And now you're stuck with me.
He sighed heavily in relief.
He reminded himself once more.
Cassie… not Megan.
“This has been very sudden for both of us, I think, Cassie. At least, it was for me.” He still would have to tread carefully.
“So, where do we go from here?” He had lost his doctor’s hat for a few moments, and was putting her in control.
He knew where he wanted it to go, now that those intervening years of them being separated from each other, had gone.
“You mean, after you see to this embarrassing problem that I got myself into?”
Oh, that? He’d forgotten for a moment.
He smiled, sympathetically. “You shouldn’t see it that way. Why don’t we regard it as a fortuitous accident that brought us together at last? I’m not judging you, I’m just so happy that I get to meet you at last, even like this, and that you are the Cassie I didn’t know about, for a few moments, rather than the Megan, that I did.”
He was being delicate about it, but he couldn’t just blurt out his feelings for her. Not this soon.
She made it easier for him. “It’s easy for you to say, Malcolm. You’re not the one that’s naked.” She was torturing herself, but began to realise that she was beating a dead horse, worrying about it. It wouldn’t change for some time, because it couldn’t.
She closed her eyes. “Ignore me, Malcolm. How could I not be embarrassed?”
He liked the way she was able to use his name easily now. “I can’t ignore you, and I don’t want you to be embarrassed. You have no idea how much I dreamed of… so much wanted… to see you like this, how much I wanted us to be naked, like this, together.” She opened her eyes and looked at him in a startled way.
“I did. I honestly did. I never knew it would happen as suddenly as this, or in this way, even though we are not… that way… together. I’m sorry if I shock you, but that’s what…”
She put a hand over his to stop him.
“Thank you for being honest, if shocking. So, as there is nothing I can do about it, I’ll just have to ignore it and let you get on with it, won’t I? But what about after this?”
Her mind was clearer than his, but she was thinking in the same way that he was.
“After this? We have a lot of ground to catch up on, you and I. Let’s go one step at a time, but I think it’s safe to say that I don’t ever want to see you go out of my life again.”
She needed to hear that.
He leaned in and kissed her gently on the end of her nose, setting her heart racing, and a flood of sudden warmth into hidden places. Places that would no longer be so well hidden in such a little time.
“After this, you and I will have a lot to talk about, and a lot to catch up on.”
It sounded good to her. It was so open-ended and vague.
“Why don’t you get me fixed up, first, Malcolm. We can talk, as you do that, and we can tell each other about all of the things we never got chance to talk about, that we learned about each other. Although… even though we never physically met until now, we did learn so much about each other. I am sure you remember all of those little things that we shared in the background, at a distance, and that your mother tolerated. She knew I had a crush on you.”
She was trying to take her mind off the moment, coming to grips again, with what she was learning about him.
He kissed her nose again. He’d better not do anything more adventurous than that just yet.
“I remember them all, clearly. Good. We’ll talk. And for your information... I will carry the memory of this day to my grave. I shall be forever grateful to you. You are an exceptionally beautiful woman… though I already knew that you would have to be, and I feel so very privileged to be here now, helping you with this.”
He tried to put his mind back to what he was doing.
“You were wise not to call the ambulance.” He paused in what he was doing. “Thank you for letting me be the one to take care of you. At least no one else needs to learn of this.”
She tried to smile at him. “Thank you for those kind words, and that reassurance. I was so very nervous about calling anyone. I tried to get your father. I didn’t know you were practicing here, though I should have guessed, considering what your mother said in her letters. I became even more nervous when I heard the voice of a younger man—you— on the phone, and knew it was going to be you attending to me, and with me, here… the way I am.”
Naked and so vulnerable...? Yes, it would nag at her.
“How much worse could it possibly have been?”
It could have been a lot worse if she’d got even more of a sunburn, or if those hooks had dug in even deeper. He wasn’t complaining. This was getting better all of the time, despite her difficulty with this problem.
She wasn’t vulnerable nearly as much as he was, but she wouldn’t see it that way… she was the one, naked.
He continued working as they distracted each other from all but the important things. Some things, it was hard to be distracted from; her body, and his working so close to everything that would always tempt him, and there was nothing either of them could do about it until he’d finished.
She was turning out to be everything he’d ever imagined, or had ever wanted.
He picked up, on her earlier comment to keep the flow of conversation going.
“I noticed your hesitation when I answered the phone.”
He’d seen that name… Meg… and had put her apparent hesitation, down to her displeasure at the way he had previously dealt with her; at arm’s length, and remote, but that was what it had to be... then.
He paused again as he looked at her. “So… we get to meet properly at last, Cassie. I am so glad of that. And I am very pleased to meet you at last, too, despite... this.” He touched her gently by her face in a soft caress. Don’t worry, this will soon be over, and then we will be able to look back on it and smile.”
He seemed to be doing and saying all of the right things, for once.
“I knew a lot about you, of course, living under the same roof as we were for those first few weeks and months, but it was all learned so gradually as we discovered how we could work around my mother.
“I suppose I can tell you now, that you were my first love. One never gets over that feeling... I’m glad to say.”
She was happy just to listen.
“You left a journal at the breakfast table one morning after you’d gone to school. I was curious, so I opened it. I saw a few of your poems, some prose, and your drawings too. I left a photograph in there for you (I agonized over doing that), and I added a few touches… not too obviously... a star, here, an approving ‘check mark’, there. I know that you saw them. I hope you didn’t mind. I don’t think you did, because you didn’t erase them, and your journal was left there again, many times after that. Do you still have it?”
She smiled and was still blushing, as she nodded.
“I have everything of that time. I knew you’d seen it and read it. I was so nervous what you thought. I so needed your approval, as well as your interest. No one had ever been interested in me so obviously before, except in the wrong way.”
Which was why she had swum across the lake.
“Cassie. Cassie.” He touched her by her face again. “Don’t beat yourself up over this. You weren’t the only one with a crush. I told you, you were my first love… nothing can ever take those feelings away from us. I wasn’t going to close that door between us. I always intended to open it wider, if I could. I needed that first contact. It was strangely exciting. It seemed to be our one, solid linkage with each other. You drew really well. I remember seeing a drawing of a youth sprawled, face-down, across his bed. Among others.” It had obviously been him. He’d put two stars beside it. He’d approved.
It had meant so much to her.
“I was thirteen. I didn’t have just a minor ‘crush’ on you… I had a terrible, terrible crush on you, as I am sure many girls did, so I drew, and wrote poetry; wrote love letters to a mystical lover—in private (him) —as some girls do. I fantasized.”
Just as he had.
“If you’d grown up where I had, you’d fantasize too, about what life could be like. Your mother was good for me that way, always encouraging me to strike out and find out what it was that I was good at, and what I wanted to do.”
Cassie kept the conversation flowing in her fading nervousness. “I couldn’t help but be curious about you too. I had no brothers, so I adopted you, at a distance.”
“Thank you. As I adopted you, I suppose. A new sister. So, you had a terrible, terrible crush on me, and I was, as I think I told you (if he had), half in love with you at the time, my first love, without knowing anything much about you; who you were… anything… except for that one name… Cassie.”
He hadn’t actually told her that she’d been his first love until now, but it was nice to know. He thought her beautiful… she was his first love. He was still in love with her... she knew what she’d seen. Everything she was learning, was empowering.
“There was also that journal; books you left for me, as well as those little origami figures, and I remembered that you’d swum across the lake one night and would now be living with us, but I didn’t know what you were escaping from, or that you had a twin sister over here.”
Another fishhook rattled into the tray. She hadn’t felt it, ‘go’.
“I think my mother would really have adopted you too, if she could have done, except your own family might have objected.
“She spoke of you all of the time. She still does. She still thinks of you as a daughter she would happily have raised. Those were good memories for her. And for me. You were there for her after I left.”
She noticed that he’d gently teased another few hooks out of her as they’d talked. They hadn’t been very deep… barely started.
He paused. “This is going to be a longish process. Tell me if you need a break. Why don’t we ask each other a question, if you like, between each hook, as you get your breath?”
…and as I try to get my roguish excitement under control at now knowing who you are, along with all of the unspoken promises we seem to have made each other at a distance. And with your naked body to contend with.
“There are eight fishhooks in this tray so far, so why don’t you continue with the questions, while I clean up around the next batch of hooks I’ll be dealing with. Ask anything. I’ll tell you.”
She gave some thought to it. There were some questions she’d never dare to ask him… just yet.