Darkening shadows from a setting sun confirmed the calculation: letter reading plus fence inspection equaled missed supper. With hands on hips, Scott stood in the courtyard pondering his path to forgiveness. Eyes, drifting to the right, studied the hacienda’s main entrance leading to the Great Room. A conversation with the Lancer patriarch would eventually be necessary, but not regarding his son’s absence at this evening’s meal table. Murdoch’s often expressed view that Scott's a big boy, he can take care of himself included daily nourishment. No, his father wasn’t the mountain lion when there was an empty chair at supper.
Eyes slid to the left toward the kitchen. It was Maria. The self-appointed mother hen of the Lancer children did not readily accept any excuse for missing one of her meals. Scott puffed out his cheeks and deflated them with a slow exhale. Turning, long strides carried him to the left. It was best to meet the Pots and Pans Warrior head on, a strategy which had shown limited success in the past.
Greeting Scott, the kitchen’s mouth-watering aromas paled under the steely glare of the woman who had created them. Spying within her reach a wooden spoon, Maria’s weapon of choice, the mealtime delinquent raised his hands in a voluntary surrender. “I know. I’m an ungrateful, thoughtless, too skinny niño who can't tell time.”
A brow raised with hopeful expectation that the list of short-comings had been quickly covered.
Squinting eyes dressed down the confessor as a nose, accustomed to the scents of savory sauces and spices, sniffed the air. “You smell like a cow.”
“I beg to differ.” With a slanted dip of his chin, Scott whiffed a sweat-stained armpit. “I believe it's a polecat.”
“Sí.” The laugh crinkles at the corners of Maria’s mouth betrayed its stern line. “Un turón flaco. I will fix you a plate.” A nod pointed toward a doorway off from the kitchen. “Go soak.” A wag of the finger posed a warning. “And be careful. I wish you not to be blasted through the gates of heaven.” Her verbal dislike of the bathhouse boiler and the unintentional comparison to Jupiter’s unfortunate travelers immediately washed regret over Maria’s face. She, too, had gained a few gray hairs during the days of not knowing.
“No blasts. No booms.” Scott stepped forward and, placing a hand on each of the woman’s shoulders, gently squeezed a hug. “No worries. I’m careful.”
“Sí.” A smile surfaced along with tears in the woman’s eyes. “But you're still skinny.”
“I promise to first take care of the stink and then the skinny.” Before leaving, Scott offered his own request. “Maria, if you see my little cousin, tell her not to wander off to bed until she and I have a discussion.”
The hacienda’s bathhouse was, at one time, a small stand-alone structure, but with gradual renovations had become a convenient yet private soaking sanctuary a few steps from the kitchen. Scott stood and admired the room’s most desirable feature: a tub. It wasn’t the craftsmanship of copper and polished wood trim that made the soaker popular. It was its length.
One of the benefits of having Murdoch Lancer for a father was the gentleman measured, as Kinsey put it, like a tall drink of water. Thus, the tub’s construction accommodated not only Murdoch's towering frame but also his oldest son’s long legs. Scott’s deep appreciation for a relaxing bath without the sensation of sitting in a tin cup never dimmed.
Maria’s hand-wringing stemmed from the room’s latest addition: a small free-standing boiler. Gone were the days of lugging heavy kettles from the kitchen or an outside fire pit to the tub. With a turn of a faucet handle, steamy water poured directly from the boiler to the copper soaker. However, the whisper-down-the-lane rumors of bathers naked to the tail meeting the Good Lord due to a faulty boiler were all Maria needed to hear. Truth be told, Scott willingly gambled on the odds of requiring herringbone breeches to enter heaven and chose the luxury of readily available hot water instead.
Stripped, he eased into the tub, lathered up, and stretched out in soapy euphoria. Peace and quiet soaked into his brain as his tired muscles soaked up -
“There you are!” The announcement of discovery came with a slammed door and an unexpected arrival.
“Whoa. Whoa. WHOA!” Scott slipped further down into the sudsy water at the sight of Kinsey’s unabashed entrance. “What in God’s name are you doing?”
“Maria said you wanted to talk to me.” Selecting a stool for her perch, the young lady’s innocent demeanor spoke of a wee lass respecting her elder’s wish for a conversation.
“Maria said it sounded important that I speak to you.”
“Get out now.”
A frown graced Kinsey’s face. “Scott, your tone. I detect mild tetchiness.” Further clarification demanded a lean forward from the stool to the bather. “It means -”
“I know what it means, young lady, and my irritation surpassed mild the second you sat down.”
“Have I done something wrong?”
“Let’s say I’m not the only one sitting in hot water at the moment. A situation we will further discuss once you leave and I finish my bath. Now go.”
“What situation? I’m simply at a loss.” The little cousin’s frown, which should have deepened with concern, slowly did a reversal to a soft smirk - a testimonial expression reflecting the metaphorical hot water she sat in versus the tangible hot water surrounding her captive audience.
Obviously, the young lady had no intention of budging until hell froze over… or bath… whichever came first. Scott reviewed his options: sit and discuss or stand and strangle. As tempting as the second choice was, modesty insisted on the first.
He called it The One-Two Punch, Kinsey’s abrupt verbal delivery to disrupt the direction of a discussion. The girl’s repertoire included How Extraordinary, I’m Sorry, Not Me and Bugger Off. Scott had caught on to his cousin’s ambush arbitration technique and began employing the strategy himself with a fair amount of satisfaction. However, this time around he guessed his opening One-Two Punch would have little impact.
As expected, Scott’s title of A Good Guesser held firm. “Lovely? Little one, you’ve only met her once. Briefly.”
“I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who once said: A right impression exceeds all.”
“Heart. A right heart exceeds all.”
“And therefore makes for a good impression.”
Scott considered a rebuttal, but it appeared the bath water would be the first to freeze over, not hell, if he didn’t get to the point. “You hardly know the woman, yet you invited her to your wedding and I think I know why. Kinsey, I don’t need assistance in negotiating the Maze of Marriage.”
“It’s the Labyrinth of Love.”
“I don’t care if it’s the Pilgrimage to a Privy. Meddling is meddling. And you, young lady” -Suds dripped off a pointed finger- “Will cease sticking your nose into my personal affairs.” Borrowing a mannerism from his little brother, Scott cocked his head with a lop-sided grin. “Maybe your best man would prefer the McGuire twins as his escorts.”
“A hussy on each arm?” A tsk of disapproval bounced the two aforementioned ladies off the guest list. “It would be like a fine first edition Emerson essay sandwich between Nunnery Tales and The Lustful Turk.”
“Excuse me?” An eyebrow raised at the little cousin’s ease of reciting titles from questionable publications.
Indignation countered. “I happen to take great pride in being well read and informed.”
“Right.” Scott’s slowly dissipating cover of foamy suds tabled a discussion on acceptable literature for proper young ladies.
“I simply want you to be happy.”
“And I am. And I’m happy you invited Emily.” Tetchiness was dissolving in time with the soap bubbles. “However, I prefer to make my own decisions. No more matchmaking. Understood?”
“Of course. No more matchmaking.” Kinsey’s hand gestured a crossing of her heart and then pointed skyward. “I promise.”
“Right.” Scott withheld judgment of the commitment’s validity, but not the temptation to deliver a final One-Two Punch. “By the way, I heard from Grandfather. He’ll be visiting us at the end of the month.”
“Oh, Scott! What extraordinary news!”
“Indeed. And he’ll have a travel companion.”
“How delightful! Who?”
Scott smiled. Sitting in lukewarm water was a fine trade-off in order to experience the satisfaction of a well-timed One-Two Punch.