One thing Scott had never felt with Margaret was uncomfortable. Tonight, however, with a dark story to tell, he felt crazy uncomfortable.
‘The menu looks good,’ Margaret said. ‘So many starters… Have you ever had a soft poached quail egg?’
Scott looked at her. ‘Menu talk’ had never been a part of the wit and repartee they’d shared. Laughing, joshing and talking until the stars faded into another day had been just a few of their many fortes. Discussing the finer points of garlic mushrooms versus the whisky-marinated salmon was not.
‘I messed up.’
Margaret put down her menu and met his gaze straight on. ‘Is this the part where I say, Yes, you did, or the part where I let you explain yourself?’
Scott smiled, giving in to the urge to brush the backs of his fingers across her freckly cheek. Damn, she was a beauty. She pulled back from his touch. A reminder she was no pushover. Quite the opposite, in fact. She was smart, courageous, unbelievably kind, and had not deserved to be treated the way he’d treated her. ‘I think we both know I owe you more than an explanation.’
Margaret raised her eyebrows.
‘First and foremost—’ he cleared his throat ‘—I owe you an apology.’
Margaret nodded, not lowering herself to asking for what. He appreciated that. Was grateful for it, actually. There were plenty of smokejumpers who’d bragged about the trails of broken hearts left in their wakes, laughing at the inevitable fallout. Exes who’d left their firefighting boyfriend’s clothes cut up in shreds, car tyres slashed, social media filled with public shaming. Margaret hadn’t done any of that. She’d sent him an email with one line in it: Message received.
Opening that email had flipped a wavering switch in his heart and plunged his world into darkness. Self-blame. Survivor’s guilt. The physical anguish of the burns that covered his back, his scalp and his face were nothing in comparison to how much it had hurt to tell her it was over. The charcoaled icing on a cake topping off two years of treating Margaret extremely poorly. He’d felt so useless. So incapable. Stuck in the burns ward after he’d seen everything he’d worked towards disappear in a flash. All he’d wanted was to do his job and to buy his girl a house. But at what cost? The life of his best friend. The shattering of his confidence. If only he’d had the strength—the courage—to reach out to her, he knew Margaret would’ve reminded him that four walls and a roof didn’t make a marriage. Two people in love did. He’d let his mother’s endless nagging at his father to get them out of their tiny council flat and into ‘somewhere proper’ colour his role as a man. He knew now that his role as a man was to respect and honour the woman he loved. Not push her to the side when he’d needed her most.
At the time he thought he was doing her a kindness. Saving her from having to care for him. What woman would want to devote herself to an utterly broken man? Seeing the core-deep hurt in her eyes told him he’d been little more than cruel.
‘No excuses, but as a way of explaining, I think it would be fair to say my ego took over my heart for a while there.’
‘You think?’ She waved the waiter away. Fair enough. He wasn’t hungry, either.
‘The smokejumper thing was… It was pure adrenaline. Macho, alpha male stuff. Me against a raging fire.’ Just tell her the truth. Tell her you were trying to make both of your dreams come true and that you failed at both.
‘My professional ambitions should never have outweighed my personal ones.’
‘And those were?’ Margaret asked after a moment’s silence.
‘Proving I wasn’t the man my father was.’