Posted on: 2008-12-31
Emma leaned over the poolside table with her chin propped against the palm of her left hand, as she flipped through a catalog. George was stretched with his arms over his head. His t-shirt had ridden up just a little, enough to expose a band of taut, stomach muscle. It was tempting, oh so very tempting, but Emma had learned the errors of her way earlier when she gave into that temptation and tickled him there briefly. Her toe still smarted from when he'd accidentally dropped the hammer. Perhaps tickling him while he was hanging up her Christmas decorations hadn't been her smartest idea.
Although, given the attention he'd lavished on her toe after he'd maimed it, it certainly hadn't been her stupidest idea either.
She was grinning vacuously at the memory when George glanced over. "I thought you were going to help me with the decorations."
"But you're doing such a great job on your own."
"Might I remind you that these are your decorations for your party?"
"But it's ever so much easier for you to do it all. Since you're so tall and strong."
Emma tried batting her eyelashes at George, but he only rolled his eyes. "I'd be happy to fetch you a ladder," he told her.
"I'm sure I'd mess things up if I tried."
George sighed resignedly. "Well at least hold up that end of the garland for me while I put this end in place."
Happy to do nothing more strenuous than stand in place, Emma eagerly complied. "You're the best," she told him.
"You only like me because you have me wrapped around your pretty little fingers."
"No, it's why I love you."
I love you. Three little words. But three little words with big impact. George's heart still did a little flip flop every time she said them, and he had a feeling it always would.
With his arms still stretched upwards, he told her, "You know, I really hate hanging this stuff, but I'd hang an acre of garland if you never stopped telling me that you love me."
Emma's heart did a little flip flop, too. Dropping her end, she hugged him around his waist and whispered into his chest, "I love you, I love you, I love you. And I'm not just saying that because I still need you to hang the garlands in my apartment after we're done here."
George laughed. "I love you, too," he whispered back. As he leaned down to kiss her, his arms came down around her, followed immediately by the garland they'd been trying to hang. Emma and George could only laugh merrily as they found themselves embraced by winter's greenery.
"I was watching George hang the garland for Emma's Christmas party. It's not my fault they started kissing. They're always kissing."
Elinor chuckled. There was no point denying what was true. "So what's going on?" she asked, pointing to the pile on her sister's bed.
"I was trying to find something to wear to the Christmas party, but I can't find anything. I think I'm going to have to go shopping and the party is this weekend!"
Elinor stared incredulously at her sister's wardrobe. Nothing to wear? Marianne's wardrobe alone could clothe a small country. "Surely you have something in here that you could wear." Taking a stab in the dark, she shoved her arm into the pile and drew out a silk, cranberry slip dress. "This looks nice and the color would be great for a holiday party. Why can't you wear this?"
Marianne looked horrified. Grabbing the dress out of her sister's hand, she threw it back onto the pile. "I can't wear that! It's not nearly sophisticated enough for the likes of Frederick Wentworth."
Elinor groaned. She'd been happy when her sister stopped seeing that good-for-nothing Greg Willoughby, but she wasn't sure seeing Marianne throw herself at their new neighbor was a happier alternative.
"What now? Is there something wrong with Frederick? Did Christopher-I-suck-all-the-fun-out-of-everything-Brandon have something negative to say about him too?"
"No," Elinor frowned. "As far as I know, Frederick and Chris don't even know each other. At least, they didn't know each other before Frederick moved here, I mean. They seem to get along otherwise now, though."
"Oh. I see how it is then. You don't think I'm good enough for him. Thanks a lot, Elinor. My own sister!"
"No, of course not!"
"Well what else could it be then? He's single. I'm single. There's nothing objectionable about him. So surely the fault must lie with me."
"It's not like that," Elinor said carefully. "It's just . . . ."
"You think he and Annie are meant for one another?" Elinor looked stunned. "I overheard you and Elizabeth talking about it one day. You really should be more discreet.
"Oh, and if you really think Frederick and Annie are going to get back together one day, you should probably keep wishing. I once asked him about her, you know, when he first moved here. I told him I'd heard that he and Annie once knew each other, a long time ago. He said it was true. I then asked him what he thought about her. He said, and I quote, ‘She is so altered I would not have known her again.'"
Elinor didn't know what to say.
"Not exactly the yearning ex, huh? Well, whatever. I'm off to go shopping. I've got a man to impress."
"What?" he laughed.
"You're in my way!"
"You're in my way."
"Well move aside!"
"I was trying to," he pointed out, "when you got in my way again."
A growl threatened to escape. She put her hands on her hips as voices came from above. It was Emma. "Oooh, look, Fay! Look at where Will and Elizabeth are standing!"
Elizabeth looked up and found mistletoe hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles. Scowling, she turned her glares onto her traitorous friends. "You know the rules," Fay called sweetly down.
More than game at the chance of chipping away at the ice block that was Elizabeth, Will stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "What do you say, Elizabeth? Shall we give them a bit of a show?"
When her eyebrows shot to her forehead, he gave her a considering look. "What's the matter? Scared? Nervous?" He leaned forward, standing so close his breath tickled her ears, "Tempted?"
Elizabeth shoved him away. "Don't be such a jerk, Will. I wouldn't kiss you if you were the last man in the world who was available to kiss."
Shooting dark looks at him and her friends, Elizabeth walked around him and slammed her apartment door behind her. The minute the door was shut, she collapsed against it and allowed herself to breathe again. She was mortified to discover that, standing next to him, she had been tempted to kiss Will. Oh, the man was so provoking!
Now, caught in the courtyard again, just the two of them, with memories of their last interaction still swirling fresh in Elizabeth's mind, she turned skittish. She stood and made to leave, but was stopped by Will.
"Wait, Elizabeth. I was . . . well, I wanted to give you something. Here." He shoved a small, slender box into her hands.
Elizabeth stared stupidly at it.
"It's a gift. Because, you know, it's Christmas . . . and all that."
"Oh," she finally said. "Thanks."
"I'll see you around," he told her with a small, somewhat sad but hopeful smile.
Taking the gift back to her apartment, Elizabeth set it down on the counter and stared at its pretty gold wrapping and cream-colored bow, studying it from several angles. She couldn't imagine what it might be. Too big for jewelry. Too thin for a book. Too small for clothing. A DVD?
She gave it a few pokes, then gently shook it, and finally relented. A soft cry escaped when she opened the lid and a colorful, floral, silk scarf flowed into her hands. It was delicate. Beautiful. And the very scarf she'd been admiring for the past several months. In fact, she remembered telling her sister about the scarf one day, when they'd been sitting outside sharing a couple of drinks by the pool. "It's gorgeous," she'd said then, "and out of my price range, unfortunately. The scarf alone would cost me about three paychecks."
And now here it was. In her hands. A gift from Will.
How had he known?
Discovering a small note tucked in the bottom of the gift box, she plucked it from its hidey hole and read:
Merry Christmas, Elizabeth!
You're probably wondering: how did he know? Conversations travel up and down through the courtyard and I heard you describe the enclosed gift to your sister one afternoon.
I should have realized that the day Charlie and I moved into this apartment complex. I know you overheard the comments I made about you, then. I wanted you to know I was wrong and have regretted them from the moment they left my mouth.
If not as a second chance, I hope you'll accept my gift as a peace offering.
All my best,
Elizabeth tucked both the scarf and note under her chin, held them close to her chest, and smiled.
Startled, Fay blushed. "Oh, hi Will!" Here he was standing next to her and she hadn't even heard him arrive.
He tipped down his sunglasses. "Really?"
Will looked up at the clear, blue sky. Watched a few clouds drift lazily past. "It's a good day for thinking," he said after a while. "Want to try thinking aloud?"
Fay considered him for a few seconds. She could trust him, and surprisingly the thought of sharing her news with him felt less pressuring than it did with the girls. Maybe because she knew how her friends would react and Fay wasn't sure she wanted a reaction when all she really wanted was a listening ear.
Will waited patiently.
"Eddie and Mary broke up."
"Oh? When did that happen?"
"A few days ago. It was a mutual thing, I think. When they both realized they wanted different things. Apparently, it all started coming apart a few weeks ago when Eddie's father gave him the annual talk about moving home and joining the family firm. As he does every year, Eddie declined. He loves his job; he's not interested in the family company. Never has, never will. He's always figured that's what having an older brother and two sisters are for. Plenty of siblings to take over while he pursues his own interests.
"Well, Mary didn't quite see it that way. In fact, as it turns out, she'd been waiting for Eddie to move home to join the family firm, and to of course take her with him when he did. So you can imagine her displeasure when she learned that they could've been living the high life at any point this past year, but that Eddie had no such plans, and would never have them. It's hard to say who was more disillusioned."
"Yeah. So, the thing is, we're sitting around yesterday evening and Eddie is telling all of this to me and don't get me wrong. While I've never thought Mary well-suited for Eddie, I've never wished them harm either. Eddie really thought he was in love with her and I want him to be happy. So, if that's who he thought was the woman for him, I wanted her to be the woman for him."
"Except, deep down, you wished that person was you?"
Fay looked down at her laced fingers. "I had a feeling you knew."
"I suspected. I think most everyone suspects. Except Eddie."
She nodded. "Knowing how I really feel about Eddie, you can imagine how on one level, while I was sorry that their relationship had failed, I was secretly excited, too. Not because I thought that might open the door for me, but because he was finally rid of someone unhealthy! I mean, she was using him. Eddie deserves better than that."
"I couldn't agree more."
"And I'm telling Eddie this, commiserating with him, being the kind, sympathetic, understanding friend, and the next thing I know, he's looking at me and telling me that I'm the woman for him! You could've knocked me over with a feather. Shock doesn't even come close to describing how I felt. For a second, I felt elation that it was finally happening: Eddie was professing his undying love for me, and we were going to live happily ever after together. The next second, it was like: Wait a minute. Wasn't he just professing his love for Mary a second ago? Now it's me? I don't know, it was just . . . gah!
"And you want to know what the crazy thing is? The more I backed away, the more Eddie started saying all the right things. The stuff I've been waiting, hoping he'd one day say to me. Stuff like it's suddenly clear that I'm the one for him. That he's been so blind. That he's been looking for love in all the wrong places when the most perfect woman for him was standing in front of him all along . . . What should've been a dream come true was a nightmare! How could I trust the sincerity of what he was professing? He was on the rebound, for goodness sakes!"
"Did you ask him? That is, did you ask him how you could trust him when he'd just ended his relationship with Mary?"
"Yeah. I did." Fay took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. To speak slowly. "He said the only way for him to prove his sincerity was for me to give him a chance. To let him love me as I deserved to be loved." Her lips trembled. "I didn't know how to answer. I didn't know if I could. So I walked out on him, and I haven't seen him since yesterday."
Will hissed. "Wow. I can see why you're standing around looking lost. That's a lot to think about."
"So what are you going to do?"
Fay traced an invisible pattern on the railing with her finger. "I don't know."
"Well, the way I see it, you have two options. You can play it safe and walk away, and most likely walk away from your best friend at the same time. Or you can take that risk, give Eddie a chance, and see what happens. Who knows, Fay, maybe you'll finally find what you've been looking for."
"You're right. I'm being silly."
"No." He put his hand over hers and squeezed. "It's good to be cautious in the matters of the heart. It's just that, well, sometimes, we have to give it a little leeway so that it can grow."
"Thanks for listening, Will. You're a good friend."
Now she was late and having second thoughts. With her fist poised to knock on the door, Annie wondered if she shouldn't just turn around and go home. She could pretend that she got swamped at work and no one would be the wiser. The thought of going home, taking off her dress, and pulling on a pair of familiar, comfortable sweats was tempting. There was even a tub of ice cream in the refrigerator and a new batch of offerings from Netflix waiting for her. Annie could kill for a night off.
On the other hand, she knew she was simply being a coward. Because Annie knew just what -- or who -- would be waiting for her on the opposite side of the door.
Knowing she couldn't keep avoiding the inevitable, Annie freed her fist and knocked on the door. A split second later, Emma was greeting her warmly and drawing her in with a hug. "I was just about to send George out to look for you, Annie! Where have you been?"
"Sorry, Emma. I was waylaid by Harriet."
"Say no more. Elizabeth! We need a drink here! Stat!"
"Coming right up!" Elizabeth called from the kitchen.
"Everyone's here," Emma told Annie. "There are hors d'oeuvres in the living room and Elizabeth's bringing you your eggnog, heavily spiked."
Annie stared at the number of people spread around her friend's apartment and felt a panic attack coming on. "Is there anything I can do to help?" Preferably something that would keep her out of the crowd's way?
"Nope. Elizabeth and Jane are in the kitchen helping me set out rest of the food. With the three of us, it won't take us but a minute. So mix, mingle, and be merry!"
"This should help." Grabbing the drink Elizabeth had brought over, she shoved it into Annie's hand and then sent her on her way.
"Think she'll finally talk to him tonight?" Elizabeth asked.
"They can't avoid each other forever."
"Maybe you should follow them around with mistletoe," Elizabeth deadpanned, remembering her own encounter with the little holiday greenery.
"Maybe I will," Emma smiled.
"Oh, whatever," Emma gave her friend a playful push in the back as they returned to the kitchen. "You're grateful for that mistletoe trick. Admit it. It's what changed your mind about Will."
"Fine, then. When was the moment your heart turned?"
Fingering the ends of the gift tied jauntily around her neck, Elizabeth waved it in her friend's face, and replied, "I believe I must date it from the very first time I saw this most beautiful scarf."
Emma laughed, not believing for a second her friend could be so mercenary. And indeed, Elizabeth was not. It was with Will's note in mind that she decided to wear the scarf this night. She knew she'd made the right decision when she opened the door to him and witnessed the admiring, satisfied light flicker in his eyes.
Having made such a resolution, Annie nodded to herself and drew the attention of Frederick. Their eyes met, and Annie quickly averted her eyes and whirled around. She was mortified to have been caught staring at him. Fortunately, she landed in Fay's vision and her friend waved her over. Fighting her way through the small crowd, Annie perched herself on the window seat next to her friend. "What are you up to?" she asked.
"Avoiding people," Fay answered.
"Sounds like a good idea."
"Plus, it's always more interesting to people watch. You learn so much." Noting that Annie had only a drink in hand, she held out her small plate of cheese and crackers. "Want some?"
"Thanks." Annie took a piece of cheese, and asked, "See anything interesting so far?"
"Well, it's hard to miss that blatant display." Fay nodded in the direction of Frederick, Marianne, and Mary.
"I can't believe Eddie's letting Mary make a scene of herself like that with another man."
"Oh, they broke up last week."
Annie looked sharply at Fay. "They did?"
"They did." She confirmed it with such finality that Annie gathered the subject was not for discussion and said instead, "Marianne's not doing herself any favors either."
"Elinor already told me that her sister's hoping to nab him. I can't really see her as his type, though."
Once upon a time, Annie would have said the same. But that had been many years ago, and circumstances had changed. Maybe Frederick's taste had too. "He seems to be enjoying both their attentions."
"You think so? I don't know. He's got that polite expression going on. I bet he'd be grateful for a distraction. Hey, maybe you should go talk to him," Fay suggested.
"Are you crazy?"
"It was just a thought."
There was no way Annie was going near Frederick, unless dragged there by force. She still remembered overhearing his conversation with Marianne in which he'd described her as, "altered." Altered! What did that mean? Certainly, she was older, and probably rounder in some areas, but on the whole Annie was pleased with her appearance and had nothing to complain about. Until Frederick had reentered her life and sent it off-kilter with one adjective, it seemed. Why did she even care what he thought of her?
Because she still cared for him, she admitted with reluctance. The truth was, when she'd broken up with him, it hadn't been her choice. She'd done it because of pressure from her family to do so. The joke was on them, though. Here her family was, struggling financially to stay afloat, and Frederick had gone on to have a successful career in the Navy. He was no longer the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, as Annie's father had once described him. Now, he was someone her father would want her to marry.
But it was too late. She'd seen the way Frederick had looked at her the first time he'd seen her after moving to Austen Place: shock, surprise, then disgust. She didn't blame him. She often felt disgusted with herself, too. Why hadn't she stood up to her family?
As if reading her thoughts, Fay said, "You know, you were awfully young when you first knew Frederick. We often make choices when we're young that we later regret because we don't know any better. I've gotten to know Frederick since he moved here and I like him. He's a nice guy, reasonable too. Maybe if you reacquainted yourself with him and tried to explain and hash out the past with him, you could be friends again, or at least clear the air between you two."
"But we're getting along so well right now," Annie tried to joke.
"Yes, it's marvelous the way you slink into the shadows every time he's in the vicinity."
Annie sighed. "I don't know, Fay. I really hurt him back then. The Frederick I knew wasn't a very forgiving person. I can't imagine that's changed."
"Maybe not. I don't know him well enough to say whether he has or hasn't, but even the most unbending person will bend under the right conditions, don't you think? I guess I just don't want you to miss out on any opportunities simply because you were too scared to try. Think of this way: what's the worse that could happen? By your own conjecture, Frederick hates you now. If, after talking to him, he continues to hate you, you'll have lost nothing. But, if he changes his mind . . . who knows."
"I wish he'd never moved here, never reentered my life."
Fay wasn't going to let Annie avoid or change the subject. "Maybe fate brought him here for a reason. Someone -- a friend -- recently told me that it's natural to be cautious in the matters of the heart, but sometimes we have to let go of the reins a little if we want to let our hearts grow. It's a sobering thought, isn't it? I've certainly been thinking about it a lot.
"Speaking of which, Eddie just walked through the door. I've got to go take care of something there. I hope you don't mind. You'll be alright?"
"I'll be fine."
Fay hugged her. "Good-luck, Annie, with whatever you choose to do."
Later, much later, Emma lay stretched out on her couch, staring up at the stockings hung over her fireplace. It was calm and restful. Everywhere around her, her neighbors were sleeping, which was just as it should be. Only the gentle rhythm of George breathing in and out as he slumbered next to her kept her company. She was completely at peace.
Cuddling closer to George for his warmth, her movements woke him. He yawned and stretched, and asked, "Did I doze off again?"
"It's alright. You earned your rest. Everything looked perfect for my party tonight. Thanks for helping me decorate."
"It was a fun party," George told her. "I think all your guests enjoyed themselves. Did you have a good time?"
Emma let her eyes wander towards the mistletoe hanging in her doorway. "I did. So much so that I don't think I'm ready for the party to be over. At least, not quite yet."