Charlie Lodge had just finished checking the air pressure in his trailer's tires when he heard Margit arrive. He didn't have to see her to recognize her; the distinctive no-nonsense stride gave her away immediately, even if it did sound like she had exchanged her usual businesslike heels for something a bit more suited to frolicking in the woods and on the beach.
He raised his head and took her in. He'd been right about the shoes, and the accompanying tweeds were quite suited to outdoor recreation. It was an auspicious sign.
"Miss Agnew!" he called. "Nine o'clock on the dot, of course. Isn't it a lovely morning?"
She came to a stop a few feet in front of him. "Mr. Lodge. Yes, the weather is quite fine." She sounded as if the sky had personally insulted her by being clear and sunny.
"You are still available today? No pressing dressmaking engagements? I suppose if I had to, I could spend the day dreaming about Irene..."
"No!" she all but shouted. Rather huffily, she composed herself and continued, "I remember the terms of our agreement. I've cleared my schedule until dinnertime."
"Wonderful." With a flourish, he opened the door of his roadster. Margit peered into the car and, apparently finding its condition acceptable, gingerly settled herself in the passenger seat.
He darted around the front of the car and slid behind the wheel. Over the dull roar of the engine starting, he said, "Unless you have a preference, Margit—may I call you Margit?"
"If you must."
"I must. Unless you have a preference, I think the beach should be our first stop; the morning light is always best on a beach."
"It makes no difference to me." Criminals being marched to the gallows had sounded less resigned than she did.
Smiling to himself, Charlie turned out of the alley beside Spike's and headed for the ocean.
"I hope you wore a bathing costume under that outfit," he said when they arrived at the beach. The ocean was still a little chilly even in June, but the warm weather was perfect for lounging on the sand in the wonderful short, sleeveless things women wore nowadays.
"As I recall, you planned to paint a picture of my head. I don't see why it should matter to you what I'm wearing."
"Well, as I would think you'd know, being a dressmaker, clothes make the man. Or woman, in this case. How can you really appreciate a summer day at the sea without a bathing suit?"
"I believe I can manage."
He hadn't really expected to get anywhere with that line of inquiry, and so he dropped it without too much regret. "Well, I certainly can't let a beach pass without digging my toes into the sand."
He dropped to the ground, heedless of the sand that would collect on his trousers, and began untying his shoes. He stripped off his socks and stuffed them in the toes before tying his shoelaces together so he could hang the shoes around his neck. Standing up again, he looked at Margit, who remained resolutely shod.
"Shall we?" he asked, holding out his arm. She glanced down her ski jump of a nose at it, leaning away slightly.
"Shouldn't you bring your supplies? Canvas, paints, all that?"
He shook his head. "The most important part is deciding exactly which background will suit you best for the portrait. I'll need to examine you from all angles to find the perfect fit. The supplies won't help with that."
Her raised eyebrow provided more commentary than a thousand words could, though he wished she would say them anyway. He smiled at her. "Closer to the water would be best, I think." He strode toward the sea.
The sensation of sinking his feet in the sun-warmed sand almost managed to drive thoughts of Margit out of his mind. He should really travel to the beach more often; he and his trailer had spent far too much time inland over the past year. He paused practically mid-step, wiggling his toes in the loose grains.
He turned his head to watch Margit, several steps behind him, mince across the sand. She was trying to keep the sand out of her brogues, and from the look of it wasn't succeeding. She noticed him staring, and sent a sour look his way. "By the end of the day, you'll owe me a new pair of nylons," she said.
"If I may suggest—"
"I know what you'll suggest, all right," she snapped, finally reaching his position on the beach. They were silent and still for a moment, both staring out at the waves. Finally, she sighed. "Eyes front and center, Mr. Lodge."
She placed her hand on his shoulder—O hosanna! he nearly cried aloud, delighting in the weight as she leaned against him, cataloguing the press of each single fingertip against his the crisp cotton of his shirt—and reached down to untie her left shoe. She wouldn't have done it had anyone else been on the beach, he knew, but for some reason, despite the fineness of the day, the beach was deserted, and they had the roar of the breaking waves and the shrieks of the seagulls all to themselves.
He cut his eyes sideways when he felt her finish taking off the other shoe. He knew better than to offer assistance in unclipping her nylons from their garter belt, but he was only being conscientious by making sure that in her precarious position, she didn't lose her balance and—
—he returned his gaze to the horizon.
Soon enough, she was barefoot, her shoes and stockings dangling awkwardly from her hands. He plucked them from her grip and arranged them as he'd done with his own earlier, tying the laces together and slinging them behind his neck to hang from his shoulders, bouncing merrily against his shoes. They made quite a pair, if he said so himself.
Margit kept up with him easily now as they crossed the rest of the sandy expanse to the water. He paused to roll his trousers up to the knee when they reached the damp, water-darkened sand, then continued on for a few more steps. A tiny wavelet, clouded with sea foam, lapped over his feet to the ankles; Margit, of course, had stopped just before the waterline, and remained perfectly dry.
"Here?" she asked.
"Hmm? Ah." Truth be told, he'd entirely forgotten his stated purpose of finding the right background for his portrait. "Yes, this is an excellent spot."
"As long as the tide isn't coming in, anyway." She cast a doubtful eye over the waves breaking further out. He tried not to smile.
"How do you want me to...pose?"
He hadn't actually gotten that far in his thinking. Certainly a beach was always a pleasant backdrop, and the light breeze did play very fetchingly with her red curls, just as he'd imagined three days ago in the trailer, but as for how she would actually look...
He took several steps back, letting the waves wash almost to his knees, and framed her face with his hands to stall for time. She peered at him through his fingers, an expression halfway between curiosity and disdain sharpening her features. "I think it would be more mysterious if you looked not quite straight ahead, but a little to your right. Yes, yes, that's perfect." Not quite realizing it, he began walking back toward her. "Now, imagine you're a sailor's wife, and you're looking for a ship out on the sea."
She squinted, automatically bringing her hand up to shade her eyes. Before she reached her brow, he caught it, wrapping his fingers around hers and gently tugging the hand back to her side. She gave him a sharp look, but didn't pull her hand from his before he let go. "If you do that, I can't see your face."
"Hmph. I don't see how you expect me to find a ship if I have to stare into the sun."
"Forget the ship. And the husband."
"Some wife I am."
He chuckled. "I'm sure you'd make an excellent wife. Dinner on time every night, the ratio of gin and vermouth calibrated to the drop in the evening cocktail, pajamas laid out just so..." He shuddered at the thought. "Say, why haven't you married?"
She shrugged. "Never had the time, I suppose. Supporting Irene after our parents died, running the dress shop...this is the first workday I've spent at the beach since I was ten." She stiffened. "I thought you were telling me how to pose."
If he were a less patient man, he would've ground his teeth. Instead, he said, "Perhaps if you turn your back to the sea. It might make a better background than those scraggly trees back there. In fact—"
"I believe I can turn around under my own power, Mr. Lodge."
Ah. With a sheepish laugh, he slowly lifted his hands from where he had taken her shoulders to turn her the way he wanted. "Of course you can."
As she angled herself to look at the shore, he walked around to keep her face in view, a moon to her spinning Earth. She stood awkwardly, at once unsure of herself, modeling like this, and yet (he thought) flattered to be the recipient of such single-minded attention.
When they were married—for of course they would be married; he knew that Margit would one day be his wife with the same unshakeable certainty as he knew blue and yellow paint mixed together made green—when they were married, he would spend as much time as she would allow just watching the emotions play on her mutable face.
"Is this all right?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," he breathed. "It's absolutely perfect."