“What do you think about this one?”
Margaret asked the question with a wicked grin. She held the dress up so that Finn could see. It was a wretched, frilly, blue and gold and orange thing with no shape that came down to her ankles.
Finn tried not to laugh. “I think you might be irresistible in something like that.”
“It is, without a doubt, the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen.” He whispered the words so that he wouldn’t be overheard by the stern looking woman running the little stand. He hoped that their apprehensions of her goods were subtle enough. Although Margaret was subtle in very little that she did. Ever.
“I think you should get it,” he decidedly added.
A slow smile broke out across her face, and for a moment, she looked as though she might consider it.
“Just for funsies,” she said and shrugged. Finn smiled as he realized, unsurprisingly, that she was going to take this joke as far as she could. In the past few weeks he’d learned Margaret was like that: anything she did was going to be done to the fullest extent possible.
It was one of the many things he was beginning to really like about her.
But then she looked at the little handwritten price tag that hung from the sleeve. Almost immediately, she dropped it, as if it were on fire or held some deadly contagion within its fibers. “They want an arm and a leg for this!”
Finn gave her a dismal look. “Afraid you’re on your own there,” he told her. “I really can’t spare anymore.”
She gave him a funny look. Then a second later, she burst into laughter. Score! he thought to himself. Her laugh rang shrill and high and -- to her horror, she’d informed him once -- was dispersed with the occasional snort. He thought it was adorable.
Christ, English, he scolded to himself. You sound like a woman in a Nora Roberts novel.
But he couldn't help but smile. Which made him feel like a sixteen year old girl all the more.
After Margaret returned the dress to the table and stall that it had come from, they continued on. They wove slowly through the pavilion that housed the Alabama State Farmer’s Market, occasionally stopping here and there when a stall caught their eye. As they walked, Margaret looped her arm through his. It threw him slightly off balance -- and caught him off guard -- but it felt so pleasantly normal, couplely, and right that he merely smiled to himself and kept going. Perfect balance was overrated anyway.
A few minutes later, when they finally came upon the vegetable stalls, Margaret slowed down. She rolled her eyes good naturedly and gave him a knowing look. “You really just brought me along to help carry groceries today, didn’t you?”
“Guilty as charged.” Finn joked. She laughed lightly again. It captivated him.
“Really though,” he told her, meeting her eyes, suddenly feeling the need to very deliberate and genuine, “I just wanted to share one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people.”
Margaret smiled. It spread across her face slowly, beginning with her lips and quickly extending to her eyes, highlighting, individually, each of the features that Finn liked the most.
She reached up and gave the stump of his arm an affectionate squeeze. “Well thanks for sharing,” she whispered a low, husky voice.
When she touched what was left of his arm it sent blood rushing through his body. To all the parts of his body. He hoped fiercely that people would be too busy staring at his empty shirt sleeve or the prosthetic leg that was visible because of his shorts, or the charming, redheaded nymph that he was with, rather than down there. At that.
It still astonished him. Even after weeks of the tender fondling and gentle, unassuming exploration that accompanied the steamy parts of the first weeks of a budding relationship that came before the next step. The big step. The one that they hadn’t made yet.
Because he wasn’t sure if he was ready. Nobody ever touched those parts of him. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that aspect of him. Not in an intimate or sensual way. To everyone else it seemed that his injuries were revolting and scary; but to her, they were inviting. Seductive even.
At least that’s what she’d said when she’d tried to explain it to him. There was a part of him which hadn’t believed her at the time. But now, as he saw the intense burning in her eyes and watched how her face flushed and how her touch lingered a little longer than necessary, he realized the attraction was real.
He only hoped the that honeymoon period and novelty of having a gimpy boyfriend wouldn’t wear off.
“Ooo-hoo-hoo! Look who it is!”
A loud, familiar, booming voice shattered pierced through the pavilion, shattering the moment, and startling them both. Margaret jumped slightly and relinquished her hold on his arm. As she let go, Finn thought he heard her sigh, but the sound was so soft that he couldn’t be sure.
“Sounds like we’ve been spotted,” Finn groaned. Suddenly, the only place he wanted to be was anywhere that was alone with Margaret. Recreating the moment from a few minutes ago. Feeling attractive and wanted. Screw his groceries.
But duty calls, English. There was really no way he could ignore his friend. At all. But especially now. Even so, he grumbled. “I was hoping to avoid this.”
Margaret cocked a single eyebrow and looked at him curiously. Her face was still flushed.
“My buddy Stan,” he explained. “We were in the same platoon.”
As if on cue, a bushy faced man stepped out from behind a produce stand whose sign read “Stan Sand’s Stand” in big block lettering. The moment that Finn could see him in his entirety, he burst into laughter, despite his annoyance at the situation.
“This guy is known for being the life of a party, a goofball, and highly inappropriate at times,” Finn warned Margaret, feeling the last tendrils of his lackanookie fade away. “But you know, he usually isn’t dressed up in a carrot costume.”
Margaret joined in the laughter. “Well that’s one way to garner attention at your stall.”
“Stan garners attention in all he does,” Finn chuckled. He started to lead them in the direction of the stand. “So is this a farmer’s market or a Fruit of the Loom commercial?”
Stan grinned and came out from behind the stall, closing the distance between them in two steps. Immediately, he enveloped Finn in a giant bear hug. “I’ve got a spud costume with your name on it, buddy!” he said in reply.
From within the confines of Stan’s hug, he heard Margaret huff. “And what am I? Chopped liver?”
Stan let go of Finn and stepped back. Finn could tell that his old friend -- a former Captain who stood six foot five with a linebacker frame -- was sizing up the petite woman in front of him. After a moment of consideration, he frowned. Seriously, he asked, “How do you feel about broccoli?”
“Can’t stand the stuff.” Margaret grimaced. Then she pointed to her head. “But I think I’ve got the hair for a tomato, don’t you?”
That made Stan laugh. “I like your girlfriend,” he told Finn and clapped him on the back.
Girlfriend. Although they’d quickly fallen into a pattern of easy togetherness over the past few weeks -- a pattern that was fun and natural, exciting and familiar -- they’d somehow pussyfooted around titles and exclusivity.
But, one look at Margaret told him that he didn’t have anything to worry about. She was practically glowing.
“Me too,” Finn beamed and wrapped his arm around Margaret’s waist, pulling her closer into his side. He looked down at Margaret and grinned mischievously. “But then tomatoes always have been my favorite.”
Margaret swatted at his chest playfully. But, he noticed that the tips of her ears had reddened at his suggestive tone. “I’m Margaret,” she informed a still chuckling Stan, swiftly trying to change the subject.
“Stan Sands.” He shook her proffered hand. Then he turned back to Finn. “Missed y’all at Central a few weeks ago.”
This time both Margaret and Finn flushed. Boy, how that date had taken a different turn.
“When he’s not dressed up as a vegetables or running a produce stand at the farmer’s market, Stan’s running Central,” Finn explained for Margaret's benefit, trying to change the subject before Stan noticed the look that passed between them.
She looked impressed. “That’s one of my favorite places.”
“Seriously?” Finn couldn’t believe that. You've got to be kidding.
“Yeah! Everything is so fresh,” Margaret eyed Stan with an air of bemusement. “So what? Does the Army teach you men how to cook a gourmet dinner or what?“
Stan and Finn chuckled. “I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Stan leaned in closer to the two of them and stage whispered. Finn pondered, with minor alarm, at what was going to come out of his mouth. “We weren’t really officers in the Army.”
“Is that right?” Margaret asked, an amused expression on her face.
“Nope. We were with the SSS.”
Finn knew now where this was going. But, he wasn’t sure Margaret did. For once, she looked thrown off and unsure. Stan cued him with a nod and he delivered the coup de grace. “That’s right. The SSS: Special Salad Services.”
Margaret smirked and chuckled. “Now I know the secret.”
Stan winked. “Now you know the secret.”
Right then a large family lumbered up to the stand. Stan warmly welcomed them and dealt with them while Finn and Margaret waited patiently.
“It’s a state secret,” Finn nudged Margaret as the watched Stan. “Don’t tell.”
“My lips are sealed,” she promised solemnly. A curious look flashed across her face. He could see the gears turning in her head and he knew what was coming next. His stomach clenched.
Come on, Sands. Come back. Rescue me. Again. Please.
But Stan hadn’t developed telepathy in the last few minutes, and so Finn’s silent pleading was ignored.
“So,” Margaret ventured. “Do you only ever talk about the Army using metaphorical jokes?”
Finn sighed. “You either have to laugh or cry.”
He shrugged. From the way that Margaret turned away from him, he knew that she recognized that the subject was now closed. Five years he’d been trying to deal with this. Five years he’d been trying to come to terms with how drastically different his life was now.
Really though, joking around kept the worst of the memories at bay.
Stan came back a few minutes later. His presence mercifully broke the awkward silence that had settled over them. He was carrying a giant lumpy burlap bag that he handed over to Finn as soon he was close enough to. As he handed the bag off he whispered lowly, “Everything okay, English?”
Finn nodded curtly. “We haven’t really broached the Army topic.”
To say it was complicated would be an understatement.
Finn grumbled internally as they said their goodbyes to Stan and began making their way back to his Jeep. Things had been going so well. The day had been so nice. But now, he felt an irritable cloud beginning to settle over him as the memories that he tried so hard to constantly repress began to slip into his psyche. Whereas the space between him and Margaret had been electric and charged that morning; now, it was suddenly awkward and loaded. With a sigh, he thought back to earlier. How quickly the mood had changed.
She knew that she shouldn’t have asked.
The walls had gone up around him before the question had even left her lips. It was like he’d known exactly what was coming. Maybe he had. Maybe he hadn’t. Either way, his posture had suddenly shifted, his jaw clenched, and his eyes shut. When they re-opened, only a nanosecond later, the familiar glint had been replaced with a hard, steely look.
But really, what did he expect? Finn had literally dangled a carrot out in front of her and then snatched it away at the last minute.
Within the span of a few seconds, he’d shut himself off from the world, from the people around him, and from her. It had created an awkward tension between them -- one that even his friend Stan had noticed. She’d heard them whispering.
But the worst thing that the whole episode did was create within her a sense of self-doubt.
“I don’t like reporters.” The words echoed in her head. Finn had told her in no uncertain terms on the first night that they met how much he loathed her choice of profession. She’d brushed the comment off at the time and hadn’t thought much of it then -- mostly because she’d seen him only as a means to an end. Now though...
For the past few weeks she and Finn had seen each other almost nonstop. Their lives had suddenly, and very quickly, become intertwined and she found herself enjoying the feeling of it. So she’d tried to ease up. She’d tried to ignore the nagging voice in her head that reminded her daily that she was blurring the lines of professionalism and that her ethics were going out the window. She’d tried to forget about the fact that every day she spent with Finn was one less day she spent working on the story of her (small time) career.
Which is why it hurt so much when he closed her out.
“Need any help?” She asked as she finally spotted the Jeep in the long line of cars. She asked the question lightly, trying to keep the despondency and gloom out of her voice. More than anything she wanted to go back to where they were -- and where they were headed -- before they’d met Stan.
Finn shook his head silently and continued walking. He looked unusually grave, which worried her.
“I’ll get the door,” she offered. “Keys?”
“Right.” Finn paused. He shifted the bag of vegetables that he cradled in his arm to his other side. Deliberately, he braced the bag precariously against his left hip. With the stump of his arm, he hooked the top of the bag as best he could. He reached into his pocked with his freed up right hand, but something about the maneuver threw his balance off. Margaret winced as she watched -- almost in slow motion -- the bag of produce slip from his hazardous grip and hit the ground with a dull thud.
“Shit,” he muttered to himself and closed his eyes. He face was flush with embarrassment.
Margaret stood next to him, unsure. Finally, she bent over and picked the bag up. It was awkward and heavy and she had to use both arms. She marveled at how Finn had managed to carry it one armed for the past fifteen minutes.
“I can take that,” Finn’s voice sounded strained. “Really.”
Margaret looked at him. He looked so defeated and sad. Awkwardly, she tried to hand the bag off to him, but she let go too soon. Once again, they watched as the bag hit the ground.
They stood there, staring intensely at the burlap sack. This day just gets better and better.
“Your vegetables are going to be bruised to bits,” Margaret said into the silence.
To her surprise, Finn laughed. A deep, baritone laugh that resonated from deep within. While it might have only been a nervous release at first, it soon evolved into something genuine and real. Margaret hesitantly joined in, and all of a sudden, for the first time in the last half hour, the gloomy air that had pervaded them disappeared.
“My vegetables, my pride, it’s all gone to hell,” Finn replied, still laughing. “Good God.”
Margaret allowed herself a small smile. The day suddenly felt normal again. Agreeing, she said, “Pretty much.”
Still chuckling to himself, Finn slowly knelt down. Margaret watched keenly as he distributed his weight through a subtle shifting of his hips that most people wouldn’t have known to look for or noticed. She knew it was so that too much pressure wasn’t being placed on his prosthetic knee joint as he bent.
“Mags?” Finn looked up from his crouched position and grinned cockily as he realized she’d been staring. “Little help here?”
“What do you need me to do?” she asked curiously. Secretly she buzzed with the idea of helping -- never mind the fact that he was actually asking her. It felt like an apology of sorts for shutting her out earlier.
“Just brace this as I lift,” Finn explained and wrapped his arm around it tightly. “Ready?”
Margaret nodded. She grabbed the bottom of the bag and tried to take some of its weight. Finn grunted as he slowly stood up from his squat. Once they were standing, he shifted the bag up and onto his shoulder.
“Thanks.” He rewarded her with a smile. Nodding his head towards the Jeep he asked, “The mission, should you chose to accept it, still involves door duty.”
“Nerd,” She teased as they walked towards the car. Holding her hand out, she asked, “Keys?”
Finn rolled his eyes. “After all that. Still in my pocket.”
Hmn. Margaret grinned slyly as an idea came to her. Maybe recreating this morning’s mood wouldn’t be too hard after all. Without waiting for him to say anything more, she stuck her hand in his pocket. She brushed up against the keys, but ignored them for a moment. Instead, she lingered and gave his inner thigh a pointed squeeze.
“Mmm!” Finn jerked a little at her touch. He looked down at her with an amused expression. “That’s not where the keys are.”
“No,” Margaret agreed as she drew finally drew the keys from his pocket. She hadn’t missed the ridge that had appeared in his shorts earlier. Casually, she reached out and gave the end of his bicep another squeeze. The feeling of his thin stump within her grasp made her breath hitch and her body grow warm.
The feeling only lasted a fleeting second, and she swore she heard Finn groan audibly as she suddenly let go. “You minx,” he whispered as she opened the door.
Margaret smiled, hoping it looked as seductive as she was trying to be. In a throaty voice full of desire, she whispered back, “Let’s go.”
Finn had the vegetables loaded and the car cranked before she could even blink.