Finally, with dinner over, the dancing began. Winchester observed Margaret glancing longingly at the dance floor and when Gilbertson made no move to take her, he volunteered himself, remarking, "I seem to recall you used to enjoy dancing in Korea, Margaret. Would you do me the honor?"
"I'd love to, Charles. Michael is such a stick in the mud and refuses to dance. Thinks it makes him look silly."
"Why, that's a shame." Then addressing himself to Gilbertson, "Then if you don't mind my stealing your lovely companion for a few minutes?"
"Nah. Go ahead. Just don't get any ideas out there, and keep your hands where I can see them!" Charles couldn't tell whether this was an ill conceived attempt at jocularity or not, but ignored it and moved off with Margaret.
A waltz was playing, and they began to dance, Charles grateful the music was by a new composer and not one he knew well. "You know, Margaret, you've been quizzing me over the events in my life since you arrived, but have scarcely mentioned what's been happening with you."
"There's not much to tell. You already know I've been working in Portland. It breaks my heart sometimes to see children so young suffering so much, but I really do enjoy working with kids. All in all, I think I'm doing pretty well."
"Hmmm. What about this character you're here with? You can't really be serious about him."
"Michael? Oh, not really. I know you're thinking he's a terrible cad, with him calling you Chuck and everything, but he's really quite sweet when he wants to be." Margaret defended the man, while being secretly amused at the way Charles was aghast at her choice in male companionship. Really, it made her feel rather honored as she remembered him acting a similar way towards his sister, and she knew he wouldn't have concerned himself even to ask if he didn't care about her.
"Does that mean he is misinformed when he says you're attempting to convince him to marry you?" asked Charles.
"Attempting to convince him!" Margaret gave an unladylike snort. "Did he say that? Why I oughta go tell him a thing or two. If I wanted to marry him, he wouldn't have to be convinced, believe you me!"
"Oh, I do. I do." Now it was Charles' turn to be amused. "What reason could you possibly have for being with that lout anyway?"
"You may not believe it, but despite his swelled head, he's really not that bad. Besides, he's been a good diversion for me the past few months." The last was said almost as an afterthought, and Charles could practically see Margaret's mind leave the dance floor.
"A diversion from what? Or should I say from whom?"
"It's nothing important. Just something from my past who I should have left behind long before now."
They danced in silence for a few minutes, Charles pondering her words. 'Something who...' Obviously a man was the problem, and from her past. He'd gotten to know Margaret fairly well in Korea, and unless she was very skilled at keeping secrets there were only three men within the past five years that she'd had anything like a serious relationship with. And as he knew very well exactly what her feelings were on Frank Burns and Donald Penobscott, there was only one possibility left. "Margaret," he asked gently. "You wouldn't happen to be talking about one Benjamin Franklin Pierce, would you?"
She turned her head so he couldn't see her face. "I don't want to discuss it, Charles. Let's just dance."
So they did, but Winchester couldn't help but feel concerned. That last statement was tantamount to a confession that Pierce really was the problem. If the man had been callous enough to lead Margaret on when she meant nothing to him.... Yet, despite never having been one of his biggest fans, Winchester had been under the impression that Pierce had genuinely cared for her. And Margaret gave every indication of still being in love with the man. He recalled talking with Margaret at the end of the war and thinking it rather odd that she and Pierce had separated in the first place. Now it seemed even stranger. Charles cautioned himself about becoming involved in other people's relationships, but remembering what would have happened had Honoria not interfered in his own relationship with Isabelle, he decided it might just be worth it to do a little discreet meddling.
With Margaret there, Charles stayed at the reception for much longer than he had originally planned, long enough to come up with an idea. Before bidding Margaret good night, he put his plan into action. "You know Margaret, I was thinking...you've never been to Boston, have you?"
"Why no, I haven't. Why?"
"I thought perhaps you might like to pay me a visit, see the city. It really is a wonderful area, and we would have more of a chance to catch up than just these few hours have afforded us."
"I don't believe this! I'd love to come." Margaret was genuinely pleased by the invitation. "Just think of all the stories I'll have to tell your fiancÚ!"
"I'm not sure any of your stories could compare to the ones she already knows from my childhood," Charles asserted.
"Oh yeah? Remember the time we ate that rotten pheasant and you got sick and fainted in the OR? Or the time you were so drunk you thought you got married while on leave? How about that one?"
"Hmm, I'd forgotten about those. Perhaps we'd better just keep those little tales between us, shall we?" Charles belatedly realized that this little project could have some unforeseen side-effects. "Truthfully Margaret, I would love to have you visit me, and I know Isabelle would be very pleased to meet you as well. Will you come?"
"Of course I will! How could you think otherwise? When?" Margaret had no doubts about this.
"I was thinking possibly in a few weeks? I know it's soon, but if you could get the time off it would work nicely." Charles replied, hoping to set his plan into action as soon as possible.
"I'm not positive, but I don't see any reason why that wouldn't work. I've barely taken any time off in the past year, and I have some due me."
"Lovely, then I will call you in a week or so, and we can work out the details."
"Great!" Suddenly Margaret realized she wasn't entirely sure where her escort had gotten to. "Have you seen Michael? I got so busy with you that I completely forgot about him." She scanned the room anxiously. "Oh, there he is! I'd better go join him, but I'll talk to you soon." She started to move off.
"Oh Margaret?" She turned in response to his voice. "Just to make sure we're clear, that Gilbertson character of yours isn't invited."
She laughed. "Don't worry! He's sweet enough for me to accompany him on his business trips, but I'd never dream of bringing him along on my own vacation. Besides, he hates Boston."
"So long as we understand each other," said Winchester, and the two clasped hands in farewell.
Charles watched her walk off, feeling rather pleased with the way the evening had gone. First finding Margaret here when he had expected the whole to-do to be absolutely abysmal, and then the first stage of his newly conceived matchmaking plan had gone rather nicely. Clearly, this maniac she was accompanying was nothing more than a brief dalliance, and she still had feelings for Pierce. "Now," he murmured to himself, "if I can just get a few other things to fall into place." Mulling over the various nuances of his scheme, he headed back for his hotel room.
3 February 1955; Boston, Massachusetts & Mill Valley, California
The phone rang and Peg answered. "Hello."
"Yes, hello. Is this the Hunnicutt residence?"
"Yes it is. May I ask who's calling?"
"It is? Then I am correct in assuming you are Peg Hunnicutt?"
"I am. Who is this?"
"Let's just say I'm an old friend of your husband. Is he there, by any chance?"
"Just a moment..." Peg set the phone down and went to find her husband. "BJ, honey? There's a man on the phone who says he's an old friend, but he won't give his name."
BJ looked up from where he was reading Erin a bedtime story. "That's strange. You take over here, Peg, and I'll go take care of it." He walked into the kitchen where the phone was located and picked it up. "This is BJ Hunnicutt."
"Ah, Hunnicutt. I wasn't sure this number would go through. The operator was positively asinine and kept insisting that you had to have a real first name."
"Why I would recognize that pretentious tone anywhere! If it isn't Charles Emerson Winchester III! Has it ever been a long time since I've seen you!"
"And I've enjoyed every minute of it. Now, I trust I'm not interrupting any potty training sessions or anything else vital like that?"
"Not at all. In fact, since Erin's all through that now, you've got a while before you have to worry about it; Eric being barely in diapers in the first place."
"Ah yes, I'd heard you were expecting another little cherub. I take it then that it has arrived?"
"Yup. He got here about a month ago and is doing quite nicely, thanks for asking. But somehow I have a feeling you didn't call me just to find out about my family." By now BJ was getting downright curious. Somehow Charles was not the person he had expected to be on the other end of the line when he picked up the phone.
Charles cleared his throat. "Well, you see..."
"See what, Charles?"
Wondering internally if he was about to make a complete ass of himself, Charles began his story. "Well, about a month back I became engaged and this seems to have had the unexpected effect of making me develop a bit of a soft heart."
BJ couldn't help himself. He burst out laughing. "I do believe that's the funniest thing I've heard in weeks! Charles Emerson Winchester confessing to having a soft side! And you're engaged no less. Better watch out. Next thing you know you'll be describing the trials and tribulations of potty training to all your snooty Boston friends."
"Hunnicutt, I do not have a large supply of patience. Would you like to listen to what I have to say or are you going to continue making juvenile attempts at humor?" Charles was out of his element with this anyway, and BJ wasn't making it any easier.
BJ wiped the tears from his eyes, saying "I'm sorry Charles. It just struck me as a little comical to have you call me out of the blue one day and admit to being soft-hearted. I really do think it's great that you're engaged. And I promise you that when you have your own kids you'll find that they come with joys that more than make up for the diapers. Now what were you saying?"
"Yes, well. Have you talked to Pierce lately?"
"It's been a few weeks, but fairly recently. Why?"
"And how's he doing? Still living with his father in Maine?" Winchester attempted to probe around the issue without committing his purpose.
"Yeah, he's still in Crabapple Cove."
"Mm-hmm. And still the roving bachelor I assume?"
"Okay. That's it. What is with all the questions, Charles? Calling me to ask about Hawkeye's love life makes about as much sense as calling to ask about my kids' toilet habits."
Beginning to wish he had never conceived of this ridiculous plan, Charles gritted his teeth and plunged in. "I ran into Margaret Houlihan last week at a gathering for thoracic surgeons in Seattle. Before you ask, she was there accompanying her latest beau. Now, in talking to her I gathered that this particular man is nothing but a substitute for someone else."
As soon as Winchester mentioned Margaret, bells went off in BJ's head. He'd spent the past few weeks thinking about Hawkeye and what could be done to at least have him run into Margaret. He was fairly sure the two of them could work things out for themselves once they actually saw each other, but getting them in the same room was easier said than done, considering they currently lived on opposite sides of the continent. What if Winchester had the same idea? "Okay, you've got my attention. Keep talking."
"As we shared a tent for far too long, I know for a fact that you are aware of what went on between Houlihan and Pierce back at the 4077. What I want to know is what is going on with Pierce now."
"You know, it's strange that you should call now. Like I said, I talked with Hawkeye not too long ago, and the same thing's been on my mind ever since."
"You spoke with him about Margaret? What did he say?" Charles was getting warmed to his subject.
"Really, it's more like what he didn't say." BJ went on to recount the conversation he had had with Hawkeye and how he had gotten the feeling that Margaret was still very much on the other man's mind. He concluded by asking, "And you're saying that you think Margaret is still in love with Hawk?"
"That was the impression I got, yes."
"Now if that doesn't beat all. You called me to get my help in playing matchmaker!"
"I wouldn't phrase it quite so vulgarly. But yes, I suppose that's what it boils down to. Now, knowing Pierce better than I do, do you think it's a viable idea?"
"I think it's a great idea! The two of them may not want to admit it, but they're perfect for each other. The question is, how do we go about making them see that?"
"That is the dilemma, isn't it? I do have an idea that I'd hoped you might be able to lend a hand with."
"Sounds like you've given this some thought! So what's the plan?"
"Well you see, I've invited Margaret to visit me in Boston in a few weeks. No exact dates yet, as I wanted to consult with you first," Charles began.
"And that was mighty considerate of you," BJ popped in.
"Hmm, yes. As I was saying, if while she is here, you were to arrive in Boston as well..."
"Why Charles! Are you actually inviting me to your home? I'd be honored if I wasn't so shocked."
"Don't flatter yourself overly much, it's just a means to an end. Now, if you were to contact Pierce, telling him that you were going to be in Boston..."
"He would come down to see me and then we could get them to meet!" BJ finished the sentence for him.
"You took the words right out of my mouth," said Charles, slightly exasperated.
"I think that's a great plan! Now why didn't I think of that? Oh, I know. Maybe because I would have never in a million years pictured you going along with it," continued BJ.
"And now you know I would. Isn't that thrilling?" commented Winchester dryly. "But you are able to come?"
"I wouldn't miss this for the world. And hey, just think of all the fun things we'll have to tell your fiancÚ about you!"
Charles groaned. "Why is that the first thing that springs to mind for everyone?"
"I dunno. Must be your happy-go-lucky personality. So what excuse are you planning on giving for why we're all there?"
"Oh, I thought we could just pass it off as a coincidence. You're there, say to consult with the surgeons at Boston Mercy, and neither of us know anything about the affair,"
"Completely clueless, that's us!" chimed in Hunnicutt.
"Except in your case it won't be a pretense."
"Still the same old Charles. This oughta be fun." The two men talked for a few more minutes, working out the time frame and a few other logistics.
"Sounds good," commented BJ. "I just hope it works out."
"Oh, it will, don't worry. We Winchesters are masters at this, and we never fail."
"Don't tell me you've done this before?" BJ asked incredulously.
"No, but my sister has had some success in the matter," Winchester responded.
"Whatever you say. Really, I think it'll work out perfectly, Charles. I still can't believe you actually called me about this, but I guess that must be one amazing lady you're engaged to, you big softie, you."
"She is that. Now, if there isn't anything else, I will let you get back to your family. Good-bye." Charles hung up the phone, feeling inordinately pleased with himself. What did you know? This insane plan was beginning to look like it might actually have a chance at succeeding.
28 February 1955; Boston, Massachusetts
Charles paced nervously up and down the hallway of his home. He had moved into the lavish brownstone apartment after returning from Korea, the wing of his parent's home no longer affording him the privacy he craved. It was tastefully decorated, and clearly the home of a wealthy man. Lately a woman's touch had begun to infect the place as well, although Isabelle did not live with him. The two of them were in the process of conducting a search for the perfect home for after their marriage and before long he would leave this place behind too. At this moment in time however, Winchester's thoughts were more occupied by the people whom he had shared a foul, infested tent with, than by his bride-to-be.
Hunnicutt had arrived in town the day before, and although Winchester hadn't seen him, they had spoken on the phone, and he knew Pierce was supposed to show up sometime today. As for Margaret, she was due to arrive at the apartment any moment. So far everything was going according to plan, but the trickiest part was yet to come. Now that he's gone to all this trouble, the two ungrateful wretches would probably decide they hated each other. Muttering to himself about the injustice of it all, he suddenly heard the voices of two women in the front room.
"Charles? Are you here?" called one of them. "He did say he would be here by now, but maybe he got tied up at the hospital. Really, I don't see why he wouldn't simply come over to our parents' house. Coming here now doesn't make that much sense," continued the voice.
The other woman laughed. "Well you know Charles. He probably just wanted to show off the apartment."
"I admit, that does sound like something Charles would do," replied the first. "He's always been a bit of a peacock, ever since we were little children."
"Indulging in a little gossip about me, are we?" inquired Charles, coming around the corner.
"It's nothing compared to the conversation we had in the car on the way over here!" was the immediate retort. "It's good to see you Charles. I really do like the apartment. Very chic."
"Thank you Margaret. I trust you had a pleasant flight?"
"I had a very long flight, but your sister was waiting to pick me up and it all worked out." Margaret answered.
"I took her by the house first to drop off her bags, and then we drove over here. I hope you don't mind that I let myself in." said Honoria.
"Not at all. I do apologize, Margaret, for not being at the airport myself, but an emergency came up at the hospital and it couldn't be helped," added Winchester.