Margaret stood on the doorstep, trying to decide whether to knock or just drop the quiche and leave, mentally slapping herself for actually agreeing to this.
Yesterday when she’d listened to the voicemail on her way from work, she’d expected to hear her old roommate telling her that girl’s night was cancelled or postponed. And, not surprisingly, her expectations had been met. It’d been the last straw after a shitty day. Margaret had angrily called back. “What the hell Liz?”
“Oh, calm down. You can still have your wine and food -- and it’ll be better than anything you would’ve eaten because Chris’ brother is an friggin’ amazing cook,” her friend had explained patiently while making her sound like both a drunkard and a glutton.
“I don’t want to go on a double date with you and Chris and his dorky brother--”
“--this isn’t the dorky one. That’s Richard. This is--”
“That isn’t the point, Liz!” Margaret had exclaimed, pounding the steering wheel. Jesus, Liz just didn’t get it sometimes. Margaret hadn’t wanted to spend her Saturday night having to be on her best behavior; she’d been looking forward to being able to let loose and have a good time with lots of wine and lots of reruns of Friends. Oookkay, that did sound kind of pathetic. Maybe a double date wouldn’t be so bad after all, but still, it was the principle of the matter, she had tried to explain. “Dammit Liz,” she’d sighed.
Her old friend had squealed on the other end of the line. “The address is 2000 Central Parkway.” Margaret scrambled to find a stray piece of napkin or paper in her disaster of a car. “Apartment number 309. It’s easy to find and you can come around 7:00.” Then the line clicked. And Margaret threw her phone across the car in frustration.
So, here she was a day later: standing on the doorstep of a stranger’s apartment holding a quiche. She looked around as she tried to decide what to do. Even though the apartments were cookie cutter units of one another, Carrington Park was a nice enough neighborhood, only about ten minutes from where she lived in downtown Montgomery. She’d found it without any trouble, just as Liz had said she would. She steeled herself for what would probably shape up to be a humorously terrible night and quickly surveyed her appearance in the window as she knocked, trying to tame her unruly hair and cursing the Alabama humidity as the door opened.
And then she found herself face to face with none other than Lt. Finn English himself.
Finn opened the door to find an unsuspecting but pretty, petite woman in a royal blue and white polka-dotted sundress, and unruly Annie-like red hair standing with her mouth agape on his doorstep. One look told him that his sister-in-law hadn’t adequately prepared her for this. He still bristled a little at her reaction; he knew that the poor girl probably hadn’t been expecting Stumpy Pete as her date, but he also knew that a reaction like that wasn’t warranted. For a moment, just out of spite, he wished he was wearing shorts instead of pants;, if he had of been she probably would’ve dropped the pie she was carrying and ran away. That would’ve been fodder to tease Liz with for weeks.
“H-hi,” she stammered out after a moment. She cleared her throat and shook her head, making her shoulder-length curls fly. “Hi.”
“Hi,” he answered and stuck out his right hand. “Finn English.”
The woman looked unsure as she took his hand and gave it a firm handshake. Finn leaned toward her and gave her a pointed look, waiting for her to introduce herself. Instead though, she held up the pie pan, “Do you like spinach quiche?”
He just gave her a puzzled look. “Is that her, Finn?”
His sister-in-law popped around the corner and then semi-ran/waddled as fast as she could down the short hallway, convulging on the woman on his doorstep and enveloping her in a bear hug. “Thanks for coming,” he heard her whisper. Then Liz pulled back and narrowed her eyes. “Oh, and cute dress, Mags.”
The woman grinned, visibly loosening up. “It’s not like you can wear it anymore,” she patted Liz’s stomach. “Little Ryker is making sure of that.”
Liz sighed. “I know, I’m huge. That dress is probably never going to fit again. Still,” she said in a scolding tone and wagged her finger at her friend. “I loaned it to you two years ago.”
The woman shrugged and then winked. Finn shook his head, just imagining how much that contempt must have annoyed Liz over the years and inwardly grinning. Aside from the awkward semi-introduction, there seemed to be some potential in this girl. And something about her seemed familiar, her voice maybe? “Finn” he heard his sister-in law ask, pulling him out of his thoughts, “you want to show Mags where she can set that down?” And with that, Liz spun around and headed back into the kitchen, leaving them alone in the hallway again.
“Well, some things get better with age,” Mags deadpanned. “Liz’s subtly, however, is not one of them.”
Finn had to chuckle at that. Now that the initial shock of seeing him had worn off, she seemed to be warming up. “Makes me feel sorry for the baby when he’s old enough to date.”
Mags nodded and patted his left arm, “Your brother is a saint.”
He tensed up, taken aback by her physical contact so close to his stump. “Yeah well,” he said uncomfortably as he lead her down the hallway and into the kitchen, “I’m sure they said the same about you when y’all were in college.”
“Bullshit,” Liz cut in, trading Mags the quiche for a glass of wine. “They heralded me for putting up with the hurricane that was Margaret Shields.”
Mags--Margaret--whatever her name was, jerked her head up towards Finn. He locked eyes with her and, for a moment, she looked like a little kid who’d been caught with their hand in the cookie jar before dinner. After a beat the look was gone. She took a sip of her wine and swallowed hard and then turned to his brother, hugging him warmly and laughing at his stupid joke.
It took a bit for the shock to wear off. Margaret mentally punched herself for standing there with her mouth open like an idiot. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t for Finn English to be standing in front of her. She wracked her brain as she went through the awkward motions of saying hello, trying to remember if Liz had ever mentioned this guy. Seemed like there was a time a few years ago when Chris had had to go to D.C. for a few weeks because his brother had been in an accident. And, it did seem like Liz was pretty pissed off when she’d gotten married and Chris’ youngest brother hadn’t been able to come to the wedding because he was stationed overseas.
As she sipped on her wine, she mentally smacked herself again for not putting it together earlier. How stupid could she be? Jesus, she’d even seen pictures. But Chris was a software developer who rarely saw the light of day, wore glasses, and was towheaded. And the other brother -- Richard, the dork -- had traits like Chris too. Finn though, was blessedly not bespectacled and had a mess of brown hair and deeply tanned skin. She bet even their mother had a hard time believing he was related to the other two.
Not anymore though, she thought as she watched Finn carefully slid a tomato onto a steel-pronged cutting board and start dicing it. As she watched, she felt a familiar stirring. “What’s that for?” she asked curiously, though she already knew perfectly well.
“I can’t really hold the tomato while I chop,” Finn explained, waving his left stump but not turning around. “So this holds it for me.”
“Mmm.” It wasn’t very often that Margaret found herself unable to formulate a response or wishing that Liz were around to fill the gaps with her incessant talking, but her best friend had mysteriously disappeared and watching Finn do even the littlest things made every coherent thought go out of her head. She’d known that would happen, which is exactly why she hadn’t wanted this assignment in the first place. Call it a conflict of interest, if you would.
And that was another thing. Was this luck or fate playing a joke on her? It was definitely luck that he hadn’t recognized her voice or name, but she figured it had to be bad karma for something, the fact that she was sitting in both a disabled man and the subject of her article’s kitchen but she couldn’t think of anything clever to say -- thus waving goodbye at the idea of a second date as it quickly disappeared -- and she couldn’t use any of the juicy insight into Lt. Finn English’s life that she was getting right now in her article. Balls.
Or, could she?
Margaret spotted her phone where she’d laid it down, not unintentionally, next to Finn. “Excuse me for a moment,” she said patting his back and leaning over him. He just nodded and went back to chopping.
I’m in English’s house. What do I do? She typed it out quickly and hit send.
Jake replied in less than a minute:
WHAT the HELL? Details?! Anyway, just keep thinking “Promotion, promotion, promotion.” ;)
Yeah, unfortunately her promotion was not the foremost thing on her mind at the moment. That would be the throbbing between her legs that was intensifying and growing warmer. Her phone buzzed again:
And don’t kiss him.
“You seem to be pretty popular,” Finn remarked, finally turning around to face her. He took a swig of beer and nodded towards her phone.
Margaret smiled modestly as she put her phone down, leaving it face-up. “Just this kid who kind of works under me needing some pointers.”
“Uh-huh,” Finn said with a disarming smile that clearly proclaimed he knew she was lying. He probably thought she was gossiping about him or something. Which, actually, wasn’t too far off the mark. “And what line of work are you in?”
Shit. “I’m a writer,” she answered cautiously, not wanting the ruse to end just yet. Her phone buzzed but she ignored it for the moment.“You?”
“I teach tenth-grade chemistry at Lee High School in Montgomery.”
“Oof, rough part of town,”
Finn immediately jumped on the offensive. “Maybe. But we’ve got the best test scores in the district and the highest graduation rate too. People automatically assume it’s a shit school and a shit place to work because of the neighborhood it’s in and because of the demographics, but let me tell you something, I’d send my own kids to Lee over Carver anyday.”
“Hmn,” Margaret raised an eyebrow at his passionate speech. She’d really been hoping to hear more about how he taught chemistry one-handed, but apparently he didn’t see that as proper get-to-know-you conversation.“Make sure you tell that to Liz and Chris when the time comes.”
He nodded and laughed. “Oh, they’ve heard my soapbox many times.”
Margaret smiled as her phone buzzed again. “That kid at work must be really confused,” he smirked as he turned and carefully slid the tomatoes off the cutting board and into a small bowl.
“Want me to take those out to the patio?” she offered in what she hoped was a eager sounding tone.
As soon as the words left her mouth she knew she’d said the wrong thing. Finn’s eyes flashed as he picked up the bowl and kind of waved it at her, all the friendliness from a few minutes before gone. “Nope, I can manage just fine.”
Margaret pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows, something she did when she was irritated. “I know that,” she explained. “ I can see that. I was just trying to be polite. So far all I’ve done is text and drink your wine,” she shrugged. “Thought a little help on my end might be in order.”
He stared at her for a moment, trying to validate her response as legitimate or not. Finally, he sighed, more to himself than to her, it seemed, and nodded toward the pantry. “There’s a loaf of French bread you can bring out to the patio if you want.”
“Great,” she answered. In her head she mentally noted that he apparently took his independence very seriously. She watched him from across the room as he got to the door and secured the bowl of tomatoes in between his stump and ribs, carefully opened the door with his other arm, then switched the bowl back to his right hand and set it down on the table outside where it seemed that Liz and Chris had not-so-subtly disappeared to. She tried to squirm away from the butterflies in her stomach and tingling between her legs, and literally gave her head a good shake, trying to get her mind out of the gutter it was headed towards. She grabbed the loaf of French bread and started to head outside when her phone buzzed again. Three texts from Matthews.
The first one said:
‘Cuz that’d probably look bad when the article came out.
The second said:
Really, the no kissing thing was a joke.
And the third said:
She replied with a wry smile:
What’re you shitting about Matthews? Sitting down to dinner. Details on Monday.
“That was delicious!” Margaret proclaimed as she bit into her last bit of roasted chicken that was topped with mint and pine nut gremolata. She dipped her head back and closed her eyes dramatically. “My taste buds can now die in peace. You,” she pointed her fork across the table at him, “cook a mean bird.”
Finn just smiled at the compliment. They had been more than halfway through the chicken before it finally hit Finn who Margaret Shields really was. And once he did, everything -- the way she was acting all buddy-buddy with him, the reason her voice sounded familiar, the way she kept semi-flirting with him, and the way that she hung on his every word -- suddenly fell into place.
Margaret Shields wasn’t just Mags-Liz’s-old-roommate. She was the woman who’d called him the other day after his run. She was Margaret-Shields-from-the-fucking-Montgomery-Inquisitor. Man, if sometimes fate didn’t have a really twisted sense of humor, he thought to himself as he suddenly became acutely aware of her piercing blue eyes on him more than ever.
He carefully speared a small piece of chicken with his fork and took another bite. No sense in creating a big affair, he told himself. She was pretty and a decent conversationalist, might as well let it play out until the end of the night. And if something did end up in the newspaper, well...he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. But as the meal started to wrap up and everyone pitched in to help clear the table, he seized his chance. After all, why wait until she was walking out the door? Then he wouldn’t be able to enjoy watching the brown-noser journalist squirm. And that was one of his favorite pastimes, he reminded himself with a wry smile as he watched Margaret carry a couple of plates inside--watching journalists squirm. He’d learned that in the months that he’d spent in Walter Reed a few years ago and they’d descended upon him like vultures.
He looked up as the journalist in question suddenly appeared in front of him, arms crossed and lips pursed. “So, you get all defensive inside but now you’re content to let everyone else do the work, huh?”
Finn chuckled despite himself. “I cooked the meal that’s going to allow you to die in peace, remember?”
“Oh, I remember. Keep an eye on me,” she said with a wink as she grabbed the remaining utensils off the table. “I might try and find the secret recipe.”
For a brief second reconsidered blowing her cover; he was actually starting to enjoy her company.
“Tell me,” he took a swig of beer, “are you going to write about my fantastic culinary skills in your article, Ms. Margaret Shields?”
The look on her face as she dropped the silverware and spun around to face him was even more satisfying that he’d expected.