This section takes place before Ian and Rene get back on Monday afternoon. I'll have to make it all flow the right way in revisions one day.
On Sunday morning after the ball, Alys Winter woke up weary, achy, and thoroughly dissatisfied with herself. The ache manifested not in her bones but in a restless mental affliction which flared up whenever she considered her evening’s interactions with Malcolm. Things had been strained, and the strange discomfort kept insisting that she was somehow to blame. Melly would have quickly pinpointed the disturbance as pangs of conscience, but that kind of language was foreign to Alys (or anyone brought up in the circles of Carson Winter), and the malady grew acuter for being undiagnosed.
She couldn’t understand him. Malcolm was unusual, she would grant that. He was gentle and solemn and unfailingly courteous. Whenever he disagreed with something she’d said, he criticized ideas, not her personally. He was sweet to his mom and civil to his sisters, and it was the cutest thing ever to see the way he sheltered poor Melly from the big bad world, the innocent leading the innocent. But still, he was a man, and men were men. She was absolutely sure he wasn’t gay, and she was almost positive that he was attracted to her, so why didn’t he show it? There was this layer of formality that she couldn’t seem to budge; he always seemed to want to talk. And his kind of earnest talk was so disconcerting that although she wanted to be near him, she kept squirming away. Serious questions left her feeling unprotected. Alys would far rather have bared her body than her soul.
Her body was what was at stake here. She was waiting for some sign that Malcolm was serious about her. He was trying to go about everything backwards, trying to get her to commit to… She didn’t even know what he wanted her to commit to, but she definitely was not going to have a serious conversation about relationships until he showed that he really wanted her. It was exhausting to try and follow his opaque mental processes, but passion was a universal language. She needed some physical sign that he wasn’t just out to play mind games with her, to trap her into saying something incriminating that he could analyze and reject.
The more she thought about it, however, the more she felt at fault. Alys was a sophisticated woman, wise and discriminating in the ways of a man with a maiden. This undefined point in a relationship was awkward for anyone — goodness knew she herself didn’t like it — and Malcolm in particular was so reserved that without the right opportunity, he might never move on to the next stage. And now that she knew him better, she realized that she’d been putting the wrong kind of pressure on him. How could she have expected a sensitive man like him to respond to her in public, at the ball? She had gone about things too hastily, not giving him the kind of privacy he needed to let himself respond to her. Poor guy: it was likely that he’d barely touched a woman in his life, except his mother, sisters, and Melly, and they didn’t count. Why had she not helped him to be spontaneous? For being in the middle of nowhere, Stillwater seemed to be remarkably crowded. They’d barely had a moment alone except in their drives in Malcolm’s Morgan, and even that would have required the mood-killing formality of moving to the back seat. No, it was up to her to set the stage and remove every obstacle, to give him every chance to show how he felt without the constraint of every eye on the place freezing him back into a strict intellectual posture.
The contradiction of creating a perfectly staged opportunity for a spontaneous headlong dive into passion was not something Alys had considered deeply. Again, Melly would have found words for this kind of tension: “lead us not into temptation”. But that was more language that Alys didn’t comprehend. It would have sounded to her like something Malcolm would say in some attempt to nail her down to some cold moral position. If she could get him to relax enough to make the first move, the progression ought to be fairly simple. There was a way that relationships worked: first you had to establish a base of mutual desire, and once that had been acted on and a connection formed, only then did you move to the stage of discussion. The discussion was where people got hurt, where doubts were raised and insecurities revealed and rejection occurred. You needed that cushion of sexual attraction to soften the blows. Without that physical bond, there wasn’t even any point in talking about Us. There wasn’t even any Us up to that point, just two people and a concept which usually collapsed under the harsh light of interrogation.
And so, after an increasingly restless day of reflecting on the mistakes of the past and the perfections of the future, after casting a practiced eye around the living room of the cottage and testing the comfort of the chintz-covered couch and love seat, she sent an evening text to Malcolm: Ball+too many people= oddness. You+me+drinks at my place= evenness.
The post-ball malaise had afflicted Malcolm as well. Sunday had been a long chain of one-damn-thing-after-another cropping up to interrupt his constant replay of Malcolm and Alys Go To The Ball. His whole evening had been a comedy of errors, mostly unforced, underscored by the absurdist stylings of Ian and Rene. The only moment untainted with the faint sweat of ineffectualness was his small role in Melly’s triumph as Stillwater Queen. With Melly it was no matter of analysis and awkward gambits; dealing with her was a matter of instinct born of years of friendship. Conversely, every memory of his interaction with Alys was a fresh source of discomfiture. They had not been on the same wavelength once last night, and it was really his own fault. If only he had made the opportunity to just talk to her, somewhere quiet and out of the way where she didn’t feel the compulsion to perform for an audience. If they could just get their feelings out in the open, to discuss what they expected in a relationship and where they should go from here, if they could only come to an understanding, then they could really start moving forward and making plans. He felt so certain that she was the right woman for him, but feelings were such an uncertain guide. He wanted to find the real Alys, the genuine part of herself kept hidden away. He was almost positive she was attracted to him; why did she hold back? Why couldn’t she trust him? Right now he didn’t even know what she wanted from him. Was he a passing diversion? Was she serious? How did she see them as a couple? What about marriage? There was so much he didn’t know about her, so much ground they had to cover before he could know that they were even going in the right direction. And all the time he longed to let the gold of her hair pour over his fingers and to trace the curve of her chin up to the pretty swelling of her lower lip and… No! That was taking things in the wrong order! You couldn’t just fall into the physical side of a relationship without first establishing that there was a relationship. He wasn’t going to use her like that and make it all the more difficult to talk clearly and objectively. It was hard enough as it was to keep things aboveboard. She couldn’t know how she tempting she was, and he wasn’t going to insult her by insinuating that she was distracting him.
So when, weary with the cares of the day, he read Alys’s message, her siren song buzzed in his mind. This was it: she was ready! They were going to hammer out whether they had a future together! All the questions that had been simmering for weeks surged and jostled: their religious differences, their geographical differences, their social differences… Was it too early to talk about kids? Maybe that was rushing things. It might help Alys ease into serious discussion if he kept it light at first.
He replied: Evenness means only the pair of us?
Within a few seconds, the phone buzzed. Sure. Sent Ian to NYC, right? You coming?
The frantic flurry of activity in the large upstairs bedroom of the cottage was Alys digging through her dresser, making last-minute wardrobe alterations. Naturally she had chosen an outfit hours ago, but now she was reconsidering on strategic grounds. Malcolm was not someone who could be rushed; she needed to pull back a bit and ease him into the whole situation. Clearly the right choice was to switch out the sexy black lingerie for something a bit more virginal: white and lacy ought to do the trick, something pretty and enticing enough to draw him in without being so upfront as to throw him off. The dress was one which could either be unbuttoned or slid off, whichever he found more natural. One easy step after the next.
The knock at the door caught her still upstairs, pondering these steps. She swept the clothes from the bed into a drawer and kicked everything on the floor into the closet. Who knew? They might end up in this room, after all. Was the lamp on? The overhead off? The door left just ajar enough? Her measured pace down the stairs was as much for the purpose of calming her nerves as for giving him a few more seconds of anticipation out on the porch. It was okay. Everything was going to be fine. Tonight would go well, must go well. Together they would make it go well.
In the hall she paused long enough to settle her earrings and take a deep breath, then, with deliberately steadied hand, she pulled open the door and smiled up at Malcolm in the glow of the porch light.
“When you say ‘right now’, you mean it,” she said. A grave shake of her head set her earrings to dancing, sending shifting sparks of color chasing across her face. “Isn’t it some violation of the social contract not to be fashionably late? You’re going to make the rest of us look bad.”
“It would be hard to make you look bad,” said Malcolm, tossing a grin right back at her. That wasn’t what he’d meant to say, exactly. If he’d been on top of things, he ought to have made some witty remark about the social contract. But her smile and her tone were infectious, and anyway, it was true that she was always beautiful. Maybe he could tell her so later, if he didn’t sink into a morass of cliched banter. And if he ever stopped smiling like an idiot and walked inside. She was holding the door for him, just wide enough for him to pass through without quite brushing against her.
“I’m glad you came,” she said, motioning him to follow her into the kitchen. “You’re going to have to refresh my memory. Last night is kind of a blur for me. I remember crowds and dancing and Melly looking like a cherub, and Rene and Ian pulling some outrageous stunt, but I’ll tell you frankly: I couldn’t breathe most of the time. Is that part of the Spencer plan for world domination? To make everyone grateful for the comforts of modern life by sticking them in old-fashioned clothes and manners once a year? It worked.”
“Good,” he said, leaning against the a counter as Alys rummaged in the fridge for the variations on a cold one. “And what were you grateful for?”
“Cold beer.” She set one on the counter next to him. “Or would you prefer something more complicated? I can make a drink.”
“But you could have had a cold beer last night,” he said, opening the bottle. “You only would have had to muster up enough breath to make it to the bar. So you can’t say you were deprived of that modern comfort.”
“Air conditioning, then. Imagine dancing in those heavy dresses in the heat.”
“But you didn’t have to imagine it. We had air conditioning last night as well. What were you actually being deprived of, that you could be grateful for having it later?”
“The full use of my lungs. After all, what good is being poured into a corset if you can’t breathe enough to enjoy its effect?”
Innocent amusement shone in her face as she settled against the counter real estate right next to him, but Malcolm was trying to not reflect too much on the effect of Alys’s ice-blue gown last night. The companionable lack of elbow space seemed to work against him in this regard. Her arm rubbing against his was such a delightful sensation that he wanted to keep up the laughs in order to feel her next to him. His arm could slip easily behind her back, and she would move closer to him…
“Let’s go sit in the living room,” he said, breaking away from the counter with the sudden lurch of a man regaining his footing on a treacherous path. “We can talk more comfortably in there.”
Space in the cottage was at a premium, but even in the few short steps between the snug kitchen and the flower patch of a living room Alys was performing calculations at a furious rate. Malcolm’s sudden movement was not what she had been expecting — he’d seemed to be responding well to her in the kitchen — but he was so careful, perhaps he didn’t want to get started until they were settled somewhere more stable than leaning against the sink. He was sweet and tender and thought of things like that. A flash of warmth brightened her cheeks as she led the way through the living room and selected the corner of the settee nearest the window by the fireplace. Even the pallid prettiness of the floral and lace curtains could not mute the dying glow of daylight which stained the gold of her hair and conquered the aggressive innocence of the chintz upholstery and pale green floors.
Malcolm was not immune to the allure of Alys’s newly bronzed curls. It was just this enchantment which persuaded him to pick the armchair next to the settee instead of the cushion next to her. He needed to sit across from her. He needed to stick to the script, not be drawn off course by the pressure of her every movement. Studying her body might be less of a distraction if he could look into her eyes as they talked. Those eyes betrayed a hint of disappointment that he’d left her alone on the settee; he hoped he hadn’t hurt her feelings. But a second later her familiar cheer shone through.
“I don’t think I can sit enough after all that dancing last night,” she said, stretching out her leg and gently wiggling her toes. “My feet are still killing me.”
“Then why did you wear heels today?”
“That’s what I’m asking myself.” Alys kicked off her shoes and nudged them under the coffee table. “Oh, I like that much better. I wonder what ladies actually did wear to dances back in the day? I don’t know if anyone wore authentic shoes last night — I couldn’t even see any feet under all those skirts, and I wasn’t about to ask anyone to lift up her dress and show me since my accent had already flagged me as a graceless Yank. It’s like being the foreign ambassador. You have to be on your best behavior all the time.”
She propped her legs on the coffee table and absently massaged her poor abused feet. This was the sort of thing that Malcolm thought silly when his sisters did it after some party, but Alys flexed her calves and rubbed the arch of her foot with the balletic grace of a dancer warming up, her hair falling over her face.
“Maybe it would help to put inserts in your shoes.”
No. That was not what he’d meant to say. Why did he have to keep on about the shoes? Why couldn’t he tell her that she had pretty feet or something? He didn’t even want to talk about feet. He wanted to talk about Alys and Malcolm.
Alys must have been ready to put feet behind them too, because she laughed again as she rose, shaking out her stiffness by pacing a few quick steps to snap on a lamp.
“I can’t believe that of all the fascinating topics, we’ve settled on orthotic inserts! Does your shoe store pay you commission?”
She hitched up the other armchair right against his and nestled down with a small sigh of content.
“Tell me,” said Malcolm, throwing shoes to the wind, “did you enjoy yourself last night?”
“Oh sure. I’m never happier than when I’m squeezed in with 200 of my closest friends. Why do you ask?”
“Because I didn’t really. I wished we could have found some time to talk, and I thought you might have felt the same way.”
Alys made a little gesture with the hand resting on the joined arms of their chairs. “Ah, too bad you didn’t need a ladies’ maid to come help you send Melly forth. There must have been any number of quiet nooks upstairs.”
“But you know how Melly is. She hates being the center of attention and having people watching her. Anyway, she was so worked up that it was about all I could do to calm her down enough to walk down the staircase.”
“You should have given her a kiss for luck.”
“I did give her a little kiss on the forehead. Poor thing, she was almost paralyzed up there.”
Alys stared at him, blue eyes wide. “You gave her a kiss on the forehead? I would have wanted more than that to get me through if I were that scared.”
“But you wouldn’t have been scared.”
“I would have been if I were her. Think about it. Everyone’s always so snappish with Melly, but I would have expected you to be nicer.”
“A kiss on the forehead is so… clinical. I would have thought you could have offered the poor thing more comfort. Do you always have to be so reserved?”
She edged toward him to make her point more emphatically. Eye contact was becoming difficult at this close range. He sat back to think more clearly. Over the years he had questioned himself over his behavior on scores of issues, but dealing with Melly wasn’t among them. But surely Alys wouldn’t insist so strongly on it without good reason. She had a woman’s perspective, after all.
“You do seem to understand Melly better than just about anyone — most people don’t mind walking all over her because she’s shy and likes to keep in the background. I didn’t mean to be cold, but I guess could have been more encouraging.” He put a bit of silent analysis into his treatment of Melly. “What more do you think she would have wanted?”
“I’m not a mind reader. She seems perfectly happy with anything you do. I can only imagine what I would have wanted if it had been me.” Her voice had the husky timbre of speculation. “If I’d been in a dark hallway, scared and needing comfort, and you were there with me, I’d hope that you would break out of fraternal mode for once and offer me some stronger comfort than just a kiss on my forehead.”
Two realizations broke over Malcolm simultaneously: first, that this was as good as an admission that she really did have feelings for him; and second, that his gaze had drifted down from her face to her shoulders to her neck to the slight shadowy gape of her neckline as she leaned on her elbows over the arm of his chair. Quickly he looked back at her face, embarrassed to be caught ogling, but she seemed to be caught up in her own contemplation of stronger comforts. Her fingertips absently brushed his leg. He took her hands and for an instant her eyes flickered up to meet his.
“Malcolm…” she whispered. Her face, lit by twilight and lamp light, was as beautiful as he’d ever seen it. This was his moment.
“Alys…,” He drew a deep breath. “Where do you see us going from here?”
She slipped her hands out of his to tuck her hair back behind her ears.
“Well,” she said, and pushed out of her chair with a laugh, “I don’t know where you’re going, but I’m heading to the kitchen to make us drinks.”
Alys had enough self-possession to keep up the chatter while she mixed up a pitcher of margaritas, but she was badly shaken. What on earth had just happened? They had been close enough that she had felt his breath on her lips, and then he’d slammed on the brakes hard enough to make her head hurt. Was he just toying with her? That seemed hard to credit; he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who led women on, and anyway, it seemed pretty clear that he liked her. Without question he liked her dress, although he didn’t want her to know it — it was oddly charming the way he’d suddenly be all absorbed in studying something else if he felt he’d been caught out looking at her breasts or her hips.
But maybe he was worried that he’d offended her by looking? That would explain his suddenly awkward manner: the way he’d trailed after her in the kitchen, his stilted attempts to banter with her, the way he barely touched his margarita. Even now, there he was, tucked away in the far corner of the settee, as if he thought she wouldn’t want to be near him anymore. God, he was adorable.
She curled up with her back to him and rested her head on his shoulder. It was perfect, really; now he could check her out as much as he wanted without feeling self-conscious.
“Well, sir,” she said, topping off her drink from the pitcher on the coffee table, “now I have you in a corner, so you can stop running away from me.”
“Running away from you? I had the impression that you were running away from me.”
A little bit of guilt, a confession: these were what Alys had expected to hear. The ring of genuine surprise in Malcolm’s voice made her nervous. She gulped her margarita.
“That’s hardly fair. You can’t say I’m running away right now. Anyway, where would I go? There’s not much room in here to hide, you know. Maybe under the cushions? Or maybe I could sneak behind you.”
Malcolm yipped as a tickling arm snaked around his waist. There was a brief and shrieking tussle, in which Alys’s dress became inordinately disarrayed, brought to an end by Malcolm thumping her with a pillow and escaping to the armchair.
“There, now you are hiding behind the cushion. And you’ve gotten away from me again.”
“What? You’re the one who’s sitting over there now. Shall I bring you your glass?”
“No, I don’t want any more. And I don’t mean sitting somewhere else. I mean…,” Malcolm gathered up his meaning. “Every time I try to pin you down to anything, you slip out of it somehow.”
“Well, now! I think I’d remember if you tried to pin me down.”
Malcolm shoved out of his chair. “Okay, that’s exactly what I mean. We can’t seem to talk to each other.”
“Talk?” Alys settled the cushion back into place. “That’s all we’ve done all night, is talk.”
“It’s what we have not done. We’ve joked, we’ve gossiped, we’ve toasted, we’ve snaked around anything important. I just want to be close to you, but we’ve been at cross-purposes all night.” His sigh of frustration melted her. She got up too and wrapped her arms around him.
“I do want to be close to you! Malcolm, listen,” she said, speaking in his ear. “Maybe we’ve talked at cross purposes, so let’s not talk right now. I am close to you now.” Her fingers moved up his neck, into his hair. “Let me be close to you. Don’t run away this time.”
“I don’t want to run away. But I do want to understand you.”
“Now you’re trying to talk again. Don’t actions speak louder than words?”
“Words speak more clearly.” But he wasn’t really pushing her away, and she could tell he wanted her. She closed her eyes and brushed her cheek against his and, to her horror, hiccuped.
“Are you okay?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes, of course,” she protested, and hiccuped again.
Malcolm tried to gently disentwine her arms from around his neck. “Maybe you should sit down for a bit.”
“No, I’m fine, really,” she said, tightening her grip. “See, now you’re running again.”
He shook her loose and held her out by the shoulders as he gauged the margarita pitcher. “How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“I am not drunk. I just have the hiccups. It’s just a reflex.”
“Okay. Here, I’ll dump the rest of this out for you.”
“Malcolm, please, don’t use this as one more excuse. You said you wanted to talk. Let’s talk now.” Hiccup. Dammit.
But now he had the inexorably gentle manner of one talking to a recalcitrant child. “I’m sorry, Alys. I should have been paying more attention.”
“You should have been,” she said, grabbing at him, angry now. “I’ve been waiting here all night. Pay attention to me now.”
This time she riveted that attention with fierce, hot kisses. He was putting his hands on hers, he was going to respond to her, she had him, it would be all right…
“Good night, Alys,” he said, resettling her hands by her sides, and walked steadily to the door.
He kept walking, past the basement door of Stillwater, down the driveway past the library wing, past the west balconies, and on around the whole house, willing his mind and body to just calm down so he could go inside. Circling around the whole house twice gave him enough to walk into the basement family room, where he found Melly wheezing on the couch with an overflowing basket of crumpled tissues on the floor beside her. She snuffled out her amazement at his sudden and sweaty appearance.
“I went for a walk,” he said. “But first I went over to Alys’s.”
“Did you hab a nice tibe?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
Malcolm paced to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer, then stared at it and shoved it back in. Melly, who had nothing pressing to do that night but blow her nose, waited with patient endurance for an explanation, but for once his words were as clumsy as her own.
“She... she likes me, and I like her, but I don’t know the right way to talk to her. We can’t seem to connect on any deeper level. Maybe there’s not any connection to be made, and I’m just fooling myself. She’s funny and nice, but maybe she just can’t trust anyone after living with her uncle for so many years and soaking up his fake approach to reality. What do you think?”
This appeal from the blue caught Melly with a tissue to her face, and it was a moment before she could answer.
“You ought to know better than to ask me for relationship advice. But it could be that you and Alys were both up too late last night, and you’re just tired now.”
“I am tired. Last night was just bizarre.” He fought off the swift and stupid temptation to ask Melly whether she wished he’d given her something stronger than a kiss on the forehead last night. “I don’t seem to have the knack of dealing well with anyone lately. Maybe I should just go to bed.” He leaned over the back of the couch and patted her tangled hair. “Thanks.”
“For talking. Good night.” He stepped into the elevator.
Closing her eyes, Melly wondered how painful it would be to hear about the evening’s complications from Alys tomorrow.
At the moment Alys couldn’t have explained the evening to anyone. What had she done wrong? Everything had gone badly off-script. The margaritas had been a miscalculation, obviously. Had he really thought she was drunk? He must have actually seen drunk people before; he’d been to the seminary, and priests were always supposed to be sneaking the Communion wine. It was just like him to be a gentleman and not take advantage of her just when she’d finally given him full advantage, and she couldn’t decide whether to feel humiliated or flattered. Humiliatered. Flattiated. Shit, she was a little buzzed. No wonder he'd left in disgust
Ignoring the glassware still sitting in the living room, she slogged upstairs to get ready for bed. At least the floor of her room was clean. That was something she’d accomplished that evening, anyway, but now she was going to screw that up too by kicking her dress across the carpet. In the mirror, a pathetic creature dolled up in virginal lacy white underwear did the same, only her lips were trembling and her eyes were red. Alys banished the sight with a flick of the light switch, pulled her blanket over her head, and, hidden away from everyone, grieved into her pillow.
The cruelest month, a few days early
7 hours ago