Expectation and assumption.
Neil paused on hearing the music. For a moment he feared Margaret had returned. He didn't have the energy to face her right now. Or perhaps ever again.
Then he saw the flowers, wild flowers, no doubt picked from the grasses between here and the mission. He smiled at the thought and strode forward, without hesitation, impatient to see her. The door was ajar so he stepped up and then stopped, watched.
There she was, a sprig of laurel tucked into her hair. She stood over the stove, dropping a handful of something into a hot pan. It hissed and she stepped back.
He stepped forward and the sound of his footstep called her attention.
"Oh, Neil. I didn't see you there."
"I would have announced myself but...this is a nice surprise."
She turned back to the carrots and gave them a stir.
"Your not here campaigning for something are you?"
"No." She smiled, "No hidden agenda. I promise."
He walked up behind her and looked over her shoulder at the pan.
She felt the heat of his presence behind her, so close. It made her feel so much warmth and longing that she lost her nerve. She let the spoon rest on the side of the pan, and stared out the window, searching for something – courage or the right words or an answer to this seemingly impossible situation.
"What is it?" He put his hands on her shoulders, "What's wrong?" He slid his hands down, holding onto her arms now. "Has something happened?" He turned her around to face him, touching the side of his forefinger to her chin, willing her to look him in the eye.
She shook her head, found the courage to look at him, and to smile.
"Whatever it is, you can tell me."
"That's just it." She sighed, "I do, don't I. I tell you – confide in you." She shook her head and turned back to the stove. "And not as a doctor."
"And I confide in you. Is that wrong?" He stepped aside so he could see her face.
She stopped stirring and turned to face him. "I don't know. I don't think so."
"But that's what has you looking so worried?"
She smiled, "not exactly."
"I can't help unless you talk to me." He watched her turn back to the food. "I can't read your mind."
"Feels like you can sometimes."
"You have an expressive face, and I know you."
She nodded, "I went to El Pano. I talked to Margaret."
"What did she say to you?" He stepped forward, suddenly aggravated.
She shook her head, refusing to answer, "I told her you were worth fighting for," she turned away, unequal to seeing his expression, "but now I realise..."
He waited, a frustrated sigh slipping out. "Realise what?"
"I'd fight for you." She turned back to face him. "I've no right to say it, let alone do it, but that doesn't change the way I feel." She folded her arms.
He smiled, reached out his hand and touched her cheek. "I must say I'm relieved."
"How can you be?"
"I was expecting you to say that you were going to marry Grantland."
She shook her head, "I have to tell him I can't. He won't understand, but it has to be done." She turned back to the stove, added the spices she'd cut up earlier, then some water.
"So what do we do now?" Neil leaned back on the bench beside her.
She looked up at him, hoped he would answer his own question, then seeing he wouldn't, couldn't, she looked away, watching the stock swirl in the wake of her spoon.
"Coming home to you – this vision of loveliness," he exhaled, shook his head, "Perhaps I deserve this exquisite torture, but you..." He changed tack, "Tell me..."
She stopped stirring at the shift in his tone of voice.
"How do you feel about divorce?"
Slowly she began to stir again. "In theory, I've always thought it was wrong. But now...? You have a knack for testing all my theories." She looked up at him, forcing a smile.
He stepped closer, "This time it wasn't on purpose."
"But the others were?"
He smiled, wrinkling around the eyes.
She wanted to reach out and touch those lines, trace them with her thumb, the palm of her hand pressed to his cheek, her fingers in his hair.
"Is there a chicken in that oven?"
She laughed and shook her head. "Quality over quantity, this time." She pulled her eyes away from his, and picked up a small pile of chopped herbs from the board beside her. She crushed them between her fingers and sprinkled them over the pan. "It's almost ready. Perhaps you could set the table."
He nodded, hesitated for a moment, then pushed off the bench and set to work.
He finished before she did. He watched her lift the spoon to her lips and taste the sauce. She added a little pepper and stirred it in.
"I can't tell you how much this means to me." It was a poor expression of his regard, but he felt it was all he could say.
"It's nothing." She lifted the pan and brought it to the table, resting it on a mat between the place-settings.
"No," he shook his head, pulled out her chair. "It's not nothing to me."
She sat. She watched him take the seat opposite her.
"It smells incredible."
"Don't let your expectations get too high." She spooned the food onto his plate then sat back to serve herself. "I'd hate to disappoint you."
She looked up, arrested by the serious look in his eyes. "My expectations have already taken flight. It's too late for caution, Christy."
"There's only so much I can do with carrots and beans and potatoes."
He smiled. "I was beginning to wonder if you had limits at all."
He nodded once, agreeing to stop this teasing, if that's what it was, for now. He took a mouthful of dinner and spoke before he swallowed, "Good."
She smiled and ate. It was good – hot and flavourful, comforting even.
"You're not a rotten cook at all. I was angry. I didn't mean it."
She laughed. "It's all right. I was that day."
"And I jumped down your throat."
"I may have deserved it."
"Maybe." He took another mouthful and savoured it. "Perhaps you should go back to burning the chicken. It'd make it easier to let you go."
She looked up at him and put down her fork. "What are we going to do?"
"We're going to eat dinner. And then..." words seem to fail him.
He smiled, swallowed, nodded.
"And then?" She pushed.
He searched her face. "Dance."
She took a ragged breath and went back to her meal, though it had lost most of its appeal.
She looked up at the scraping of Neil's chair. He had stood, pushing it back, and went outside. She wanted to follow but didn't dare, until she heard the music.
She stood, walking toward the door as he came back inside. He stopped in front of her, touched her cheek, then stepped up, closing the space between them as he took her hands.
"I thought you were speaking metaphorically." She let him lead her in this simple, literal dance. If it were all they could have, then they could at least enjoy this.
"I was. But this might be more attainable."
She held him tighter, closer. "I suppose we have to take what we can get – or maybe we shouldn't -"
He stopped her with a kiss, clamping his lips to hers and inhaling desperately, as if he could breath her in, take part of her into himself and never be truly parted from her again.
She lifted her hands to his face and, once the shock had abated, kissed him back.
Then he broke the kiss, exhaling hotly onto her cheek.
She gasped for air. Her hands were still on his face and his eyes asked a thousand questions. Her only answer was to reach up to him, press her lips to his.
He opened his mouth against hers and without thought she responded in kind. She pressed her fingers back into his hair and clung to him..
He responded fervently, pulling her close, so close she had to arch against him to keep kissing him, and stopping did not seem to be an option, so arch against him she did. If she was shocked at her own behaviour then the thought was quickly banished from her mind by a searing, delving, desperate kiss. Her head spun and the rest of the world seemed to disappear. She knew only his face, soft and rough at once, his strong arms wrapped tightly around her, the unfamiliar contours of his body, pressed against hers.
Suddenly, she found herself pushed away.
Neil held her at arms length, his hands on her shoulders, his eyes wide and breath coming in shallow gasps. His mouth was agape, lips swollen.
She touched her hand to her mouth, wondering how hers looked. Her mind began to clear and she blushed, stepping back, out of his grip.
The music wafted through from outside, a light and happy tune, without a care in the world.
"I'm so sorry." Neil stepped closer to check she was okay.
She shook her head. "That wasn't your fault."
He tilted his head to one side, his expression one of disbelief. "Don't run away. It was only a kiss."
She scoffed and finally looked him in the eye, shaking her head.
"What I mean is, you've done nothing wrong. Neither of us meant for this to happen. We were under the mistaken impression that I was free. If it weren't for that, if I were free -"
"Don't." She pressed her fingers to his lips then pulled her hand away, shocked by her own rash behaviour. The barrier between them had been blown away. How would she ever put it back in place? "It'll do no good."
"But I want you to know, Christy. I'd have courted you, maybe even married you by now, if you'd said yes."
She resolved to leave as soon as her reply was spoken, but she would tell him the whole truth first. That was her goal in coming here in the first place: to tell Neil the truth. "I'd have said yes." Her voice faltered but the cabin was quiet. There was no missing her words.
He smiled, then his eyes clouded over, wary of hope, "And now?"
"What do you mean?"
"If I were free – in a month, or a year, I don't know how long it takes. No, don't answer now. But know this: I will ask you. One day."
She was too shocked to move or speak.
The record crackled and went silent. They both turned toward it.
Free from his scrutiny she found the courage to speak, "I'll wait."
He turned, his expression nothing but surprise. Then a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and a moment later he was grinning, whipping her up into his arms and holding her tight.
Her feet barely touched the floor but had no desire to leave. She held on to him, let her head rest on his shoulder. Neither spoke or moved. Another kiss was tempting and terrifying at once. Leaving seemed impossible.
Christy loosened her grip and he let her slip away. He nodded in reply to her soft-spoken goodbye. This was so much to take in. He had to find Margaret before she left for Atlanta. Within minutes he was on his way to El Pano, urging Charlie on with his heels.