Second Time Around

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This short story takes place after Can’t Buy Me Love

Dougal Jamieson was the first to admit that he wasn’t every woman’s cup of tea. By the time he’d hit his sixties, he’d sailed past the fit physique of his youth, bid farewell to the dad bod of his middle years, and was now firmly in Santa territory. Aye—he patted his stomach, which more resembled a beer barrel than a six-pack—he’d definitely passed his prime.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t take pride in his appearance. Which he did, every day. His silver-gray hair was neat and tidy, his  trimmed beard shone a gleaming white, and he chose his clothes for flair and fit—rather than mature restraint. He’d never understood why the joy of clothing was only reserved for the young.

Which was why, on a quiet Tuesday evening in the middle of a warm Scottish summer, he was dressed in a lemon shirt, a pale blue Harris tweed waistcoat, and blue tartan trousers—with a fine yellow line running through them. Although he wasn’t averse to a bit of sparkle now and then, he thought this outfit debonair enough without it. 

“Why, Dougal,” Agnes Sinclair—no, McBride now she was married—said with a grin, “you’re looking dashing this evening. Got a hot date?”

As usual, Dougal’s look of reprimand was wasted on the woman. “And why would that be any of your business?”

“Hypocritical much? You constantly poke your nose into stuff that has nothing to do with you. So, ’fess up. What’s the occasion?”

This arguing was a new dynamic to their relationship. Something that’d arisen since Agnes resigned as his hotel manager and now helped out around the pub and hotel whenever the feeling took her. While he hated to admit it, their casual working relationship was far better than their formal one had ever been. In fact, they’d even formed a friendship of sorts. Of course, not the kind where he’d let her into all of his secrets.

“It’s necessary that I keep abreast of what’s going on around here,” he informed her. “Not only am I the mayor, unofficially of course, but there are certain folk in town who shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions without supervision.” He cast a glance over to the corner of the pub’s restaurant, where Josh McInnes was holding court with a handful of his fans. The singer was currently autographing various body parts. Dougal shook his head. “You’d better call his wife to come fetch him before he gets himself into trouble.”

“Auch, just let him have his fun,” Agnes said. “I’ll make sure he isn’t abducted or forced to sign anything that shouldn’t see the light of day in public.” She tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder. “Now, about that date of yours…”

“I’ll have you know that I’m meeting up with Margaret Campbell at the spa restaurant. We have town business to discuss. Not to mention, we need to talk about Knit or Die’s yarn bombing. What kind of example are they setting for the young ones when they keep covering public facilities in knitting?”

“Um, the kind where they show them there are healthy ways to protest?”

Dougal rolled his eyes. “Protest what? Half the time, we’ve no idea why they’re yarn bombing something. I’m no’ even sure they know!”

“There is that. Last week, they put knitted coats on all of the town’s bins. Were they protesting that we need more trash cans? Or were they making a comment about us having too much rubbish altogether? Or, were the bins just cold? It was a bit confusing.” Agnes shrugged. “But cute.”

“Aye, well, I’ll be having a wee word with Margaret about that episode too. Now”—he looked around the quiet room—“if there’s any problems, make sure and call me.”

“I think we’ll manage fine without you for a few hours. Anyway, the drunken riot isn’t scheduled until Friday.”

“Nobody likes a smart arse.” He tugged down his waistcoat, resisting the urge to ask her how he looked. “Mind and phone if you need me.”

She saluted him. “Make sure you enjoy your meeting.

With a frown in her direction, he headed for the door—just as one of Josh’s groupies whipped off her shirt for him to sign his name on her breast.

“I’ve got it,” Agnes called to him, coming out from behind the bar. “I promise to only use violence if there’s no other option.”

Fighting the instinct to cancel his evening and deal with matters himself, Dougal pushed through the door and out into the street facing the loch. The warm glow of the late evening sun bounced off the water, turning everything golden. Gulls swooped and glided beside the shore. And there was nary a cloud in the sky.

It was the perfect evening for wooing Widow Campbell.

***

“I don’t see why we had to meet here when we could easily have met at the pub like we usually do.” Margaret Campbell glanced around the beautiful dining room of the converted church that now housed the spa and restaurant.. All polished wood, soft lighting, and elegance—it was more the venue for a romantic dinner than a telling-off from the town’s mayor.

“I told you already”—Dougal smiled at her warmly—“it’s just easier for me to concentrate away from my business. Less interruptions.”

His smile made her stomach flutter like a schoolgirl’s. Over Dougal? A man she’d known, and clashed with, for years. A man who’d had a fling with one of her best friends. Okay, that was also years ago, but still…it gave pause. Her cheeks flushed. What was she thinking? That there might be some attraction between them?  Surely not. She was well past her use-by date. Although, if her daughter, Kirsty, heard her talking about herself like that, she’d get the lecture of the millennium. But the truth was, she hadn’t felt attractive in years. And she certainly hadn’t even looked at another man since her husband’s death…decades ago.

No, this strange reaction to Dougal was purely one last attempt by Mother Nature to use her waning hormones against her. Hormones. The bane of her life. But at least she could do something about them. She took out her phone and tapped out a reminder: Ask doctor if there’s a hormone replacement therapy that counteracts delusional thinking.

Reaching for her water glass, she forced herself to focus on the matter at hand instead of her wayward imagination. “What’s so important that you need to talk to me without the rest of the group?”

“We’ve got all evening to get to that.” Dougal picked up his menu. “Why don’t we order first? I hear the steak is delicious.” He leaned in to whisper, “Even better than at the pub, but don’t tell the owner.”

Margaret couldn’t help but chuckle. It was well known that Dougal’s hotel and pub was his baby, and he obsessed over them. But it was also well known that he wanted what was best for Invertary. Which was why he made an effort to support every business in town, both personally and in his role on the council.

“Steak sounds good,” she mused. “Although, the pork sounds wonderful too.”

“We could get both and share. No sense in missing out, is there?” His eyes sparkled at her, and she felt her cheeks warm.

Did he realize that sharing food was an intimacy? Although, her female friends sometimes pilfered chips off her plate. Was he just being friendly? They’d never really had that sort of relationship. Maybe she was reading too much into the situation. Argh! She was going to have an aneurism if she couldn’t stop overthinking everything.

“Whatever we order,” he said with forced seriousness, “we’d best make sure we leave room for dessert. Best part of the meal.”

“True,” she agreed.

After a pause, Dougal said, “Next time, we could just double up on dessert.” His tone was so casual that it took a moment for his words to sink in.

Margaret stilled, her eyes glued to the menu in her hand. Did he mean their next meeting? Or something else? Something more private.

Before she could ask, someone cleared their throat, and she looked up to find the restaurant’s chef grinning down at them.

“Slumming it?” Deke asked Dougal. Even in his chef’s whites, he still looked like he belonged in the military rather than the kitchen. He folded his muscular arms over his chest. “So what did we do to deserve this honor?”

Before he could get the wrong idea—or the right one; who the heck knew what was going on?—Margaret said, “We needed somewhere quiet to discuss council business.”

“Is that right?” Deke grinned.

His arched brows said he didn’t believe a word of it, which made her face heat even further. Instead of a confident woman in her twilight years, she felt like a schoolgirl caught behind the bike shed with her boyfriend. Her eyes shot to Dougal. Had she just thought the word boyfriend about a man in his sixties? Dear heavens above, she needed wine.

“Last I checked,” Deke said, “you weren’t on the council, Margaret.”

Dougal scowled at him, his white brows furrowing. “Knit or Die is an important group in our community; we often consult with them.”

And reprimand them, Margaret thought.

Deke made a point of looking around the room. “I don’t see the rest of the group. And my wife never mentioned a meeting.” His wife was the youngest member of Knit or Die, having joined the group around the time of their first-ever protest yarn bombing. She hadn’t been much of a knitter, but she was fair coming along.

“Margaret’s the leader of the group,” Dougal said, in that haughty tone he used to shut down dissent at the town meetings. “She’s more than capable of making decisions on behalf of her members.” He made them sound like a national union instead of a local craft group with fewer than ten members. “Now”—Dougal frowned—“are we getting to eat, or are you just going to interrogate us all evening?”

Deke rolled his eyes. “What do you want?”

“There’s nothing like good customer service to whet an appetite,” Dougal grumbled. “I’ll have the steak, medium-rare. And bring us a bottle of Shiraz. A good one. “

“A bottle of wine?” Margaret said. A glass, maybe, but a bottle? At a meeting?

Dougal flashed that dazzling smile again. “A couple of glasses of wine with our meal won’t do us any harm.”

“We don’t usually have alcohol at our meetings.” Did she sound flustered? She sure as heck felt it!

“We don’t usually have them over dinner either. Don’t worry, this is just a different kind of meeting.”

“I bet it is,” Deke muttered, smothering a grin.

Margaret stared at him for a moment as his meaning sunk in. “Oh!” She shot to her feet. “I’ll just visit the ladies’ room. Won’t be long.” And then she grabbed her handbag, with her phone inside, and ran.

***

“I think I’m on a date,” Margaret hissed into the phone as she sat in the toilet cubicle of the town’s swankiest restaurant.

“Wait a minute,” Shona McBride, one of her best friends and fellow member of Knit or Die, said. “Did you say date?”

“Aye.” She pressed a hand to her burning cheek.

“With Dougal?”

“Aye.”

Shona sucked in a breath. “We need the rest of the girls in on this.”

“No!” Margaret snapped, but it was already too late to stop Shona. Her finger must have been on the conference call button for their friends.

“I’m in the middle of watching Strictly Dancing,” Jean said by way of hello. “This had better be important.”

“It is,” Shona said at the same time as Margaret said, “It isn’t. Go back to your show.”

“What’s up?” Heather Donaldson’s voice joined the group.

“Nothing,” Margaret snapped.

“No’ nothing,” Shona spoke over her. “She’s on a date. With Dougal.”

There was a moment’s silence before they all spoke at once.

“I don’t know if it’s a date,” Margaret said.

“About time,” Heather said.

“Isn’t it exciting?” Shona said.

“Pray he’s discovered Viagra, or it’s going to be a bloody short date,” Jean muttered, making Margaret want to wash out her ears with soap.

“Forget it,” she said, regretting the call. The last thing she needed was to have her life decided by group vote. “I don’t need any input. I’m sure it’s just my hormones talking.”

“Rubbish,” Heather said. “That man has had his eye on you for years.”

“It’s true,” Jean said. “Even during our fling, he was always talking about you. It’s a good job I’m not the jealous type and that I never wanted anything more than a roll in the heather.”

“Hay,” Shona corrected. “The saying is ‘roll in the hay.’”

“This is Scotland,” Jean replied. “We roll in heather. Even though that stuff could scratch your backside raw.”

“Could we focus?” Heather called out over everyone else. “We need to help Margaret. Now, tell us what’s going on?”

“Well,” Margaret said into the silence. “I’m hiding in the toilet of the spa restaurant, talking to you idiots.”

“Apart from that,” Shona said.

Margaret heaved a sigh, her eyes on the plain blue skirt covering her knees. If she’d known this was a date, she wouldn’t have worn that skirt. She’d have worn the green dress that her lingerie designer daughter had given her, the one that brought out the green in her eyes.

“Margaret!” Shona snapped.

“He ordered a bottle of good wine,” Margaret blurted. “Said we needed to leave room for dessert and that we could share our mains. And he’s wearing his favorite waistcoat.”

“It’s a date,” Shona pronounced.

“Date,” Jean said. “Now can I get back to my show?”

“I don’t know if I want to be on a date,” Margaret whined.

“Honey.” Heather’s voice was soft. “The fact you know it’s his favorite waistcoat says otherwise.”

There was silence.

“I still love my Colin,” Margaret confessed quietly. Even after so many years, the ache of losing her husband was a dull throb within her. One that never relented.

“And you always will.” Heather sounded choked, the understanding making her words heavy. She’d lost her husband only a few years earlier, and the wound was still very raw. “But this could be another chance at loving somebody. Somebody just for you. Do you want to miss out on that just because you’re scared?”

Heather had cut to the heart of the matter. She was terrified of making a terrible mistake, of being hurt, of being vulnerable again—of losing someone else.

“I don’t remember how to do this,” she whispered, knowing if her friends had been there, they would have wrapped her in hugs.

“It’s easy,” Jean said, missing the point entirely, as usual. “You let him pay, you don’t offer it up on the first date, and you laugh at his jokes. Oh, and you get access to the hotel store cupboards, which means mini shampoos all around again!”

Everyone burst out laughing, and the tension inside Margaret evaporated, only to be replaced with an effervescent anticipation that she hadn’t felt since her youth.

“What if we’re reading this all wrong, and this isn’t a date?” She pressed her palm to her roiling stomach as she spoke.

“There’s only one way to find out the truth,” Shona said. “You need to ask the man.”

“Aye, that’s what I was worried about.” Margaret was either about to step onto a path she hadn’t anticipated taking, or she was going to end up with egg on her face.

“Can I watch my show now? It’s the salsa. That’s my favorite dance.”

“Aye,” Margaret said. “I can’t stay in the toilet all night anyway. It will just make Dougal wonder what I’m doing in here.”

“And no good can come of that line of thinking,” Shona said.

“No.” Margaret shared goodbyes with her friends, who wished her luck, then she tidied her hair, took a deep breath, and headed back into the restaurant. Her stomach dancing around inside of her, and fear making her palms sweat. But she straightened her spine and strode confidently toward the man waiting for her. It was time to find out what was really going on.

***

For a minute there, Dougal thought Margaret must have cottoned on to his attempt to woo her and had run for the back door. Relief swept through him when he saw her swaying back through the tables. The way she walked was so sensual that it made it look like she was slowly dancing toward him. He swallowed hard and tried to look like his thoughts were purely innocent. The last thing he wanted to do was scare her away. No, instead, he hoped to gently herd her into a relationship. His hope was that she’d be knee-deep in it before she realized what was happening and, therefore, less likely to reject him.

As she sat back down, he poured her some wine without commenting on how long she’d been gone. “I’ve been toying with the idea of getting this wine for the pub; tell me what you think.” He smiled at her, stunned again by just how pretty she was.

Her green eyes always seemed to sparkle, and the laugh lines at their edges made him want to grin at her to see if she’d grin back. He loved her curves, and the way she was letting her red hair turn white in streaks made her look exotic. Aye, Margaret Campbell had always been a looker. He should never have waited so long to court her, but then, she’d always seemed focused inward on her memories of her husband. It was only in the past couple of years that he’d sensed her looking outward again, and hoped she might be ready to accept someone else into her heart.

Margaret reached for her wine glass and downed its contents, making him raise his eyebrows.

“I guess you like it then,” he said.

“What?” She looked at her glass as though only just registering that it’d had wine in it. “Um, I might need a second taste.” She put it down on the table in front of her.

As he reached for the bottle, she put a hand on his arm to halt him. For a second, it seemed like the world stopped moving, and there was only the two of them in it.

“Dougal,” she said softly before visibly swallowing, “is this a date?”

A sound of rushing water filled his ears as fear made his heart stop beating. He wet his suddenly dry lips. “And, if it is?”

“Then, I would like to be asked if I want to be on one.”

Damn. Dougal could feel his face heat and knew he now definitely looked like a ruddy-cheeked Santa Claus. He cleared his throat, but no words came out.

Her eyes softened. “Dougal,” she whispered, “ask me.”

He ran a hand down his beard, smoothing it before reaching for his glass of water. Aware of Margaret’s touch still burning through his shirt, where she gently held his forearm.

The water did nothing to soothe his dry throat; the words just didn’t want to come out. Because if they did, and she said no, his dream would be over. There would be no stealthy wooing of the woman who owned his heart.

She squeezed his arm. “Dougal?”

It was the small, reassuring smile that she gave him—the one that seemed just as nervous and unsure as he felt—that freed his tongue.

“Margaret Campbell, would you do me the honor of going on a date with me?” He glanced around at the restaurant before losing himself in her emerald green eyes. “I thought we might have dinner at the spa.”

Slowly, heart-meltingly so, her smile widened. “I’d love that,” she told him. “But, I have to know first, will there be wine?”

Her dancing eyes sent a wave of heartening warmth coursing through his body, and he slid his arm out from under her hold to entwine his fingers with hers. “Aye,” he said. “Wine so good, you won’t even notice you’re drinking it.”

And then they shared their first private, just for them, smile as a newly formed couple.

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