."
"I don't know! You tell me. You're the man. It's your village and all that." She coloured in embarrassment at the admission of her rather traditional perspective on this particular matter.
"But it's your child and all that. Besides, you proposed to me." There was no need to leave everything to him. He knew she had not really intended it that way, but it had sounded rather funny nevertheless.
She gave him a sad look. "Do you want out?"
"Do you want me to be the man?"
"Good, because I really don't want to be one. But Iain, do you think you could indicate what sort of timeframe I ought to be thinking of?" Was it a few weeks, a few months or even a few years?
"I have four weeks off."
She breathed in and out. Why could the man not answer questions directly and put her at ease? "Does that mean you want to be married in four weeks or does it mean you want to see me for four weeks and then..." And then she would go home and they took it from there, seeing each other irregularly?
"Both?" Iain suggested.
"Er ... so..." Margaret needed a few seconds to grasp this. "You want to see me for four weeks and then we get married?"
"Yes, that's why I took four weeks off."
There was one small point, though. "But you didn't know I was going to ask you. Or was this again something about me that you were able to predict?" She grimaced in discomfort, knowing he had that ability sometimes. She did not want to be so transparent. Nobody else thought she was transparent and if he had the ability to see through her because he liked her, it followed she would have the same ability with regard to him, but she did not.
"No, but I might have asked you if you hadn't asked me."
"So you reckoned with that possibility when you took time off." She was relieved by that. She had had rather precocious thoughts herself after he had sent her away and it was very agreeable to hear they might have been justified, because she had felt like a fool at the time. It was enough to bring a smile to her face.
In some sense he had indeed reckoned with it. "Yes, although it would have depended on your behaviour." If she had been aloof and distant, he would probably have given it some more time. If that had not changed at all, he would never have asked.
"If I didn't appear to like you, you would not have asked?"
"Margaret, who would?"
"Don't know. How many people do you think I've asked? So in how many cases do you think I've had to wonder about questions like these?" She was not an expert in these matters.
"Not many," he guessed.
"Only with you."
They neared his house again, so he changed the subject after he had looked at his watch. "We have about forty-five minutes left. What shall we do?" He had to come up with another thing to pass the time, although he would prefer to walk another round and continue the conversation.
"There's not much we can do with an excited child around the house," Margaret commented and then she realised what she was saying. "I didn't think you had anything in mind that an excited child was not allowed to see, but she might interfere with innocent things as well."
They found Ailsa stretched out on the couch, reading a book. She barely acknowledged their return.
Iain beckoned Margaret into the hall and then up the stairs. She put one foot on it and then stopped. "Iain!" she hissed. "What?" What did he want? She was not going upstairs just like that, unless it was established precisely what they were going to do there. While she did not think he had anything bad in mind, she wanted to make it absolutely clear to him that she wanted to know beforehand.
"I'm giving you a tour," he said, as if that had been very obvious.
She groaned and followed. "Why do you scare me and act as if you've suddenly changed into some ... some..."
He was not aware that he had acted like that. "Some man who'd take you upstairs to take advantage of the fact that your chaperone is reading?" he asked interestedly.
"Tell me you wouldn't."
He winked at her and turned.
"You would?" she gasped.
"I am taking you upstairs because she is reading," he said calmly. "But I may not have the same in mind as the Don Juan you were thinking of. What exactly were you afraid of?"
Margaret rested her arms and head against a wall and looked down at her feet.
Iain leant against the wall beside Margaret. If she raised her head she would see him. He had things to say. This was not a passing fancy. Had Margaret not said she did not want to inspire a passing passion in someone? She had not. He had enough patience and she could trust him. "I hope you haven't been worried about me because I said yes after having known you for only two days. I'm not a teenage boy driven wild by his hormones."
His calm voice indeed supported that statement, but Margaret was nevertheless startled enough by the topic to need a few moments to compose a reply. He was standing very near, so that was difficult. She could see his feet next to hers and she could feel he was nearby too. "If I'd been very worried about that I would never have asked you."
"I was worried you might have been trying to escape one mess while landing yourself in another."
"I don't have a history of losing myself in pointless follies."
"I've never thought of myself as a pointless folly." He sounded a little relieved.
"I'm pointlessly foolish, though. Do you still want to back out?" She raised her head and looked at him. "I trust you, Iain, but I get irrationally scared sometimes."
He smiled at her. "Who doesn't?" He stretched out one arm and gently pulled her closer.
Margaret did not resist, but she kept her head down. Instead of against the wall she was now leaning against Iain. If she had to be honest the latter felt much better, but it was also much more unnerving. He began to give her another backrub and she slowly relaxed. It was all right to stop thinking sometimes.
"I knew you were doing that," Ailsa said in a disgusted voice a few minutes later.
They had not heard her come upstairs and they separated with a start. "It was only a hug," Margaret protested in embarrassment. She had not gone upstairs to do this and nobody should be accusing her of that.
Ailsa gave a snort of contempt and disappeared into a room.
Iain shrugged and pulled Margaret back. He was not done yet.
She protested softly, trying to pull away. "Iain! She'll come back in a second."
He was stronger. "My rational side says it's none of her business and it's nothing she's not allowed to see." In fact, the girl had better get used to seeing this.
"And your irrational side?"
"The same, but irrationality doesn't carry any weight with you."
"So?" Margaret looked at his shoulder, studying the fabric of his shirt. How should they proceed?
Ailsa came out of the room again with another book. Iain addressed her. "You know, Ailsa, if this really disgusts you, you could always stay with my parents." He would tell her his parents did this too and worse -- sometimes they kissed.
"No, I'll ... get over it," she said with the utmost seriousness and maturity. "Just ... gah. If that's what you like to do, go ahead." She made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "I'll look the other way."
"Thank you. That's extremely kind of you."
Margaret did not raise her head until Ailsa was gone. "She will look the other way. Could you believe the impertinence? That is so..."
"Nice of her. What will you do when Ailsa stays with me? Will you go home?" She was welcome to stay as well, but she might not want to. He did not know what business she had at home.
That was a question she had asked herself as well. "I'd need to know when exactly we are getting married, because if you want me to live with you, I'll have things to do." She had a house, with things in it. They would have to decide what to do with that house and which belongings should be moved here.
He did not mind her awkward phrasing -- it was an awkward subject. "I don't want to say you have to move in with me after we're married, but apart from being more agreeable it would be more convenient, especially if you don't always work. I wouldn't ask you to move in with me before we're married and if you want I could inquire about getting married as soon as possible."
Margaret decided she could become very fond of Iain. "You're too accommodating."
"That's in my best interest, Maggie. You could probably stay with my parents if you want."
"What would they say?" Vicious game show host won't live with boyfriend before marriage. Many people would laugh. Perhaps she cared.
"They would say yes?" He did not know what else they could say if he asked for that favour.
Margaret thought about it. "Will you give me until after the pony riding? You see, I'm not sure I'd want people to follow my every move to see whether I give in to temptation."
"This is 2004." Iain was not sure there were a lot of people who cared. He hoped not, at any rate.
She looked hurt. "What do you mean?"
"I'm sorry. I meant that people aren't likely to even wonder what you and I do, or in this case, don't do behind closed doors. We have the freedom to do exactly what we like."
"Oh. And what do you like?"
His blue eyes sparkled. "I liked hugging you once I got the hang of it."
Margaret got a tour of the house. "Do you have a lot of stuff?" Iain asked as he showed her the bedrooms. Some of the rooms were half empty, so there was enough space to store all her furniture. He felt more comfortable asking about her possessions than about her impressions.
"I could live here," she said with a small smile after she had glanced into his room. She had not wanted to look for too long and she quickly retreated again.
"But do you think you can fit all your furniture in this house?"
"Yes, mine is smaller. I'm usually there alone because Ailsa is at school. I don't need that much space, so I still live in the place that I bought with my first money."
"When was that?" It must have been long ago if it had been her first money.
"After I did Classroom Crusaders." She looked at him to see if he knew what that was, but it did not seem to ring any bells. Why should it? It had been a programme for children and he had no longer been a child when it had been on television.
"It was a programme for children they asked me to do after my sister died. Some of my colleagues went on to do the starlet stuff and wasted all their money, but I bought a flat I could afford, which wasn't as much as you'd think, because I also needed to pay for a place at day care."
"Didn't your parents offer to baby-sit her? My mother babysits Kirsty's children twice a week." Iain did not think his mother would have liked it if Kirsty had taken them to someone else. Family had the first right to them. That was how she saw it.
Margaret shrugged. "The baby was inconvenient to all of them. I don't know what they would have done if I hadn't taken her. But they certainly wouldn't have come over to look after her if I had to work, not if they were already complaining when I brought her over sometimes. You've never seen the show, have you?" He would not know it had sometimes required her to travel.
He shook his head.
"We had to go to schools all over the country to tell off teachers because we got letters from children from almost anywhere. Sometimes I had to take Ailsa because it was so far away and we had to stay the night at a hotel."
"Did anyone mind that?"
"That I brought a child? Oh, no. The crew did not talk. If something had been the matter with me the crew would have talked, but we got along. I had enough anger bottled up inside me to become very vile, but never at them." Margaret smiled, but it was not a smile of amusement. "It was the stupid teachers that were at the receiving end."
"Where is your anger now?"
"Gone, mostly. I hope."
He was quiet for a bit. "Why don't you take a better look? I searched your room too." She had left his room far too quickly, as if she had not wanted to intrude.
"But I didn't live in that room."
"Well, I saw your underclothes." He frowned at himself for bringing them up.
"Oh, shocking." She laughed. "But it wasn't, was it?"
"Randall was especially sorry to see that it wasn't."
Margaret took a step back into the room. "Do you want me to learn about you, Iain?" Her natural curiosity had been a bit subdued up till now. She should have asked more questions and she would have, if she had not been so preoccupied with other matters.
"I don't like talking about myself very much, but I do sometimes want you to know things."
"Don't know." He grinned somewhat sheepishly and left her.
She could hear him bound down the stairs and smiled at his escape. They were not so very different. Perhaps he too would find out that fleeing did not bring any reassurance, because he would not be able to see what she was doing, just like she had not known what he had done in her room.
She sat on the bed to test it out.
Ailsa had put her book aside and lay staring at the ceiling. She sat up when Iain entered the sitting room and she gave him a grave stare. "So, Mummy loves you then." It was an interested statement of a fact.
"Why do you think she loves me and is that bad?" He sat down too, not thinking she felt bad, but wanting to hear why it might be good instead.
Ailsa studied her fingers. "Well, she hugged you...and well, I just know."
"How?" He would like to know what was so obvious.
It was all fairly simple. "She wouldn't hug you if she didn't love you. Hugs are for family. I mean really close family. If you are not family yet, then you will be. I guess."
"I guess." Iain was not a compulsive hugger himself either. Although he had to undergo hugs from a wider range of people sometimes, he perfectly understood the desire to keep hugs for close family only. "Although ... what if I hugged her and she didn't really want to?"
"Ha," Ailsa said disbelievingly. "Mummy told me that if a boy does something you don't like, you first tell him and if he doesn't listen, you kick him where it hurts."
He was glad that boys were at least given the chance to explain themselves first, but he was amused at the Maxwell tactics nonetheless. "I see. No, she didn't do that to me." It would never come to that either.
"Do you love Mummy too?"
Iain hesitated, even if she had sounded hopeful and the only danger was in denying it. He would not do that, but there were some stages between a denial and an admission that she might not yet know about.
"I won't tell her," Ailsa promised. "Really I won't. Do you love her?"
"Yes." A child would not ask how that could have happened in such a short time, he thought. He would not have to defend himself on that account and go into details about all the possible gradations of love that could exist. It changed from day to day anyway and it got mixed up with getting to know her too.
She was as easy as he had hoped. "So I'll finally have a father." The idea seemed to excite her. "Although if you love Mum you don't automatically love me."
"I will if you do everything I say," Iain teased.
This was a perfect moment to ask Ailsa a question, now that Margaret was still out of the way. The subject could not embarrass her now and if Iain focused on something else he would never be tempted to wonder just what she was doing upstairs. "Do you want to live with me or do you want to go back to school?"
Ailsa would have the main say in that matter. If there was something he could know in advance rather than at the last moment, he always preferred to find out right away. There would be things to arrange if she wanted to change schools.
Ailsa looked undecided. "Will Mum live with you?"
"After a while, yes." He could not say when. The precise moment was up to Margaret. He was curious, but he could live for another while without asking. She had said she would not share a room with a man she was not married to, but if she were determined not to share a room with any man, she would have phrased that determination very clearly as well. After all, she had been very decided in her opinion and there was no reason to suppose she would be less clear about an even stricter condition.
Ailsa supposed everything had to be moved over first. That might indeed take a while. "Do I have to go to school if I live here?"
"Yes, but it'll be a different school, here in the village. You'll come home every afternoon."
"I already do that at home, sometimes," she told him. "But I always sleep at school because Mum isn't home every week. Will you and Mum have more children if she lives here?"
Iain was a bit taken aback by this change of subject. "More children?" He did not immediately see what that had to do with school.
"You did say she could ... and I want to be here if she does. I don't want to be away at school because then she might forget about me."
"Ailsa, first we have to get married and that takes a while. Children take a while too." He figured Margaret could never become upset at that explanation. It was very tactful. Besides, if he was to be Ailsa's father he was allowed to explain certain things as well.
Ailsa knew all about babies already. "Yes, nine months, but before that you'll have to buy baby things and decorate the baby's room."
Iain was relieved he did not have to go into further detail. "And you want to be here when that happens. I understand, but we haven't even...talked about it. I don't know if she wants any more."
That was something that Ailsa did not doubt for a second. "Of course. She's a mother and that's what they're for. I want brothers and sisters." She looked rather demanding.
"I'll do my best," he promised.
Ailsa sitting on a pony was a perfect opportunity for a private chat. As long as they watched and waved at the appropriate times, they could talk about anything they liked. Iain did not mention his talk with Ailsa to Margaret because she might ask what had prompted their conversation. Instead, he asked her what she had found during her search. She had stayed away for a while, so she must have found something interesting to look at -- or into.
She was hesitant to say what she had liked or to give her opinion of his bed, which was really where she had spent most time, so she settled for the easiest answer. "You don't like shopping for clothes."
"No," he agreed. That was very little for an observant person to have concluded, however. She would have been able to say much more about someone else's house. "Why?"
"You seem to like empty shelves. Your closet is too big." She had looked into it and noticed it was far from being full.
He looked at Ailsa and waved. "All the more room for you."
"Is that why you bought it?" It rather impressed her. "I mean, not for me in particular, but -- or did someone move out?" She was less impressed with that.
"No one moved out. I only thought ahead. I always do." He snickered when he thought of the tour of the house. "Well, nowadays I do. I didn't always look ahead or see things coming, so I can tell when you don't. But you know, Margaret," he continued more gravely. "That if you want to expand with matching furniture it has always gone out of stock." That was why he had opted for getting everything at once, even if it had been too much for him at the time.
"I would go for furniture that did not match in that case, but so do you, if you want me with all my furniture."
"I thought I could put you in one room and your furniture in another."
"Do I match your precious furniture then? But you're probably right. I'm keen on low-budget living, which might mean some of my stuff would spoil the lovely picture of your bedroom."
"I'll comment on that when I see it. Why low-budget?" He thought she had plenty of money.
"Old habits die hard."
That might be useful. "Don't let them die." He took a pair of sunglasses from his pocket and put them on.
Margaret studied this new appearance. "How come you can have sunglasses and still be single?"
His mouth twitched. "Not anymore, remember? But why?"
"You look rather ... cute." She remembered reaching a similar conclusion a few days ago too, but it had definitely not been a good time to voice it then.
He thought Margaret was becoming shockingly direct. It took all of his efforts not to stare. "I've known that since I was about fifteen," he said instead.
"And you totally don't care, do you?" she observed, noting his indifference.
"Well ... briefly, when the pressure was highest, but not anymore."
Of course not. He was beyond all that now, even beyond caring about his future wife's compliment. She looked at his imperturbable exterior. "What do you care about?" There had to be something that got to him. It was very suspicious that he could always appear so calm.
"Sweetness, sense and wit," he answered.
"You didn't have to think about that," she remarked. It sounded as if he had rehearsed the answer -- and it sounded rather like a description of her, if she was allowed to think so, perhaps with a little more sweetness than she gave herself credit for.
"No, I only had to find it."
"Did you find it?" If it sounded like her, he might indeed have found it. Surely he was intelligent enough not to speak about someone else to her if he knew she was rather close to matching his description? He would know she would get the wrong impression. He could not be that cruel.
"She lacks some sense, maybe," Iain said reflectively. His mouth twitched again, but his eyes were still concealed.
Margaret could not see his eyes, so she stamped her foot, which was always better than uttering a frustrated groan. He was playing with her and he was very good at it. How was she supposed to tell if he was talking about her if he did not even look her in the eye? "Do you have feelings?" She was determined to wriggle a human reaction out of him.
Iain removed his sunglasses and placed them on her nose. He would share the advantage. It was only fair. "A few. You already know I can feel amused."
"But can you feel like and compassion?" She was not certain he would admit to that, safe though it would be.
"Even love and passion with the right incentive, I think." He had not meant to be that bold, but it had happened. It was a bit dangerous to be around Margaret sometimes.
She was on top of that unexpected reply immediately. "Which is?"
"I think I mentioned it already," he teased.
If he said she lacked sense she would like things to be spelled out for her. "No, no, no. You didn't. Besides, how do you know you can feel it? Do you know what it'll be like?" She might not know when it happened to her.
"I've caught a glimpse."
"When?" Was that recently or years ago? She would like it much better if it had been recently.
He misinterpreted her deliberately. "Of like and compassion, maybe when you told me about Ailsa." He had done his best to help her then.
Margaret was ready to hit him in frustration. She was not as interested in like and compassion as in something else. "Love and passion. Your glimpse?"
"You first. It's not fair to interrogate me without revealing anything about yourself." Contrary to what she was probably thinking, he did have some trouble talking about this. It was all right if he could steer the conversation flippantly, but not if she took over.
And of course there were people who were dying to hear they were loved without ever thinking of returning the feeling. Although he did not think Margaret was one of them, he did not want to get caught up in one of those things and he wanted to reduce the risk altogether by making this a fair game.
"Well, I'm hardly going to laugh at you for what you tell me. You don't have to be afraid of my reaction." The worst she might do was blush. In fact, it was probably already starting.
"Like and compassion," he demanded, not allowing himself to be distracted by her persuasive smile.
Margaret felt a little panic. "But I haven't rehearsed this yet. You have!"
"You'd propose to a man you didn't like?" he inquired, deciding to help her out a little. Like was one of the easy things anyway. You could admit to it without committing yourself too much.
"No, I like you." Perhaps he was right about her lacking some sense. That she liked him was hardly an intelligent observation.
"Can you feel compassion?"
One had to be sweet for that. "No."
"Yes," he corrected, laughing at her. She did not want to think about this any more than he did. What a pity for them that they had manoeuvred themselves into a game where they were so interested in the other's answers, yet cursed with too much fairness to only take answers without giving any back.
"If you can answer for me, why are you asking? Please tell me when I felt compassionate."
"Hmm. I thought you were very compassionate when I told you about the ball and you didn't get angry."
Margaret frowned. "Oh. I thought I was merely being wicked." She had not only been thinking about him.
Iain thought she had been very nice to him as well. She was not doing herself justice if she thought she had merely been wicked. Besides, he felt he was worse than she was, teasing her all the time. But he meant well. "Well, the two are very close. Whenever you think I'm being wicked, I'm actually being very compassionate."
That was very wicked and not at all compassionate. Margaret did not comment on it because it would distract him again. She should not forget about her question. "Tell me about your glimpse. Love?"
Iain smiled and waved at Ailsa when she passed them. "I'd need to think about that." Especially since his mother was about to pass within hearing distance as she followed the pony.
Margaret did not believe he had not thought about it so far, given what else he had been thinking about. "If you mention a glimpse, you shouldn't count on getting away without an explanation. And oh, don't tell me you'd marry a woman you didn't love!" A trifle too late she realised he might question her about this with regard to herself, but she at least could say she was paraphrasing him.
"There's love, could love and in love," he said cautiously.
"All right, I'll try to be compassionate and settle for could love. Tell me." It was the easiest of the three and the option she would pick if she was the one who was interrogated.
He smiled again. Margaret was much more compassionate than she thought, or was she only fearing he would do the same to her? "Maybe when I caught you."
She remembered her own reactions very clearly, but perhaps her own feelings had been too strong to pay too much attention to his. "Your concern scared me to death, so you may actually be speaking the truth there. I'll accept it for the moment, because to be honest I was thinking of myself far too much at the time to dwell very deeply on your motivations. Passion?"
He was silent for a few moments. "You can guess if you think a bit."
Margaret reviewed the case. "No." Even if she could have come up with something, she would have said no. "I really do not think I did anything that could have inspired any passion in you. I'm always decent and never a flirt. If you tell me to think a bit, does that mean you don't think I lack sense? No, no, don't answer that. Passion?"
"Maggie, when did I send you away?"
"When I -- oh gosh, did you like my swimsuit?" she asked with interest.
"I thought I might," he said, still cautious. "If I was forced to look at it for longer."
"You might? Either you did or you didn't. Besides, isn't that lust and not passion? Not that I have a clue about either." It was unfamiliar territory and she frowned.
He was amused. "Whatever you say. It was something, at least, and it was highly inconvenient during work hours."
"Do you never see undressed women during work hours?" Margaret inquired tentatively, trying to define the precise nature of the problem of seeing a woman in swimwear during work hours. "Or even outside work hours?"
"All the time." It was part of the job to see some at times. "But you can't exactly tell a dead body to get dressed, can you?"
"You see dead bodies outside work hours?" She asked, to mask the fact that she actually wanted to ask whether he saw undressed women all the time.
Iain took a deep breath. "I sleep outside work hours. I have no control over the sort of bodies I see then. As for things I see during work hours, I was always able to cope with that."
"Was?" She lowered the sunglasses just a bit so she could peer over them. "Was it my fault that in this case..."
"In this case I thought I'd better not try."
She pushed the sunglasses back up. "A person has to be quite intelligent to figure out when you're flattering her."
"I wouldn't flatter any other kind. Now it's your turn to tell me about your glimpses."
"But I never caught a glimpse of anything. Only you did." She winced as she thought of literal glimpses. There had been none of those for her, certainly. "How did we end up discussing this?"
"We had some privacy."
"This happens when we are left alone?" Margaret glanced around. Everyone was far away. The ponies were on the other side of the round they were making and most other spectators were following them. "What would happen if those people were not in sight?" It was strangely fascinating to wonder about that.
"You have no idea?" He hoped that in response she would tell him what her idea was.
Margaret felt unsettled. "You'll drive me crazy one of these days. Don't make me feel as though I'm missing the point all the time."
"The problem is that you think there is a point. There isn't. Without you there is no point."
"You probably don't mean that as romantically as it sounds, do you?" she asked with some regret.
He grinned. "I hadn't even noticed you could take it romantically."
"Ever the rational. It's actually terrible that the rational interpretation was the first to occur to me too. But I feel very reassured now that there is no point, even though I think you meant path and not point." Margaret skipped towards Mrs. Scott, who was slowly coming their way.
"Does he ever not pull my leg?" Margaret complained.
Iain's mother had been keeping a respectful, but curious distance, dividing her attention between the pony and the couple. "It's a family affliction. What did he do now?"
"He claims he can feel love and passion, but he stays very cool when he says so. He took off his sunglasses, but that was about it." She realised she still had them on and she pushed them into her hair. It was more polite to take them off in communication with ordinary people. "Not that I mean I wanted him to take off more, but you know what I mean." She turned a bright red at her bad thoughts.
Mrs. Scott suspected Margaret had only come to share something and not to complain. They had probably not been aware of their body language, but from a distance it had spoken very much of mutual interest. If she mentioned they had looked to be flirting they would probably kill her, so she did not. "Isn't his ability to feel love and passion something you should have found out before you asked him to marry you?" she asked instead.
Margaret was not concerned about the proper order of things at this moment. "So I do things in a scrambled order. He still frustrates me."
"How did you get him to confess that anyway?" Mrs. Scott did not think Margaret looked frustrated at all and neither did Iain, as far as she could tell. He looked happy and mischievous. A woman who could make him look like that deserved her attention, even if she strongly suspected that Margaret's new favourite topic was going to be her conversations with Iain. It was a good thing that she was Iain's mother and therefore not bored as quickly as someone else might be.
"I don't think he meant to say it," Margaret said rather indulgently.
"But he couldn't resist you," Mrs. Scott nodded. While she was less familiar with Margaret's possible moods than with Iain's, here too there had been more smiles ever since they had had a private chat. It was not unthinkable that one of those smiles had caused Iain to speak of love.
"Oh no! I think he merely wanted to say something I wasn't expecting."
"Well, no one would expect him to voice even an oblique sideways reference to love or any emotion closely resembling it." It was incomprehensible that the silly girl should be making excuses for this much-needed slip of the tongue.
This frightened Margaret a little. "Why is that? Do you mean you thought he couldn't love?"
"I think I meant I thought he thinks too much," Mrs. Scott replied, striving to use words that would be understood. "And so do you." They should put some more trust in those smiles.
Margaret backed away a little at the thought of a thoughtless life. "I can't help that."
"Brain. Off. Margaret."
"I can't do that! I need my brain to figure out when he's flattering me."
His mother closed her eyes. "Oh dear me. Is it that bad? Can't that boy take a course in something?" Then she opened her eyes again. "Flattering you, you say?"
"Yes." Margaret blushed as she hoped she would not be asked to explain how and why.
"Well, I suppose that if he manages to get his message across to you, the rest of us have no business not understanding why he doesn't make life a little easier for the both of you by speaking plainly." She watched as Iain helped Ailsa off the pony. Communication there was much simpler, she expected, not too much thinking and far more doing. But then, Ailsa adopted new family members whether they liked it or not, so there was nothing to think about for either of them.
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.