"May I come in?"
I'm not sure how long I would have remained standing at the door staring at Mike if he hadn't asked to come inside, but his swift – and probably unconscious - perusal reminded me that I was not dressed for visitors.
"Umm, sure, I guess. Come in."
I stepped back after this lacklustre invitation and waited. Mike picked up on the atmosphere, I'm sure, but he stepped past me anyway. I managed not to lean out and check the hall to see if Mandy was loitering anywhere. I didn't want to know. Honest.
Mike looked around the room as if uncertain about his place in it; I was torn between dismay and pleasure that he was here. Am I miserably happy or happily miserable? The former, I think.
Just before the silence got embarrassing as well as awkward, I remembered my manners.
"Would you like something to drink? I was just having tea."
The unspoken 'and you interrupted me' hung in the air.
He dropped on to the sofa, moving my reading blanket as he did so. Feeling like a sulky teenager, I gritted my teeth and went to fetch another mug.
Usually I dislike conversational silences, but today I was willing to try one. I was sure Mike would get around to telling me why he's here soon enough.
I handed him his tea and, after only a moment's hesitation, seated myself back in my 'nest' at the other end of the sofa. I say 'other end' as if the sofa were huge, but there was only a small gap between us.
Mike put his too hot tea on the table, then leaned back and put his left arm along the back of the sofa. It brought his hand close to the back of my head.
"You left work early."
I gave a noncommittal grunt.
I'm surprised you noticed.
"Zak finished the handover for me. I had somewhere to be."
Mike's glance at my clothes and the blanket, followed by a raised eyebrow, made a liar out of me, but that simple lift of a brow was breaking my heart.
It made me ungracious.
"What do you want?"
"I wondered how you got on at your check-up today."
Typical. It was my check-up, but now I feel a rat for not including him. This was the first one I had gone to without him taking me.
Mike laughed without humour.
"That sounds scarily like the use of the word 'fine' in a sentence that begins with 'Nothing's wrong, I'm fine', that any man believes to be true at the risk of his manhood."
He had hit the nail right on the head and I only just managed to prevent a reluctant grin at being so perfectly sussed out. Damn him. I reminded myself to be mad at him with a mental picture of him being pawed on by Randy Mandy.
"You were busy; the Boss -"
Mike interrupted smoothly.
"Has been very good about letting me come with you. There was no retrieval scheduled, I was free for at least an hour."
I sipped my tea to give me time to think.
Mike's withdrawal the other day and his 'scene' with Mandy today made me wonder where I fitted into his life. Was he just being a really good friend, or was there something more for us? I'd lost my perspective now that I knew how I really felt about him. I can admit to myself that it was me that was trying to distance the two of us.
"What about Mandy?"
Mike frowned; not being a mind-reader, he hadn't followed the loop I'd taken.
"Mandy? What's -?"
He bit off what he had been about to say, to my annoyance, and his expression changed. For a fleeting moment I thought he'd looked speculative, but I must have misread him. In my defence I was distracted by the fact that he had shifted to face me on the sofa; his left hand propped up his head and his left leg moved so that his knee rested between us. It was difficult to drag my gaze away from the now tight crotch of his trousers. Even more scandalous, I think he was doing it deliberately.
"Mandy is quite misunderstood. She hides a shy personality under the brash exterior; I'm sure if she relaxed she'd have the pick of the men. She's warm and big-hearted; makes a man feel very welcome."
Oh, I bet she does. Like a piranha at a picnic.
I was seething, and trying to hide it. I clutched my mug up to my mouth, taking a gulp of tea to demonstrate my lack of concern about Mike's sex life. My new heart was getting a workout and thumped rapidly, causing an unpleasant fluttery feeling in my chest. I took a deep breath and tried for calm.
"That's nice. I'm really pleased for you."
My mouth dropped open.
Mike stood up. All humorous pretense dropped away from him; he looked serious and determined. I was shocked by the change, but also kinda impressed.
"Forget Mandy. Forget her sticky fingers, it was all nothing. She doesn't want me, she just wants my skill set. Now, get dressed in something you'd like to be seen out in, we've got a trip to make."
Curiosity got the better of me.
"Why? And where?"
Mike smiled at me.
"Why? Because I'm tired of waiting for you to figure it out. Where? Well, you'll just have to come with me to find out, won't you?"
It's amazing how quickly you can get dressed with the right motivation.
Foyle's heart leapt into his throat and his ears buzzed. Only Sam's hand on his arm lent any semblance of reality to the situation.
Both his heartbeat and the flow of time resumed; he could breathe again. He cleared his throat, and managed to place his hand over Sam's.
"Our engagement. Of course. That was precipitous of you, S...er, darling, you really should have let me speak to your father first."
Sam's joyful relief washed over him, and her smile was contagious. He felt his lips twitch in response despite the situation.
"Yes, I know. I'll try to do better in future." She was quite unabashed now that she had got her own way. "Shall I take them?"
Foyle had completely forgotten the fish, fresh from the river, still held in his left hand. He passed them to her.
"Please do, thank you."
Suddenly chipper, as only a narrow escape can make you, Sam looked at her newly designated fiancé with a smile.
"I'll make some fresh tea." She looked at the fish, "Ooh, what a marvellous catch, these are beauties."
Foyle was still in a lingering state of shock and, quite frankly, couldn't even remember how many fish he had caught, let alone whether they were beauties or not, but he managed a nod.
"Erm, yes, yes, they are."
Sam looked to her father.
"You'll stay for supper, won't you?
Foyle was acutely aware that he wanted to rub his forehead – hard – as he was wont to do in times of stress. He managed to keep his hands by his sides.
Oh dear Lord.
Was she deliberately prolonging this situation?
He dare not look at Sam's father until he had regained control over his own wayward emotions. Heaven knows what the other man was thinking.
"Thank you, Samantha, that would be very nice..." Reverend Stewart sighed with real regret; the fish did look rather splendid. "...but I do have to be at the station for the six o'clock train, or I shall miss the connecting bus at Littlehampton."
Reverend Stewart's tone was gently chiding, as only a parent can make it.
Sam looked apologetic, but Foyle was suddenly suspicious of her sincerity.
"Oh, bad luck, Father. Another time, perhaps?"
"That would be lovely, my dear."
Foyle, unbeknownst, now found himself experiencing the same sense of relief that Sam had been privy to moments earlier, but, unfortunately, his relaxation was premature.
"Might I have a word with you, Mr Foyle? Perhaps out in the garden?"
Foyle patted his pockets, almost nervously, and looked like a man who had picked the wrong day to give up smoking. Unable to avoid it any longer, he looked across to Sam's father, a man only ten years older than himself.
"Of course; and, er, um, please, call me Christopher."
Reverend Stewart nodded once, but did not offer Foyle the same courtesy. Both men headed out into the garden via the kitchen, where Sam was cleaning the fish. Although Foyle was unaware of it, her concerned gaze followed him out.
Despite Sam's worries about the imminent conversation in the garden, she could barely contain her excitement.
Christopher had not given her away as a liar to her father.
Sam wasn't certain what would happen after her father left, but she hadn't entirely thought through all of her master plan yet.
Seeing him standing at her door, with the fish that she was almost certain were an excuse to come and see her, she had been sorry that her father was here, as she would have preferred to ask Christopher in to join her for supper. However, when she had pulled the door close behind her, knowing that the back door was also open and would make the inner door bang shut, the concern that had leapt into dear Christopher's expression had made her realise that he was genuinely worried that she was in some difficulty. He had always been quite mindful of her welfare, but where there was mindful, where there was concern, there could be worry; relief from worry led to affection and then, having previously seen that look across the kitchen table, where there was interest, most hopefully, there would also be love. All this had occurred to her in an instant; all she needed to do now was to capitalise on the situation. She had told her father that she was working for Mr Foyle as his housekeeper, simply to enable her to remain in Hastings; the engagement had been a spur-of-the-moment outrageousness that had sprung from a single thought – what would Lily do in my shoes?
Lily would give Christopher a push in the right direction, which is what she had done. Hopefully, he wouldn't run in the opposite direction. Men could be so unpredictable if left to their own devices. What they needed, whether they were aware of it or not, was the right woman behind them. Or beside them, she amended.
Or, indeed, her traitorous thoughts suggested, underneath them.
"Yes, well..." She cleared her throat and pushed an errant piece of hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist.
"Phew, is it hot in here, or is it just me?"
If Sam was hot under the collar it was only fair, as Foyle was feeling the same way.
Typical of Sam, obviously hasn't thought this through. Now I have to face a man that I respect with less than the truth, which is not something I will enjoy.
Iain Stewart seemed content to wander up the garden, absently dead-heading a few flowers as he went. Foyle followed, waiting for the 'word' to begin. He felt like oddly like he had when facing Rosalind's father with the formal request for his daughter's hand, even though this time the situation wasn't real.
Finally the Reverend came to a halt. He appeared to be inspecting Sam's vegetable bed, but his attention obviously wasn't entirely focused there.
"When Samantha was born, I knew the day would come when a suitor would come to ask for her hand in marriage."
Foyle nodded, aware that no answer was expected of him yet.
"I promised myself, and my wife, that I would not rend him limb from limb for his audacity. It would not be his fault, for how could anyone not love such a wondrous creation, gifted to us within God's love?"
Foyle allowed a small smile to touch his lips. He had no daughter, but he could entirely sympathise with Sam's father's viewpoint. He would not be happy if his daughter's husband were nearly thirty years older than she was. He fully expected Iain Stewart to tell him that there was no chance on this earth that he would give his consent to an engagement. At least this way Sam would not have lost face after her reckless announcement. Bad luck, old chum, but no, you will not be marrying my daughter.
Foyle was unsettled to realise that he felt disappointed that his all-too-brief fake engagement was over. He made himself focus on Reverend Stewart again.
"I am tired of hearing the excuse that the War has changed everything, and that the new thinking will carry us forward into an era of change and call it progress."
"I'm all for progress, but not any expense. Many of the old ways and values are still important."
Iain Stewart turned and pinned Foyle with a firm eye.
"May I be frank?"
The Reverend pursed his lips and Foyle had no trouble imagining him in his pulpit, gently castigating his flock.
"When I imagined handing Samantha into the care of her husband, uppermost in my mind was the thought that he would care for her long after we had gone."
Foyle looked at the grass at his feet.
"Well, admirable sentiments, I can't argue with that."
Nor can I do anything about it. But neither could I prevent Rosalind from dying so young. There are no guarantees.
"Leaving that aside, there are many qualities you possess that I would seek to find in the man entrusted with the care of my daughter's happiness. You are steadfast, even in the face of adversity, honourable, intelligent, compassionate, kind..."
Foyle didn't feel too honourable right now, but he was puzzled as to where this was going. It was the oddest 'no' he had ever come across.
Why doesn't he mention 'love' in this equation? Sam deserves to love and be loved.
Reverend Stewart didn't seem to expect a response.
"...that said, I have to say that it goes against my instincts to give my blessing to a match between you and Samantha."
Foyle pursed his lips.
Ah. That's it then, I'm off the hook.
Funny, I thought I'd be more relieved.
He turned back towards the house, unwilling to let Sam's father see his expression. He was annoyed at Stewart's high handed take on Sam's wishes; he hadn't even mentioned Sam's happiness, he had just said 'no'.
"I can't say I'm surprised, or that I'm not disappointed, but I do understand your position."
Foyle could see Sam standing at the window by the kitchen sink, probably still cleaning the fish. He sighed, unaware that he had done so, before turning back to the older man.
"However, with respect, I think anyone who cared about Sam's happiness would put her wishes first, not their own. I grant you that I consider myself too old for Sam, but she doesn't seem to see it that way. She is young, but she has lived through difficult times that have given her a maturity beyond her years. She knows her own mind, and although she tends to be impulsive, it is always with the best of intentions."
He regarded the silent Vicar with a polite calm he didn't feel.
"I'll inform Sam of your decision, naturally, but I will abide by her decision. If she still wishes to marry, then so be it, with or without your blessing."
The little voice in Foyle's head was asking him what the hell he was doing. He was nicely off the hook and now he was trying to hang himself back up.
He turned back towards the house again, but he'd only taken a few steps before Reverend Stewart's voice halted him.
"Mr Foyle – Christopher, please wait a moment."
Stewart moved to his side, and Foyle was surprised by the warmth he could see in the other man's expression.
"Forgive me for not making myself clearer a moment ago. While it does go against my instincts to give you and my daughter my blessing, we were not put on Earth to live by instinct alone. The good Lord gave us free will, and the ability to reason. I may not completely agree with my daughter's choice of husband, but I have no desire to prevent her making that choice if she is sure that it is the right one."
Foyle couldn't contain his surprise. Both eyebrows lifted.
Reverend Stewart smiled.
"While I sincerely hope some of your sense rubs off on Samantha, I'm surprised to see that some of her rebelliousness has rubbed off on you."
Foyle's lips twitched.
Reverend Stewart moved back up the garden towards the house and Foyle turned to accompany him.
"But it is reassuring to know that you love her, too."
Foyle stopped dead in his tracks.
What the hell had Sam said to her father?