He'd been expecting a woman. Charlie had been kind enough to warn him of that even though he had been frustratingly vague with the remaining details. Standing on the porch of the old house he now understood why. Most people, the few who even bothered to come out this far, walked the last quarter mile to the house; there wasn’t much to recommend a road anymore, although he did have a mule and a cart sturdy enough to make the trek when he needed to. The drive was laborious and bumpy at best. Anyone who knew better left modern transportation behind when the road ended. MacKenzie, however, had insisted on making the drive.
He knows she must have gotten stuck at least a dozen times, the car bottoming out in every deep sunk rut, but she’s managed to make it somehow. The man with her, folded sourly into the passenger seat is streaked with mud, his jacket, missing a couple of buttons, hangs askance, but MacKenzie is spotless, dressed primly in a soft cream color.
He hasn’t left the porch to greet her but instead stands with one arm bent, hand on the brim of his hat as the wind kicks up. As she unfolds from the car he notices that her dress is fashionably slimming, but not in the usual way. He had expected a flapper, boyish and shrill, a no good scoundrel looking for a thrill out in the wilds of New York, not a socialite. The skirt is long, brushing the sides of her ankles, rippling incessantly in the breeze. The top half is boxy, long sleeved, but loose and shorter waisted than anything he’s seen or heard of in these parts, collared with an odd slanting overlapping lapel that sets off the swell of her breasts in a way he hasn’t seen in the last decade.
He stares unabashedly for a moment until she moves around to the other side of the car. The man, presumably the man meant to pick her up from the station, has started pulling bags from the back of the car. There’s a couple of suitcases, a large crate, the expected detritus of a trip up from the city, small bags, a couple of packages, but what surprises him is the birdcage.
It's oversized, necessitating an awkward shuffle as she wraps both arms around the metal slats to carry it. The driver offers to take it from her but she steps away, saying something that's lost in the rustling of the leaves. Despite the fact he can clearly see it's a birdcage, he’s not expecting there to be an actual bird. While birds had been popular when he was growing up, that had been years ago in the backwoods of Nebraska. Birds as pets had been falling out of fashion for years, hardly something a woman like MacKenzie could fail to notice. It's an oddity he's at a loss to explain. He would have expected a terrier perhaps, not the bright flash of yellow flitting nervously around the cage.
She whispers to the bird soothingly, stopping at the foot of the porch stairs to set the cage down before his feet.
“MacKenzie.” She holds out a hand, drawing in a deep steadying breath.
He nods, not bothering to return the formality. Being out here, he's gotten used to ignoring the finer points of social convention and with the rain coming on he's beginning to worry they're going to get stuck out here in a downpour.
“Charlie said you weren't much of a talker off the air. I don't mind. I suppose I can talk enough for the both of us.” He waits and she continues.“I should call Charlie and let him know that I’ve made it all right.” She sounds less breathy now, more self-possessed. She even manages to stop cooing at the bird long enough to grin at him warmly.
“You can write him a letter. I’ll post it for you next time I head into town. Or you’re welcome to get a ride back with your driver and send a telegram if you’re the impatient sort.” He returns her grin with one of his own, a teasing glimmer in his eye.
She refuses to acknowledge the note of well meaning amusement and glowers.
“I am not.” She says shifting the cage aside so that she can step closer to him and meet his eye. “a child, an imbecile, or otherwise dim witted. I would appreciate it if you would show me the same respect you afford everyone else.”
“I am.” He assures her, but the glare remains. “Will McAvoy.” He holds out his hand. “I apologize if I’ve offended you ma’am. I only meant to have a bit of fun.”
She still looks perturbed, but the good old boy routine seems to have smoothed things over sufficiently as she reaches to clasp his hand. Her grip is firm, not the watery half-attempt he’s encountered from the few women bold enough to return the gesture. “MacKenzie McHale. Do you really go by Will? Charlie did mention your name of course, but meeting you now it doesn’t seem quite right. I hope you don’t mind Billy. It’s much more suitable don’t you think?”
He doesn’t, but he doesn’t argue least she keep chattering, because that’s what she’s doing now, chattering. He half listens as she carefully catalogs the trials of her journey. They hadn’t had any decent food after the train had left Utica and she’s famished she announces as they pass the kitchen. He continues on his way, up the backstairs.
Earlier, he had left her on the porch long enough to collect a few of the smaller packages. Now, he shoulders open the door to the room he’s intended to be hers and sets them on the bed. She steps through behind him, struggling to fit both her arms and the birdcage through the small doorway. Eventually he takes the cage from her, setting it on the small vanity he'd fashioned from an old desk he’d had in the living room.
“No.” She’s still standing where he'd left her. Without the birdcage in the way she has a proper view of the room and it isn’t to her liking. My clothes won’t fit in there,” she jabs a finger at the dresser tucked under the eves. “And where am I supposed to unpack my books? I have a pair of crates being shipped up from New York next week."
He hasn’t touched the attic since he’s moved in. It’s empty and a bit dusty. She’s welcome to it and he tells her as much, a sentiment that only earns him another glare.
“There has to be another room.”
“The only other room up here is mine and it’s not much bigger.”
“But it is bigger.”
She disappears and he hears the door to his room swing open, hinges creaking. “It has a closet.”
He takes a deep breath, praying for patience as he makes his way down the hall. She’s standing in the doorway of his room, hands clasped excitedly before her.
“Can I have it? It has a closet.” She moans gleefully, fully abandoning any sense of propriety.
“Mine.” He says again, shortly. “My stuff. Mine. You’re welcome to store anything extra of yours in the attic.” He repeats the longer sentence slowly, hoping she might finally catch on.
She looks crestfallen but seems no less determined. “What about downstairs? There must be a room downstairs I can have. What with all this space. It’s glorious all this wilderness, isn’t it?”
“There’s the kitchen,” he ticks it off on his fingers, “currently and forever serving as a kitchen if you wish to eat. The dining room which was my workspace, soon to be ours. And then there’s the parlor, which isn’t yours.” He cuts in when he sees her start to open her mouth. “I’ve cleared off a couple of shelves. You’re welcome to them but the rest of the space is for company. We do get visitors out here in the wilderness.”
They’re a little over a mile from town as small as it might be, but this isn’t computing for her as she stares at him open mouthed. “I can’t entertain here. There’s no, there’s-”
“I’ve been managing just fine.”
She looks shocked. It takes a concerted effort not to smile as the reality of where she’s ended up begins to sink in. “I’ll go and fetch the rest of your stuff, unless you would rather hitch a ride back into town. There’s one more train leaving today. You should be able to catch it if you hurry.”
“I’ll do no such thing. I signed up for this.”
“This specifically?” He asks because he’s pretty sure whatever she had said to Charlie, whatever he had promised her, the details had been a little hazy.
“Of course. Not.” She amends gloomily. “I asked Charlie for an assignment something a little- it doesn’t matter. I didn’t want to be stuck in New York forever and I can’t exactly show up in London asking for a job. Nobody hires women not for jobs like this. I’m not cut out to be a teacher. I can’t add. I can’t- Charlie’s been so good to me and when I asked, I never thought I’d end up here stuck with an ungrateful piece of work.” She finishes sharply, staring at him levelly.
“You’re not the only one.” He tosses back easily. He’s still amused, but he’s beginning to feel a bit of sympathy for her. Charlie certainly could throw curve balls. “I never asked for an assistant let alone a partner.”
“Partner?” All the ire seems to drain from her as she turns the word over in her mind.
He shrugs. He knows a lot of people around here would take to the idea a lot less readily, but he’d grown up farming a bit of stubborn land. He didn’t harbor any illusions. Perhaps it was a bit outlandish for a place as tame as this, but he didn’t mind the old frontier thinking. He wasn’t about to relegate her to the roll of housekeeper. If Charlie had sent her here she was competent enough.
“Partner.” The word comes out firmly this time and for a moment he thinks she might feel like he was sassing her. She didn’t appear to take very well to being teased and he hopes she doesn’t think he can’t be serious.
Reaching some conclusion she smiles softly to herself and he finds that he’s relieved. He’s not entirely sure he should be, she’s already proved she’s going to be a handful, but he finds he doesn’t mind the thought of being duped as much as he should. Will McAvoy isn’t a sap, but MacKenzie isn’t any old woman either. He’s not about to confess to liking her, but he knows she’ll keep him on his toes. He’s missed that being out here on his own. “Does that mean you’re staying then? I was planning on finishing off the stale bread before raiding the pantry for whatever the mice have left alone. There might be some jello salad in the ice box.”
“Don’t ruin the moment, Billy.” She’s back to frowning but there’s a teasing glimmer in her eyes now.
“I’m serious about the ice box.”
“I know.” She sighs in resignation. “Charlie warned me about that.”
He laughs, surprised when she joins in. “He may have also mentioned that you’re a decent cook. I burn water.” She amends unabashed when he begins to give serious thought to suggesting that he’s far from well versed in the culinary arts. He’s cooked for Charlie a couple of times, but the man was hardly picky when the meal was accompanied by a good bourbon.
“I hope you like cowboy food then.” He tosses out, not at all surprised when she appears to find the idea romantic, her face lighting up. “I assume that means you would like a glass of water.”
“Only if you have running water. You do have running water, don’t you?”
There’s an anxious moment until he gives in and chuckles with a quick shake of his head. “It may run slow but it runs. Follow me. We’ll get you something to drink then see about getting you settled in before all the rain starts up. We’re in for a doozy with the weather as hot as it’s been. I hope you like a good storm.”