Posted on 2012-10-02
From peak to peak
Swaddled in purity
Darcy slowed, elbows bent behind his head, inhaling deeply and exhaling to a measured count. He didn't know how long he ran, how many circuits he made, but he punished his body, allowing his anger to fuel his endurance. He was sodden with perspiration and the snow that had begun to fall. But he felt better. He stripped the cleats from his running shoes and entered the hotel, already shivering. What did it matter that he'd visited the onsen once this evening? Sleep would be elusive.
He gratefully sank into the outdoor pool's furthest corner, the escalating flurry blanketing the beech trees and enveloping him in muffled sound. He gazed into a veiled sky, snowflakes landing on his heated face, his steaming shoulders, a thousand freezing pinpricks to his flesh.
He was disconcerted by the clash of emotion, from numbness to the conviction that everything must come right. Even if Natalie were the catalyst that had brought him and Elise together, surely it was not to this end. Then anger reemerged, the anger that drove him to run until his lungs would rupture. He would have found Elise on his own, he would have returned to Japan, he would have won her - he nearly had, but for Natalie.
And Elise. How could she prove so exasperating and alluring at the same time? How was it that a man who wielded a global corporation, who made daily decisions impacting untold lives, who was instrumental in the security of a nation, who possessed nearly a decade more life experience, couldn't win the trust of one young woman? Only two years older than his sister. She should have trusted him.
He struck the water, the wavelets running to the far end and rebounding, bearing on their diminutive crests the recollection of Natalie's final words.
He'd been waiting for his elevator, when he heard the door and her cool, professional voice from behind him. "Let me give you a little advice."
He turned. "I'm not sure I want your advice."
She didn't pause for him to object further. "You're brilliant at what you do, Will, and you deserve every ounce of the respect you've earned from your colleagues and employees, but you can't manage a relationship the way you manage business. Isn't that how you handled your sister? Isn't that what you did with Elise? Made a plan, saw it through, knocked out her objections and expected it would get you the girl? And how did that work out for you? Did you ever stop to think the reason our friendship was so comfortable is because it was safe, controlled?"
"Until an hour ago, when you capsized the boat."
"Exactly. You want more than friendship? Then capsize the boat. Relationships are messy and maybe messier with Elise because she's not like you." She'd grown unusually impassioned as she spoke.
"You think I haven't? I told her that I loved her not five minutes before you appeared."
"Bravo, that's a start." She arched a brow. "Have you told her why you let her go?"
He hadn't answered.
Will drizzled hot water over the snow accumulating on the onsen's edge. Hadn't he risked? Hadn't he resolved in favor of boldness? Had he, since their reunion, left Elise in any doubt of his affection? Yet he'd pressed her, expected her to tell him why she left, when he was unwilling to do the same. He sighed.
He swept mounded snow from the ledge and into the steamy pool, watching it instantly dissolve, and with the image came his mother's voice from her sickbed, weak yet confident. I will not fear, though the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, help will come at break of day. No matter what happened, he wasn't alone in this, never alone.
And what of Elise? He envisioned her curled around her pillow, staring into the same storm. He relived the anguish, the accusation in her eyes before she closed her door. She believed a lie, and the truth was bound in secrets. He could almost feel her heart breaking and the pain bowed his head into his hands. How could love hurt so deeply?
Darcy stood before his window, piercing the shadows soon to be dispelled by sunrise. He could just distinguish low, gray clouds and fresh powder. Skiing would be superb and, normally, he would have arranged to be first on the lifts, first to sample the pristine pleasures of virgin snow. But Elise overtook all. He was amazed to have slept, and yet he had, his last conscious thoughts a prayer for her solace.
He dressed quickly, intent on catching her in the breakfast room. He scanned the buffet lines repeatedly and chased a cherry tomato around his bowl, thinking absently how much he enjoyed salad for breakfast and how inefficient chopsticks were for small round objects. Three plates of food, two cups of coffee, one circuit of the clock and no Elise.
He detoured past her room, with the same aggravating lack of response, and returned to the front desk. After some persuasion, he learned she'd turned in her key, as customary when leaving the building, but hadn't checked out. She must be on the slopes.
He methodically combed the trails, working from the easiest to the more intermediate. As often as he spied a petite form in a navy jacket, his adrenaline would surge and he'd swiftly catch the skier, only to be disappointed.
By late morning Darcy lost count of how many times he'd ridden the gondola. The snow resumed and the wind was increasing. How different was the view today, the Sea of Japan shrouded from sight, contrast reduced to a blur of white and grey. He slammed a fist into the bench in frustration. One last run, this time on the steepest course. At least, for a few minutes, he could concentrate on navigating moguls instead of searching for Elise.
He exited the wheel house, turning the opposite direction from the run he'd taken her down the day prior. He squinted, thinking he saw a familiar form through the curtain of blowing snow, even as she looked toward him.
"Elise," he bellowed, "stop."
She plunged over the edge. He watched her turn sharply once, then twice, then three times, impressed she could manage the incline. Another turn and she was skiing backward. Not good. She rammed into the first mogul and somersaulted in an explosion of skis and poles and flailing appendages. He was flying toward her before she hit the ground, jamming his crossed skis into the hillside even as he skidded to his knees below her. She lay motionless, her head angled across and down the slope, her eyes closed.
"Elise, Elise!" He gripped her shoulders, shaking her gently, his anxiety rising.
Her eyes popped open at the same moment as her mouth, she inhaled deeply and… laughed her low, melodic laugh. The sound had never been as sweet to his ears.
"Is there nowhere I can go to escape you?" He saw the twinkle in her eyes, the curve at the corner of her lips, and he couldn't be offended. "Even onsens aren't safe. Maybe I'll try space next. No, don't tell me, I'll bet there are Darcy Systems satellites."
She was closer to the truth than he could admit. He leaned over, brushing snow from her face. "Do you hurt anywhere? Is anything broken?"
"Apart from my pride?" She giggled. "Did you see me? I was doing it!"
"Really cutting it up, at least until you started going backwards."
She accepted his extended hand. "Yeah, that was a little problematic."
"What were you thinking?" He pulled her to a sitting position and ranged around for her hat, face mask, goggles and a glove, returning the scattered articles to her.
"I needed fresh air." She shook out her hat and pulled it on, doing the same with her glove. "Besides, this was the only trail I hadn't conquered. You said it wasn't that difficult."
"I've been skiing since I was three." He scanned the slope. "We need to find your gear and move off the run. Visibility's so poor we'll be mowed down."
Though one of Elise's poles was irreparably bent, nothing was missing and they relocated to the deeper powder at the edge of the trees.
When Will spoke, he tried not to sound accusing. "I spent all morning looking for you. You could have told me you wanted to ski alone, I would have given you the space."
She worried her face mask. "I wasn't ready to talk to you."
After another pause, he ventured, "Is that what you were doing, running away from me, like you ran away to Japan?"
Her head snapped around. "Is that what you think?"
"What else am I supposed to think?" He outspread his hands. "That's what it looks like. You haven't given me a reason to believe otherwise."
"Then you know how it feels."
"You want me to trust there's nothing between you and Natalie, but that's not what it looks like and you haven't given me a reason to believe otherwise."
He felt instant, angry heat rise to his cheeks. "Telling you that I love you, that you're the only one for me, that isn't reason enough?"
She studied him. "No."
He pushed down his defensiveness. "You've known me for two years. What you thought you saw last night, is that in keeping with my character?"
"What I thought I saw?" Her eyebrows soared. "Natalie and Grand Canyon cleavage were not figments of my imagination, though from what I've read, it might be in keeping with your character."
He ignored the jibe. "You have to decide whom you're going to believe: the gossip columns or me."
"I believe my eyes."
"No, you made assumptions about what you saw. I was just opening my door when you came down the hall, and I was as shocked to see Natalie as you were."
"How did she get in your room in the first place?" asked Elise.
"She finagled a key from the front desk."
She barraged him with questions. "How did she know you were at this resort? You didn't even know you were coming until you met me. Did you call her?"
"No, of course I didn't."
"So, how did she know?"
"I couldn't say."
She snorted. "And why is she in Japan?"
"Better and better. What exactly does she do again?"
"I can't say."
"You won't say, you don't know?"
"I suppose you could say she's in international relations." Even that was more than he should have said, but he couldn't very well explain that Natalie's cover involved misleading the media. The hypocrisy of it struck him, that in his anguish, he'd thoughtlessly agreed to a deception for which he was now paying a stiff penalty.
"You suppose? It's not like we're in Tokyo. What company would send her to this backwater?" Snow gathered on her hat, her shoulders, her eyelashes. "No, don't answer that. Let me guess: you can't say."
"Finished interrogating me? Are you going to let me explain?"
He deflected the snowball she tossed at him, the sphere shattering over his bent knees.
"I've escorted Natalie to events our respective jobs required. I never needed to worry that she would read more into it than mutual obligation. Until last night, she'd never shown any interest in me. Let me state this plainly, though frankly I'm insulted you would even think it. I never considered her my girlfriend, never kissed her, never slept with her." She didn't deny his supposition. "Elise, you know me. That's not how I live, how I act. It's inconsistent with who I am."
"You've known Natalie for a year and this is your best explanation?" She arched a brow. "Don't you think that sounds slightly far-fetched?"
"I've told you everything I can."
"It's a little hard to swallow." She drew her knees tighter against her body. "Anytime I gave into temptation and googled you, all I've seen is someone on your arm, be it Natalie or whomever. It certainly made it easier to convince myself that I was better off without you, that you weren't worth crying over. That's what I've told myself for a year. Then you waltz into my life and overturn everything. But just when I'm starting to believe the dream is real, Natalie shows up wearing next to nothing. Talk about a rude awakening."
As she spoke, his frustration yielded to compassion. "I see how it could look, but it's just not true."
"I want to believe you, but it's not that easy."
He followed her gaze into the colorless distance, blinding in its uniformity. "You want truth? Natalie was business, but the main reason I went out with other women is that I was trying to forget you." Her eyes met his in surprise. "You never told me you were moving to Japan. I asked Charles once and he said you'd requested his silence. I'm not the kind of man who imposes himself where he's not wanted. So I tried to forget you, Lord knows I tried, and it wasn't even a week ago that I finally decided enough was enough, that I was going to find you and resolve this one way or another."
She didn't respond, instead tossing a handful of snow into the wind.
"Why didn't you want me to know where you were?" It hurt to ask.
"Everything had grown so cold and awkward between us, it was like torture. When Charlotte called to see if I was interested in taking her place, I jumped at the chance." She swallowed visibly. "I didn't want you to know because… because I wanted to start over, and that way I couldn't secretly hope you would come after me. Does that make sense?"
"Not really." He mulled over her words. "But what do you mean 'cold and awkward?' You're the one who withdrew. You were so aloof, so unlike yourself at the Bingleys' wedding."
"Me? Aloof?" Her eyes flashed. "Look in the mirror. You started withdrawing even before the wedding. And that evening? It might as well have been the night we first met for all the warmth you displayed."
"I was going to tell you that I loved you."
"Are you kidding?" She stared at him in disbelief, and he shook his head. "That would've been the second time you caught me off guard with such a confession. Do you see a pattern here?"
He forged ahead. "Every time I called you after that, it felt like you were pushing me away. You never returned my last phone call, and I made it clear the ball was in your court. I had to conclude you weren't interested."
"Not interested?" She glared at him. "I spent that entire fall flirting with you. Some evenings we'd go home and Jane would lecture me for being a shameless tease. 'Poor Will,' she'd say, 'you're going to drive the man insane.'"
"Believe me, I wasn't unaffected -"
She talked over him. "But it didn't matter what I said or did, you were always so careful, always the dreaded 'just friends.' And you say you hate deception." She nearly spat the words. "If you're looking for a lie, there it is, because after the heartbreak, after a year trying to get over you, you inform me that you cared the whole time. Do you have any idea how that feels?"
"Actually, I do. You're not the only one hurting here." He dragged the back of a glove across his mouth. "Can I tell you something?"
"You're right." She did look shocked. "But I deceived myself as much as you. I royally messed up the first time, and when I was given a second chance, I counseled myself to take it slow, not to rush you, but in reality I was playing it safe. I wasn't willing to risk my heart until I was sure of yours. Of course, that's not really risk, is it? I don't have words adequate to express my regret, except to say I'm trying not to repeat the past. I don't think you can be in any doubt of my feelings this time."
"The irony is exquisite. Do you know how long I wanted to hear you say that you loved me, to hold me, to kiss me? I spent an entire year convincing myself I'd made the right choice, that you were not the man I thought you were. And then Natalie…" She sniffled and buried her head in her knees. He scooted against her, stretching an arm across her rounded back, resting his face in the space where her neck met her shoulder, feeling her shudder against him. And the snow fell and her tears fell.
Eventually, she raised her head and wiped her eyes, her gaze combing the hillside before turning to him, as if she'd forgotten they still sat off-piste. She shivered.
"Are you cold?"
"I think all the snow in my pants has melted." She chuckled mirthlessly. "Can you ski me down again?"
"What? Why not?"
"Nothing personal. Even if there weren't moguls, it's too steep to snowplow." He stood, brushing snow from his pants. "I could carry you."
"Carry me? Like some knight in shining armor?"
He smiled softly. "Exactly."
After some delicate maneuvering, he had her in his arms, her own wrapped around his neck, and he was cutting down the hill through sheets of lace, the wind whipping past his face, slapping her braid against his cheek. White below, above and all around, canceling time and distance and sound. When his arms tired, he held her tighter, and when he reached more gradual slopes, he didn't stop, not until the run out, and even then, despite his quivering muscles, he didn't put her down. If only he could carry her into the future, gowned in white, across an irrevocable threshold.
Darcy forced himself to allow Elise an hour, though he required only fifteen minutes to shower and change. He was still contemplating their mountainside tête-à-tête, feeling both injured by her accusations and heartened by the hope that she cared for him, that this was not an impassable crevasse.
He knocked at Elise's door, opening it on her summons, and asked, "Are you hungry? We could go to the Tea Lounge, finish our conversation."
He entered her room, but stopped when he saw the neat piles of clothes stacked on the bed beside her gaping duffel. "What are you doing?"
"I thought we postponed going to the Fitzwilliams' until tomorrow." An ominous déjà vu settled over him. Wasn't she packing during that last phone call a year ago? She'd declined his invitation because she was leaving.
"I can't. I changed my mind." She settled the second to last stack of clothes in the bag. "Please give them my best and extend my regrets."
"Why?" He gestured toward the window. "What about talking on the mountain? Did that mean nothing to you?"
"No, I really appreciated it." Her voice and eyes were sincere, though muted. "But it's been a year and there's Natalie and all this drama and I need some space."
"Why won't you trust me?"
"I believe you, or at least I want to believe you." She nestled a cosmetic bag in the top and zipped the duffel with finality, before meeting his eyes, her own conflicted. "Oh, I don't know."
He'd waited over two years for her; he could wait longer. But the reassurance stuck in his throat, strangled by ire. He held her gaze firmly. "You're running again, same as you did before. Tell yourself what you like, but this isn't about me. You walk out that door and you're the one who's leaving, who's choosing to believe a lie, who's caving into fear."
Both brows rose. "I already told you. I didn't run away then; I was starting over. And I'm not running now. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but maybe we can just be friends."
She shouldered the bag and moved toward the door, pausing before him long enough to fleetingly touch his cheek.
"It doesn't have to be like this. It shouldn't be like this." He spoke to her retreating back, hammering the edge of one hand into his other palm. "We have something special, Elise. A love like ours makes authors write and poets sing."
She rotated in the doorway and looked back at him, her eyes twin pools of pain and longing. "I'm so very -"
"You know I'm right."
"I'm sorry, Will. And I heard you on the mountain, I never meant to hurt you." And then she left.
He stood, shaken and angry, bereft and disbelieving. He could chase after her, but he didn't. He wouldn't beg. This was her mountain to climb, her storm to weather.
Though the snow ceased and the plows were operating, traffic through the Aomori pass crawled along the narrow road and through the long tunnels below precipitous peaks. Darcy pulled over at the toll gate's rest area, thankful for the chance to stretch legs folded too tightly under the compact's wheel and to breathe deeply of the bracing air.
His curiosity piqued by the steam rising jauntily from an A-frame roof, he entered the larger of two modest buildings. The cashier nearly pounced, beckoning him to a squat refrigerator near the register. Between her minimal English and a round of charades, he was fairly certain she wished him to sample her homemade goods. He agreed with a bow and enjoyed the corresponding gratitude in her countenance. He imagined customers were a rarity.
Preferring the beauty of nature to the dim interior, Will returned outside with his purchases and leaned against the pillar of a low fence overlooking the valley, while he scooped the fresh tofu with a miniature shovel. Though the black sesame turned it an unappetizing grey, he savored the nutty flavor and custard-like texture, dissimilar to any he'd tried in the States.
He brushed the crumbs of a last, surprisingly delectable tofu donut from his frigid hands, sunk them in his pockets, and turned his attention to the view. In the dull afternoon, the sylvan valley, though white-washed, was succumbing to darkness. It seemed impossible that he should stand here without Elise; she belonged beside him. How could she walk away? He didn't know when he would see her again. In the States, maybe, when she returned home, and then? He had made mistakes, but he had been patient. To begin again as friends was ridiculous. Perhaps they were not meant to be together, perhaps he was trying to broker a merger that ought not occur.
He lifted his eyes to the mountains. And he marveled. Fiercely steep, he could almost feel their youth, as if they had just been called forth, newborn and swaddled in snow. The sight buoyed him. All at once, rays from the lowering western sun broke through the clouds behind and illumined the crags before him, the light arcing into his soul. And he knew suddenly that all would be well. He didn't know what it meant or how, but he sensed it, and it went beyond Elise.
He unzipped his left breast pocket and removed the beloved, worn photo and the small red box. He unsnapped the lid to reveal the daisy petals of the canary diamond. Though the day was fading, the facets glittered like the shower of golden sparks in Elise's eyes. No wind whispered, but there seemed to echo, calmly, gently, let her go. With a powerful throw, he winged the box over the fence, the shadows rising to swallow it.
He gazed one last time into Elise's laughing eyes and placed the photo atop the pillar, a sacrifice on the altar of love.
Before Darcy could ring the Fitzwilliams' bell, Rich's jolly face greeted him. "Welcome back! Didn't expect you until tomorrow." He peered over Darcy's shoulder. "Where's Elise?"
Will stepped inside, closing the door behind him. "She's not coming."
"What happened?" His good humor faded instantly.
"It's a long story." Will shrugged out of his coat, and Rich reached to hang it in the closet. "I'd rather tell you both together."
Anne immediately ushered him to the table and produced a dinner plate. He stared at the food, unsure he could eat.
"How was your drive?" Anne eased into the conversation.
"Slow, uneventful," Will said. "I stopped in the pass, the mountains were beautiful."
"I'm glad it was open, takes forever to drive around. Did you see the big Buddha as you left town?"
"No…" Will drew the word out. "Passed some torii gates. Should I have looked for it?"
Rich turned to his wife. "He would have been on the expressway, not the back road."
"Of course," Anne nodded. "It may be closed for the winter, but the grounds are quite extensive. Pagodas, bells, shrines, walking paths, and one of the largest Buddhas in Japan. There's a hallway inside the base lined with scenes from the underworld, might as well be Dante's Inferno."
"More like a purgatory than a placed of the damned," Rich said, "plus the demons take a break from torturing souls to celebrate an annual day of sumo wrestling."
"Sumo wrestling?" Will repeated in amazement.
Rich chuckled. "Seriously though, I underestimated how large a role Buddhism and Shintoism play in the culture until I lived here."
"It's the windmills that always get to me." Anne unconsciously covered her womb with one hand. "There's this hillside where parents plant little, colorful spinners like a field of a thousand twirling flowers. The placard says each one's for a baby lost to miscarriage or abortion, to ward away evil spirits. Every time I see them turning in the wind, it seems they're spinning sadness." She sniffed.
"So," Darcy bit into a slice of gluten-free focaccia and turned to his cousin, "on to lighter news. How was your week?"
"Well," Rich drawled, "I had a hospital adventure."
"The cases that the base clinic can't handle are sent downtown, usually with an interpreter and depending on the diagnosis, sometimes with one of our docs. The Japanese have an entirely different approach to pain control and administer only the minimum necessary. We supply the deficit, to ensure our patients are comfortable." He laughed. "Americans don't know how to tough it out, not one of our national virtues."
Rich continued, "Speaking of toughing it out, ready to tell us what happened with Elise?"
When Will concluded his account, Rich was smirking. "Wait, you had a sure thing in your room and Elise chasing you down the hall and somehow you managed to lose them both? That's classic, Darcy."
"Rich!" Anne poked her husband before shifting her attention to Will. "I'm so sorry. When I said you'd be better off knowing, I never imagined it would unfold this way."
"I know, who'd have dreamed? But you were right." A large, framed tile on the wall behind Anne caught Will's eye, the soaring mountain wrought in blue on white calling to mind the light in the pass. "It's rather a paradox. I spent a year trying to let go and couldn't, but now, when she was almost within reach, I think I finally can."
"Well, I say there are one strike girls and three strike girls," interjected Rich, "and Elise was definitely a three strike."
Anne glared at him. "Honey, that's not -"
"Don't worry," chuckled Will, "it's fitting."
"Were you able to find any clarity about why she left for Japan, why she behaved so strangely last you saw her?" asked Anne.
"A little." He frowned. "But she said I was the one who was aloof and withdrawn at the Bingleys' wedding."
"Well, you were," affirmed Rich. "I was there, you know."
Anne looked at her husband sharply. "What do you mean? You never mentioned it."
"Why would I?" He seemed genuinely puzzled.
"I was?" Will said. He'd forgotten Rich had scheduled Temporary Duty to coincide with the nuptials.
"I remember thinking you'd reverted to your antisocial self. I fully expected you to start lurking in corners and scowling at anyone who dared to impose on you."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I started to," Rich said, "asked if you were enjoying the evening and nearly lost my head."
While Will recalled speaking with Rich, he didn't remember particulars. All his reminiscences circled Elise, how full his heart, how odd her behavior, how stiff their interactions. "What about Elise? Did you think her behavior strange?"
"Not really. Maybe with you, but she seemed herself with everyone else. She asked about you when we danced."
"She did? What did you tell her?"
"Oh," Rich shrugged, "probably something along the lines of, 'You know Will, you never know what's bothering him until he chooses to tell you.'"
The comment prompted Darcy's memory, Elise asking him the same question and him replying that he was fine, while thinking he would be much better once he said what he'd planned to say.
Will sat back and folded his arms. "This is something of a revelation." Maybe there was more, much more, to Elise's side of the story.
Anne probed her husband's eyes for a long moment. "Do you think -"
"It's possible," Rich said.
When they both looked at him, Darcy raised both brows. "I'm not a mind-reader. Want to share this breathtaking insight?"
Rich adopted his bedside manner and began to explain. "Let's say a husband is going to deploy and leave his wife behind for six months or even a year. Maybe a month or so before he departs, things start going wrong in their marriage. Maybe they argue more. Or maybe little things that didn't bother them before become larger irritations. Or maybe one of them starts to pull away, to create distance between them."
"Oh, that makes sense," Will said, his voice thick with sarcasm.
"Hold on." Rich continued. "It's a common phenomenon, we in the military call it 'separation anxiety.' At a subconscious level, you cause friction in the relationship so that when you have to part, it seems easier. Kind of like saying, 'Go ahead and leave. You're so irritating that I don't want you around anyway.' But, of course, it's not really true, it's just a coping mechanism."
"And this applies how?" queried Will.
"Even if it wasn't the real reason, Jane and Charles were your acknowledged excuse to be together. With their marriage on the horizon, your relationship had to change. So you both hedged your bets by unconsciously creating the very rift you feared." Rich folded his hands. "Anyway, that's just my theory."
"You don't have to agree with us," added Anne. "But we've found it helps us be more intentional whenever we approach separation or change."
"I think you'd better stick to your day job." Darcy made a derisive noise, not liking the implications.
"I'm no shrink, but I see patients dealing with this all the time," Rich said, "at least weekly."
"Whatever." Will rolled his eyes.
"Well, there's always Natalie…" Rich smirked and his wife jabbed him again.
Will shook his head. "I could use a glass of port."
After a lackluster chess game, Darcy excused himself to call Georgiana. A kaidan tansu graced one wall of Rich's office, the ebony wood of the stair-step cabinet ornately carved with songbirds and cherry blossoms. He crossed his feet on a desk chaotic with paperwork and grinned. Clearly, neither Anne nor her mama-san had any jurisdiction here. He clicked on his mobile and dialed.
Forty-five minutes later, Will stared absently at the barrister bookcases, several doors open and books stacked haphazardly. He'd phoned Georgie to apologize and follow up on their previous conversation. It had gone better than he'd hoped, and then she abruptly turned the tables on him, asking what was troubling him. He was on the verge of assuring her he was fine, as he had in the past, but he realized this was where intimacy began, in the willingness to be open. Just like that and their relationship shifted. His baby sister had grown up.
He folded his hands behind his head. He felt a peculiar merging of his contentment over Georgie with his ache for Elise, and it occurred to him that he had unexpectedly found what he was seeking. On his train ride north, he had mused that a holiday in Japan might be what he needed, though he could never have anticipated the events that brought him to this moment. He was too well-acquainted with loss to believe denial or anger or grief would not crash over him, but even if Elise were irretrievably lost to him, when the waves receded, he would live, truly live.
A knock recalled him and Rich peered in. "Sorry to interrupt, but there's a Mark Reynolds at the door asking for 'Fitzwilliam Darcy.'"
He followed Rich into the entry, gauging the stranger's appearance. He might have been the same agent who had met them atop the sea wall, but Will wasn't sure.
"I believe these belong to you." The man extended his hand and Will reached for the items automatically.
"How -" Will raised his head, but the man was already striding into the black night.
He called his thanks, closed the door softly and pivoted. Anne, wrapped in a thick robe, had joined Rich on the entry step, one arm tucked around his waist.
"What was that about?" Rich said.
Will cradled the small red box and the tattered photo. He smiled. "Hope."
Posted on 2012-11-02
In the sea's embrace
Moorings lost and treasure found
Tumbled, etched, ground down
Darcy's rental car was already in reverse when Anne flew from the front door. He braked immediately, concerned she might slip on the ice in her haste.
"Please?" She extended the GPS through his open window. "For me? It's not going to help you find anything, but it will bring you home."
He didn't want it, but placed the instrument on the passenger seat. "I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine." He patted her hand resting on the window's rim.
"Will we see you for dinner? Rich wants to treat you to suicide sushi."
"I'm not sure I should accept that invitation, but, yes, I'll be back."
She leaned down, looking at him squarely. The pity in her clear, green eyes induced him to escape. "Be careful…"
"I'll be fine, Anne, really."
Under the morning sun, the road took him out of the city, past drifted fields and shivering trees, and through drab villages that the bright day did little to enliven. Past onsens and billboards and banners he couldn't read. Past the nuclear power plant that subsidized local residents. Past vacant windows and aging buildings, remnants of the last decade's economic downturn. Past old men in wellies pushing snow from their storefronts with double-wide scoops. Past schools, their frosted playgrounds sprinkled with watchful sensei and students in colorful snowsuits. Past life, marching inexorably forward.
When his thoughts turned to Elise, and they did with fearful regularity, he did not resist. His love was undiminished. If anything, his concern for her and the sting of her flight were heightened, but the stranglehold of his consuming need was broken. In letting her go, he found, in an unforeseen twist, that he was released. The yearning that had defined this past year, past two years if he were honest, remained, but no longer held him captive.
He stopped at Sabishiro Beach, hiking through the deep snow to reach the coast. The tsunami had altered the shoreline, but the scale model of the Miss Veedol still braved the wind and weather. He shaded his eyes and tracked the surf's edge, imagining how it might have looked in 1931, resonating with the challenge, the adrenaline, the sheer audacity of Clyde Pangborn and his inept co-pilot as they embarked on the first successful nonstop trans-Pac flight. Amazing. Pioneering aviators like him were forgotten beside giants like Earhart and Lindbergh.
A flash of green grabbed his attention and he toed a glass fishing float from where it was lodged in the sand. He retrieved the softball-sized globe, its surface etched by salt and the relentless tides. How many decades did it swirl in the Pacific's currents before a storm washed it ashore? Anne would be happy to add it to the decorative bowl in her entry.
Darcy resumed his northward journey, eventually curving inland, and was forced into such a series of turns that he lost his normally precise bearings.
In a tiny, unpretentious village, he stopped at an equally tiny café, the red noren fluttering in its doorway the lone color along an unvaried street. Six tables comprised the dining area, three with chairs and three on the tatami dais beneath two windows overlooking a walled garden. Even beneath its white cloak, he appreciated the studied asymmetry: several boulders, a stone pagoda, a tree, and a few bushes artfully arranged to bespeak peace.
After sitting cross-legged on a cushion, he reviewed the menu and found it unintelligible. The middle-aged waitress, wearing a loud apron and a kind expression, suggested something and he concurred with a nod.
While he waited, he slipped his mobile from his pocket, thinking to call Bingley. He missed their friendship and there was no reason to avoid him now, not that he expected to hear word of Elise through Jane, but the slashed circle indicated no service. He resorted to his book and was soon immersed in Pangborn's account: navigating forty-one hours across the vast ocean, monitoring the plummeting fuel gauge, knowing a watery grave yawned below, praying he would make it to Washington state.
The waitress bent at the end of the table, placed a steaming, handle-less mug before him and slid a plate of small greyish rounds into his peripheral vision. He nodded in her direction and kept reading.
Until she touched his hand.
He looked up abruptly. His breath snagged and his heart stuttered. There, studying him with her fine dark eyes, knelt Elise. The questions tumbled through his mind, rolling one after another, even as he registered her uncertainty, her own questions mirrored, like a cresting wave, in the eloquent curve of her brow.
He spoke the first words he could force from his recalcitrant tongue. "What did I order?"
Her answering smile started in her eyes and the light spread slowly, crinkling the edges of her lids and dimpling her cheeks.
"Mochi. Daifuku, to be exact, stuffed with" - she lifted a ball rolled in sweet rice flour and leisurely bit it in two; he watched in unutterable fascination - "white bean paste."
She held his gaze resolutely. Then she raised the other half to his mouth.
He accepted the chewy confection from her hand, never breaking eye contact. He tasted nothing, feeling only her fingers exquisitely soft against his lips, reeling with the import of her action. He wanted to pull her into his arms, to hold her and never let go, but he couldn't. He was completely immobilized.
She must have sensed it or read it in his expression. The light in her face faded marginally and she sidled around the table to kneel across from him.
He didn't know what to say, where to begin.
After fumbling in her pocket, she placed the lantern magnet from Aoni on the table between them.
Transitory panic gripped him. He'd left it with the ring box and the photo on a nightstand at the Fitzwilliams. "Where did you -"
"I bought one for myself as well. To remember. I want to remember the good times, and we've shared so many wonderful memories. And I want to make more. Many, many more. With you. I don't want our mistakes, my mistakes, to decide our future. Will you," she rested her hand next to the magnet, her eyes holding his, "give me one more chance?"
How long had he waited for her and now, when she was finally reaching toward him, why did he hesitate? What kept him from claiming her, from shouting yes?
Her hand sliding from the table, her body sinking into her heels compelled him to speak.
"I…" He studied the garden sparkling in the sunshine, as if the truth were concealed in its contours. He faced her. "I love you, Elise. I've never stopped loving you, not when you rejected my proposal, not when you left for Japan without telling me, not when you walked away yesterday. In some ways, I think I love you more today than I ever have before, because I finally see that maybe I'm not what's best for you."
"But, Will -"
"I prize my privacy, but I lead a very public life, and there will always be something or someone, Natalie or otherwise, to come between us."
"And I thought I'd changed, but Rich confirmed what you said about the Bingleys' wedding."
"But you -"
"I am," he spread his hands, "who I am and, while it's always my goal to better myself, it's unwise to pursue a relationship based on being anyone other than who we are."
"Would you stop talking for a minute and allow me to answer?"
She was particularly striking when she was riled, and he couldn't resist smiling, just a little.
"I wasn't attracted to you only because you changed, much as I appreciated it, but because I finally saw that I'd thoroughly misjudged you, that at the core you were - you are - my perfect match and exactly the man I want."
The waitress chose that moment to deliver a tray full of food Darcy had not ordered. He observed her with flat detachment as she arranged the platters, lit flames beneath bowls of hot broth, and coached Elise in a hushed voice.
"I hope you don't mind that I took the liberty of ordering an early lunch," Elise said, once they were alone. Her chopsticks drew a thin slice of meat repeatedly through the boiling liquid. "It's called shabu shabu."
He didn't mind, but he was still revolving her previous comment. "Why?"
"For the cooking motion, like 'swish swish.'"
"No." He spoke more forcefully than he intended, and she flinched. "I mean, if you felt that way about me, then why would you leave?"
She set her chopsticks on their rest purposefully. "I thought we went over this yesterday."
"Then humor me and go over it again."
"Okay. I left for Japan because I didn't think you were romantically interested, which I have since learned to be untrue, and I left yesterday because I was," she chewed the edge of her bottom lip, "in a muddle."
"In a muddle," he repeated slowly, "and now you're not?"
"That's right." Her quiet laugh was self-deprecating.
"I didn't know when I'd see you again, certainly not before you came home, and even then, I wasn't sure what would happen. I was just beginning to wrap my mind around that and here you are. It's not like I'm not pleased to see you - I am, truly - but this is so… so unexpected. I need a little time. I don't adjust so easily -"
"As I do?"
"I wasn't going to say that, but yes."
"Well," the sparkle rekindled in her eyes, "I did have all night to think. That's the third night of sleep you've cost me in less than a week. I must have it bad."
"You and I both." He couldn't indulge in humor, not quite, but he felt the tension easing.
"You were right, you know."
"Me. There I was sitting in my tiny apartment, feeling very alone and trying to convince myself it was better this way. I started replaying our conversations, to justify my decision, and then I realized that's exactly what I did on the eve of my departure for Japan. I cried myself to sleep that night and look what it cost me, what it cost us. Then I started asking if it was really worth losing you again, and over Natalie, and I started thinking about what you said. And I realized if anyone could have a legitimate reason not to explain, it would be you, and if anyone could be trusted to speak the truth, it would be you, and that, no matter how I may have tried to persuade myself otherwise, you have more integrity and character than any other man I know. Probably right about then it hit me that I was being absolutely ridiculous, that God had given me an undeserved gift, a second chance, but I was as good as throwing it away without unwrapping it. So I spent the rest of the night contemplating your perfections -"
"I'd like to hear more about that." One corner of his lips quirked.
"I bet you would. And I plotted how to intercept you before you left the country and persuade you of my sincerity." She angled her head slightly, looking at him from under her eyelashes. "Any chance I'm succeeding?"
"I don't know, Elise."
"What do you mean?"
"We don't have a very good track record."
"That's why we need to try."
"Again?" he said, with as wry a tone as he could muster. "And how do I know you're not going to run off at the slightest provocation?"
She reached toward him, her eyes serious. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I think you're going to have to work harder than that." He tried to maintain a straight face, but he couldn't.
If a glare could be both merry and accusing, hers was. "You're terrible, Will Darcy, and I don't appreciate it, especially at such a moment." She straightened and looked at him archly. "Well?"
The suspense built as he studied her. Her sea green cashmere sweater glided over her impeccable posture and lissome curves. A sweater he'd given her, if he remembered correctly. A simple cross glittered at her neckline, and brunette waves framed her face, a face he'd caressed, a face stippled with freckles he'd kissed.
He had loved her and lost her and let her go; he could receive her as she had come to him, freely. "Yes."
Will buckled his seatbelt and adjusted the thermostat to warm the compact car. "Where do you want to go?"
"I have no idea." Elise scanned the village's main street. "Where are we?"
"You mean you don't know?"
He was mildly embarrassed. "No, but if you set the GPS for 'home,' it will take us to Rich and Anne's."
She agreed and soon they were puttering south between the snow banks. The impatience he'd felt over the slow speed, on first arriving, dissipated entirely with Elise seated beside him.
He shifted, as he accelerated from a stop sign. "If you don't know where you are, then how in the world did you find me?"
"You'll never believe it."
"I caught an early train north and arrived at the Fitzwilliams shortly after you left."
"But Anne didn't know where I was going."
"So I learned. We had a nice long heart to heart. I didn't think I'd survive until dinner, waiting for you to show," she patted his hand where it rested on the stick, "knowing you were out here moping around for a nonexistent reason."
"I wouldn't call it moping."
She looked askance, but continued her account. "Imagine my shock when my 'old friend,'" she crooked her fingers in air quotes, "Michelle, rings the bell, greets me like we've known each other for eons, and says Will's waiting and she's here to take me to him."
"Michelle?" He frowned, puzzled.
"You've met her. I'm standing there, debating about playing along, thinking I've seen her before, but unable to place her. Then I realize the last time I saw her, her hair was long and blonde, not short and brown, and her eyes were a much lighter shade of blue and she looked like she'd walked out of a lingerie catalog, not a legal office. The transformation was amazing. She was, well, almost ordinary."
He glanced at Elise, thunderstruck. "Natalie?"
"At that point, though I was still upset with her, I was too curious to decline. We had an enlightening chat before she dropped me off, though what she said only affirmed my previous decision. I wouldn't call her a best friend, but I do understand better why you couldn't say anything."
"What did she," he stumbled, grateful, but circling this new wrinkle, "what did she tell you?"
"I really can't say."
"I'm teasing." Quiet reigned for a moment, before she ventured, "You're not a spy, are you?"
"I couldn't tell you if I were, but no." The idea made him laugh. "Tell me what she said, and I'll explain what I can."
When Elise did not immediately answer, he caught her nose wrinkled in thought. "That's funny, now that I think about it."
"We talked a lot, but she really didn't say much about herself." She shook her head doubtfully. "I don't usually fall for that sort of thing. She must be very skilled at manipulating a conversation."
"Basically, she said she's an intelligence agent who works for - actually, I don't think she ever named the agency - and she was undercover as your quasi-girlfriend. She did apologize for that little stunt she pulled at the hotel, said it was beneath her."
"Is there more?"
"Details, but you have the essentials." They rounded a bend and a snowfield stretched before them, one edge bordered with leafless trees standing at attention. "Did she mention DARK?"
"What does that have to do with it?"
"Just tell me what you know about DARK."
"This is silly, since it's your brainchild." She shrugged. "Same as anyone could find on the web. It's a cyberspace program under the auspices of STRATCOM and protects US networks in defense and private sectors, though the techno jargon was beyond me."
"But there's much more to it, all classified, so I actually can't explain. What you read in the public domain, that's its cover, so to speak."
He focused on the road, but he could feel her studying him, almost hear the gears in her brain turning, processing.
"Which is why Natalie was assigned to you and why you never said more about DARK. Any other secrets I should know about?" she said.
"Just DARK. It's only one division of Darcy Systems, and as far as I'm concerned, for you, everything else is an open book. I don't want secrets between us, apart from the ones work obliges me to keep."
"No arguments here." She pulled her feet onto the seat and wrapped her arms around her knees. "There was one other thing. Natalie had a message for you."
He raised a brow.
"She wanted to say she was sorry, and she hoped - and she made me promise I'd quote - 'returning what he lost' made up for her mistakes. That mean something to you?"
"Yes." But he shook his head, imagining how many agents and hours were committed to searching for his photo and ring. And her people would have watched closely for her to bring Elise to him.
"Care to elaborate?"
"I think she was referring to you."
"I had the distinct impression there was more to it than that." He sensed her speculative scrutiny. "She also said she's been thinking about what you told her and is considering some changes. I'm curious. What did you say?"
"Something we'd do well to remember." His gaze followed the pavement where it disappeared in the glistening distance. "I told her about a Love that always hopes, always trusts and never fails."
Will was relieved when Elise requested they detour into the city so that she could find a hostess gift for Anne. Their reconciliation felt too recent, too raw to be shared.
A beacon flashed in his rearview mirror and he nearly pulled over. "How did you get used to the police cars running their lights continually?"
"I haven't. I still feel anxious and have to remind myself it's normal. Will you pull in there?" She pointed to a car park. "Let's try the fish market."
The rambling warehouse was modest in size, cool enough to retain their jackets, and the odor less overwhelming than some outdoor markets. They meandered first through the gift corner, sampling savories and sweets and circling the stacks of attractive presentation boxes. Having been introduced to squid ink cakes as a Christmas gift from the Fitzwiliams, Will cheerfully gloated over finding a delicacy that Elise had not tried and purchased a box for Georgie, who was fond of the treats.
Not satisfied with the options, Elise took his hand and led him down the long aisles. The sea had yielded a rainbow, and the dealers bustled behind their displays, arranging their seafood to best effect. Much he recognized: the deep red, almost purple, tuna; the vivid orange salmon; the coruscated blue-backed mackerel; and seaweed in every shade from green to black, some pressed into thin sheets of nori. There were shrimp, crab, squid, eel, starfish, sea urchins, all manner of snails and roe, and bags of smoked bonito flakes, nor did that begin to touch the varieties he couldn't identify. His mind swam with the diversity.
Elise shifted her grasp, and he took comfort in how her fingers wove between his, how perfectly they fit, as if her hand had been made for his.
"You okay, Will?" She looked up at him. "You've been especially quiet."
He counseled himself not to repulse her with a simple 'fine.' "I keep thinking back to the Bingleys' wedding, what you and Rich said. It's disconcerting to be blindsided again."
"Oh, but things didn't start falling apart until the weeks before the wedding."
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't come down or call as often because you were working on your contract, which I understood - although, it makes even more sense now, considering the nature of it. I was busy helping Jane and corralling my mom. But then, the next time we met, there was this new distance between us, and you grew progressively more reserved. I felt shut out."
"How ironic, since mainly I was thinking about you."
"I know that now," she sighed deeply, "but at the time I interpreted your coolness at the wedding and the awkwardness of our contact after that as a sign that you'd had enough. Not that it changed how I felt about you."
"I know that now," he echoed.
Spying scallops, Elise stopped to briefly negotiate with the vendor. They waited while he packed the striated, fan-shaped shells with care and rolled the package in newspaper. Will idly examined a bag of tiny, dried fish.
"Niboshi, baby sardines," Elise said, "eaten as a snack or soaked to make stock."
After she paid and they resumed walking, he returned to their discussion. "My experience more or less mirrors yours, except I felt you were the one pulling away."
"When I thought about it last night, I could see how you would perceive me that way." She sighed again. "If only one of us had said something, although I do empathize with why you were reluctant."
He'd wrestled if only too often in his past to be lured down that trail. "Did Anne share their theory on separation anxiety?"
"It seems so simple."
"That's what I thought at first, but the longer I consider it, the more sense it makes. We each reacted in a manner that seemed reasonable to ourselves, but also enabled us to blame the other for our separation."
"Fear can certainly drive people to illogical conclusions." Her brows knit together. "I'm thinking aloud, but I wonder if that was a factor even this week. Maybe I would have handled running into you and the whole Natalie debacle better if I wasn't living in fear that you would leave and everything would repeat." She snorted. "It almost did."
"But you came back." He stopped and faced her. "We're on the brink of another separation."
Blatant sauciness infected her smile and twinkled in her eyes. "Guess that means we'll have to -" Elise jumped, something dark stirring near their feet.
Will caught her, scanning the floor for the threat. A good-sized octopus, with tentacles at least two feet in length, lay wedged at the base of a refrigerated case, one bulbous eye disconcerting in its unblinking stare. A smocked woman, orange gloves stretching to her elbows and more petite than Elise, joined them and spoke rapidly. She prodded the octopus, causing it to wriggle, and then gestured expectantly.
Elise bowed and replied, before turning to him. "She's too quick for me, but I think she said if we're interested in buying, we could touch it, but to wash our hands."
He didn't remove his eyes from the twitching creature. "How did you answer?"
"That it's a fine specimen, but we're not in the market for octopus today."
He smiled at the merchant, still standing hopefully beside them, exchanged a bow with her, and they moved on. Elise wrapped her hand through his arm, and he bent his elbow reflexively.
"Thank you," she said.
He barely heard her in the din. "For?"
"Being patient and understanding. These last few days haven't been easy, but it did force me to stop and really think."
"Crises have a way of doing that." He recalled his own epiphany.
She bumped against his side, as if reading his mind. "Want to tell me about it?"
He fought momentary resistance, but there was no one else with whom he would rather share. "For a long time, my love for you has been so intense, so driving that I didn't know how I could live without you. You were always present, despite my best efforts. But after you walked away and I started to lose hope, I had this moment of clarity - a vision, maybe, I don't know what to call it - and I saw that I had to let go, that it was out of my hands, that I had to trust." Her rapt attention encouraged him to continue. "When my mom was battling cancer, she had this extraordinary peace that all would be well. At first, I clung to that, but as she weakened, I started to fight it, as did my dad. When she died, I was angry and bitter, and I felt like she'd lied to me. Sometime yesterday, because of you and what we've gone through, I understood at a new level. She had a bigger perspective and that same trust."
Elise pressed his arm, but said nothing. They rounded a corner, encountering a long wall lined with sake in barrels and containers of every conceivable size, shape and color. He scanned the bottles for the vintage they'd shared at the ski resort, but calligraphic brown labels proved common.
Her voice startled him from his search, and she tugged him to a standstill. "I don't have words for how much it means that you shared this with me."
Her eyes were full, and he instinctively pulled her toward him. She rested her cheek over his heart and her palms on his back, the bag of scallops knocking against him. He stroked her glossy dark hair with his free hand, and they stood, amid the racket of the fish market, mutely mending the breach.
After an enthusiastic reunion with the Fitzwilliams and before the foursome left for dinner that evening, Darcy strode down the hall, but was arrested by the picture his cousins made standing in the kitchen. Rich stood behind Anne, his head bowed beside hers, both pairs of their hands interwoven over her womb. The sight, both intimate and eloquent, spoke to Will's heart.
"How poignant." Elise's low voice floated from behind him and her arms slipped around his waist.
He rotated within her embrace and brushed stray locks behind her shoulder. Did he dare speak his thoughts? "Maybe, someday, I will hold you like that and for the same reason."
She lifted her hands from his hips, rested one on his shoulder, and delicately mapped his features with her other. She traced a tingling path across an eyebrow, down his temple, along his jaw, upon his lips.
Her smile trembled a little, but her eyes were brimming with admiration and something else he feared to name. When her hands joined behind his neck, he allowed himself to be drawn down. She examined his face as if she had never before seen him, as if she had wakened from a long sleep or been healed from blindness.
He returned her scrutiny, savoring every detail, every lash, every freckle, every fleck of gold in her bottomless brown eyes. All that was lovely and desirable.
He felt her breath on his cheek, and then her words breathed into his very soul. "I love you, Will."
With almost reverence, he enfolded her in his arms and leaned against the wall, basking in the simple satisfaction of holding her and being held, the profound truth of loving her and being loved.
Darcy's mind drifted to earlier that afternoon. They had ambled through stores, including a lengthy visit to Elise's mobile carrier, and along the city streets as they talked, heedless of the cold. He had always found her easier to speak with than most, but this new degree of vulnerability astounded him. In the gathering dusk, they stopped outside a traditional clothing shop.
"Oh, look at that," she said, indicating a splendid kimono.
Noticing them, the proprietor approached with a bow and gestured them through the door. Elise went to the display, as if irresistibly drawn, and stood before the shimmering silk elaborately brocaded with cranes and fans in white on white. Will had seen her similarly captivated by paintings in the Smithsonian, and truly, the robe was a work of art.
Will caught the manager's eye, giving him a nod that transcended language. Within minutes two women appeared and whisked Elise, and then the grand kimono, toward a dressing room. She cast him a half-apologetic, half-excited look as she disappeared.
The dressing process took far longer than he anticipated, and he wandered among the vibrant garments, declining an offer to be costumed in the male equivalent.
At length, Elise emerged, the epitome of elegance. The women fussed, clucking and arranging the multiple layers just so and spreading the train of the outermost robe, the open-front uchikake around her. They had positioned her at an angle before a three paneled mirror, and her eyes shone in the reflection.
She rotated her head unhurriedly, meeting his gaze over her shoulder. He was caught by a vision of how she might appear as his bride, but he could not imagine her any more beautiful than she was at this moment.
He approached, breathless with awe and distantly aware of the two attendants bowing and retreating. Her back collar dipped slightly, exposing her flawless nape below her upswept hair and he wanted nothing so much as to taste again her unrivaled sweetness.
"You," he touched her temple, her cheek, "are magnificent."
She lowered her eyes, her color heightening, and the temptation was beyond what he could bear. Less than a step and his lips met the back of her neck in immeasurable tenderness.
"Will, not -"
Whatever she meant to say dissolved in a sigh of pleasure, transporting him to the last time he'd kissed her there. A wave of desire surged through him.
He stepped back, but the narrow cord snared his eye, beckoning from between the uchikake's lapels. Such a flimsy thing, barely the thickness of his finger, knotted around the upper third of the wide obi, just below where her breasts would be, if she were not padded into a stately cylinder. He instantly recalled a business associate in Tokyo laughingly comparing the kimono to a beautifully ornamented gift, the tiers of rich fabric secured with ties and trimmed with a bow. "But a moment's work," he'd said, with an insinuating swipe of thumb and forefinger, "pull the string and the whole package is unwrapped." Will saw his hand reach to undo it, creamy silk cascaded to the floor like a dissipating veil of steam, and -
He blinked. Elise remained motionless, still clothed, her eyes riveted on him. He swept her fingers into his and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand with all the fervor of his disordered feelings.
While she changed, Darcy settled with the proprietor and contemplated the months he had to retrieve the heirloom ring and plan a proper proposal. Elise had never visited Europe; he could take her to Bruges or Assisi. The Cotswolds offered countless romantic villages, though Bavaria had the advantage of castles and mountains. He could fly her somewhere himself, or he could opt for La Bergerie, with its gourmet cuisine and the benefit of being near his home in Old Town Alexandria. He wondered if the day she landed in the States would be too soon.
"Don't tell me you -" Elise broke into his reverie, hands on hips, assessing the large box in his arms.
"Of course I did." He held the door for her, and they exited into the frosty darkness, strolling toward the car under the street lamps' glow.
She pursed her lips. "Did you know that's a bridal kimono?"
His thoughts had certainly tended in that direction. "I thought Japanese brides wore red."
"Many do, but white's acceptable too. It symbolizes a wife beginning a new life with her husband." She chuckled quietly. "And, um, kissing me like that, in public, was rather scandalous."
He peered at her skeptically. "I kissed the back of your neck, it's not like -"
"Oh, but it is. A woman's nape is… traditionally anyway, it's considered erotic. That's why married women wear their back collars a little lower than those who are unmarried, and why it nearly plunges between the shoulder blades for geisha. It's a little crass, but you may as well have planted your face in my cleavage."
He suppressed an impulse to tease about that prospect and cleared his throat. "Do you like the kimono?"
"Yes, very much, thank you. It's exquisite."
They walked in thoughtful silence. Beyond the sphere of light, the stars already blazed from the velvet sky.
She continued with gentle sincerity, "But you don't need to buy me extravagant gifts. What I treasure most is the experience, being with you, taking a picture to remember."
He could argue that she wouldn't have had this particular experience, had the manager not judged him willing to buy the kimono. "I appreciate that about you, but I'm afraid you'll have to let me spoil you a little. Besides, who said it was for you anyway? Maybe I was spoiling myself."
"The kimono's long enough, but I'm not sure it's your color." She parroted his bantering tone.
"It will look particularly fine on one of Pemberley's walls."
Her brow arched in challenge. "You can't say the same for a hot pink phone."
"You know I like pink as much as you do." When he'd realized her mobile could neither make nor receive international calls, he'd rectified it immediately, and pink, to which she had an aversion, was the only color in stock. "Do you really think I'd fly seven thousand miles without a dependable means of reaching you?"
She patted her jeans. "Almost like having you in my pocket."
They stopped in the parking lot, their exhalations visible. As he fished for his keys, he thought of the canary diamond he hoped to give her the next evening, probably worth three times this little car. Quick as she was, Elise would immediately associate it with the receipt she'd already seen, but he didn't think she'd object.
"What?" she said. "You can't grin like that and not tell me."
"I'm merely looking forward to you eating your words."
"Spill," she tried to tickle him, but his coat was too thick, "you said no more secrets."
"Ah, but surprises don't qualify as secrets, and I've been scheming."
"Come on, just a hint?"
He exulted in her unmistakable anticipation and delight. "I promised you an adventure, and I'd like to take you bright and early tomorrow. Wear your warmest clothes, bring your camera, and that's all I'm going to say."
Posted on 2012-11-18
Awake in glory
From dreams to splendor risen
The blossom unfurls
Darcy dreamed of Elise, of her body spooned against his as they slept, of his side gone numb from fear of disturbing her. His alarm jolted him awake and he stretched to silence it. Something warm and solid connected with his torso, and he drew back in bewilderment.
The door gaped wide and dim hall light sloped in, illuminating his room. He identified the back of a dark crown and then a sweeping concavity from shoulder to hip. Indeed, Elise was curled against him, wrapped mummy-like in her own blanket atop his bedding. But he'd definitely fallen asleep alone.
She rolled over and buried her head in his chest, uttering a sleepy sigh of contentment.
He reached behind him to flick on a bedside lamp and shifted to see her better, her tousled hair scattered haphazardly over his arm, her long lashes dusting her cheeks, her lips pursed in some private amusement. She appeared joyful even in slumber.
Her lips puffed slightly and emitted a decidedly unfeminine sound, somewhere between a snort and a snore. He curbed his laughter. Someday, this would be the sight to which he woke every morning.
He bent his head and kissed her in foretaste, watched as her lids flickered open and her eyes slowly focused on him. The corners of her mouth tipped up languidly.
"You could wake me like that anytime." Her voice was raspy with sleep.
"I'd like to say you could crawl into my bed anytime." But they both knew he wouldn't.
A shadow passed over her face. "I woke early and couldn't go back to sleep - too upset about last night. I wanted to apologize, but you were sleeping so peacefully. I'm sorry, I don't know what got into me."
At the close of a wonderful evening, they had argued, heatedly. Elise was determined his height made the couch impractical, but he was equally determined to be the gentleman and give her the bed. Rich and Anne discreetly exited, and only when he eventually excused himself to the bathroom did Rich intercept him in the hall, mouthing "separation anxiety" with a nod toward where Elise fumed in the living room. To her astonishment, he suddenly acquiesced, choosing to understand it not as a contest of wills, but an expression of love.
"I forgive you," he pressed his lips to her forehead, "and I apologize for being pigheaded over nothing. Maybe separation anxiety deserves more credence."
"No kidding." She tracked a finger along his hairline. "I wish you didn't have to return to the States. I don't know how I'll bear it."
"I'd stay, but I've taken as much time as I can. I have a briefing on Wednesday."
"What's a little old briefing?" She fluttered her eyelashes.
He tapped her nose, though he opted not to respond in kind. "Secret squirrel stuff, I have to be there. But I give you my word I'll start making changes the moment I set foot in my office." His tone grew almost fierce. "I can and I will restructure the management so I have more time. I will not allow my," he started to say 'family' but caught himself, "the people I love to suffer because I'm not around."
"Are you thinking of your dad?"
He nodded solemnly. Not only had he told her about his mom yesterday, but he'd also shared about his father and Georgie. Now that his relationship with Elise was restored, it seemed they were cramming a lost year into their remaining days.
She searched his eyes for a long moment. "I trust you, Will."
Her certainty flooded through him like a balm.
When she combed a hand through his hair, he tried to contain a shudder of pleasure. "I've missed your hair, you know."
He propped himself on his elbows. "What?"
"Your hair. It's," her fingers lightly massaged his scalp, "I love how it's simply brown, but the light turns it chestnut."
"You make me sound like a horse."
"Whatever. It's gorgeous."
He didn't argue.
She flopped onto her back, stretching luxuriously, her arms behind her head. The swell of her chest drew his eyes, but in the next instant, a rap on the open door preceded Rich peering in with his perpetual joviality.
"I came to tell you that if you want to arrive before lunch, you need to leave soon," he shot his cousin a wry look, "but I could come back and tell you later."
"It's fine, thanks." Will wondered if the heat in his ears was visible.
Rich turned down the hall, calling over his shoulder, "Next up for the shower."
Elise had been glancing between them, clearly diverted. She snaked a hand down Will's chest, which he immediately snatched and stilled.
"What's it going to be, a cold shower or a snowball fight?" she said.
"You," he growled and pointed to the door, "out."
She surprised him with a quick kiss and left; he was left catching his breath.
They departed later than Darcy would have wished. For Elise, time was a commodity to be enjoyed, not rushed. He didn't mind, at least, not too much. But before they even left the city outskirts, she requested they stop at Lawson's, a common convenience store. With a mock-serious knitting of her brows, she informed him that they required provisions.
Pausing near an end cap, he held up the snack he'd sampled on the train. "Not sure what these are, but I didn't like them."
"Kid's treat." She selected several bags of roasted, seasoned beans and bars of dark chocolate. "You'll like these better."
Facing a rear wall lined with drinks, she tapped a fingertip to her lips. "Hmm, what haven't you tried? How about Calpis."
"Pardon me?" He was sure she hadn't said what he thought he heard.
"C-a-l-p-i-s. A milk beverage, comes still or sparkling, in peach, grape or plain. Good for the insides." She patted her stomach.
"Oh no, I'm not falling for that again." But he did. How could he not? And she was right; the combination of sweet milk in soda water was novel but not unappealing.
Back in the car, Elise crossed her legs on the passenger seat. "I've been reflecting and, though there's much I'd do differently, if I could do it over, I wouldn't forego this year in Japan."
"Even with everything you went through?"
"Because of it." Confidence emanated from her voice. "I didn't understand when I arrived, but I was running from more than you. From Jane's shadow, much as I love her, I was always being compared to her. From the tension between my mom's harping about marriage and my dad's pressure about business. From the consequences of Lydia's mistakes. I love my family dearly and I know it wasn't their intent, but sometimes I felt like a pinball. For a while, I even believed they cost me you. But living here, working here, I finally figured out who I am and what I want to do. I want to make a difference in people's lives. I can't describe how much joy I found in helping others. And I realized that I'm not meant to be a teacher and I do miss business, but I can pursue it in a way I find fulfilling, not necessarily after my dad's example."
Will was moved. "I'm proud of you, Elise."
"Thanks." She chuckled ruefully. "I'm going to need your support. Dad's always envisioned me earning a Ph.D. and teaching at Duke, just like him."
"He loves you and wants what's best for you, I'm sure he'll understand."
"I still hate disappointing him."
"It might help if you had an actual position. Have you thought further about your job hunt?"
"Not really, at least not that specifically," she glanced at him with a sly smile, "I have been a little preoccupied."
"Well," he elongated the word, but kept his eyes on the road, "would you consider applying for director of Darcy Systems' charitable division?" His offer was genuine, though the position did not exist, not yet. He had a board of advisors and administrative staff, but preferred to make the decisions himself.
"You want me to work for you?"
"Not for me," he quickly amended, "with me, more like a partner."
He felt her studying him. "That's very generous, but I foresee a conflict of interest. I can't imagine it'd go over well with your other employees."
"I'm talking longer term, further down the road. With your compassion, education and people skills, I can't think of anyone better suited." When she became Elise Darcy, he'd gladly relinquish control to her and no one would dare question his wife. "Company politics aside, is that a field you'd be interested in? You'd have millions at your disposal."
"Will you give it some thought? I'd really," he faltered, uncertain how to express his wishes, and finished lamely, "enjoy working with you."
"Me too, I think." He read in her hesitation an acknowledgment of the unsaid.
Their route ran beside an icy canal, unadorned cherry trees lining the opposite bank and iconic bridges arching its span. Inspiration seized him. "Know what else?"
"When you come home, I'm not going to take you flying."
"You're not?" Her disappointment pervaded the cabin, but he was undeterred.
"Nope. How would you like to earn your pilot's license instead?"
"Really?" She clasped her hands before her in delight. "I'd love it!"
The future unrolled in his mind's eye, one life shared and joy multiplied beyond imagining.
"Explain to me again why we had to stop at this particular store?" The sting of cigarette smoke still burning his eyes, Will tossed a sack hefty with Elise's purchases into the rear of the SUV. Her "just five minutes" had turned into forty as she rifled through box after box of used obi in every hue and pattern while he counseled himself to be patient.
"Obi make wonderful presents. You can use them as table runners or wall hangings or tie them decoratively."
"You should've said something. I would have bought you new obi yesterday."
"That's not the point. These have history, think of all the women who've worn them."
"Precisely my point."
"Never mind, but you'll see, Georgie will love it."
He closed the hatch and moved to open the passenger door, but Elise trotted past him to read a poster affixed to a nearby pole. She spun around, her eyes sparkling. "There's a winter festival on the lake. It's such a unique experience, let's go."
"I may be approaching my quota for unique experiences," he said. "How far is it?"
"Maybe thirty minutes, one way, and we'd want at least an hour to explore." He started to object, but she stilled him with a hand on his forearm. "You're better with time than I am and you know the plan, so if you say we don't have time, then we don't have time."
He wanted to say they didn't. He'd hoped to gain their destination earlier, but really, they need only arrive an hour before closing. Her concession, without debate, was an odd sensation, but several hours' delay would not ruin his plans and would certainly please her. He communicated as much, and Elise directed him out of town and into the scenic gorge that led to the lake.
The road coiled uphill along frozen stream banks and through the dense woods, their branches barren of leaves and clothed in iridescent white. Every now and then, the trees thinned to reveal waterfalls caught in mid-motion, arrested in their leap from the rocks. Eerie and beautiful all at once. The land was clearly asleep, yet it was a restful, renewing sleep, and he could almost feel the gathering deep in the soil, in the seeds, waiting to burst into verdant life.
A short walk from the car park and they entered through the towering barricade of snow that cordoned the festival grounds. Small alcoves were cut into the inside walls, each holding a candle waiting to be lit, and Will visualized a fairyland atmosphere when night fell. He caught Elise's hand and she beamed up at him; he could be content anywhere, with her hand in his and her smiles bestowed so liberally.
"We've talked about my family, but I'd like to hear about yours," he said. "How's your sister?"
"Lydia." When the Bingleys married, she was partway through a rehab program at his expense. He'd found her overdosed on the floor of Wickham's apartment.
"Fairly well, I think. She's back home with my parents and making a name for herself as a local hairstylist. Jane went once to show her support," she cringed in memory, "came out looking like a purple zebra and nearly gave Charles a heart attack. Lydia's idea of a good joke."
He chuckled. "I'm glad she's okay."
"I know you've told me not to, but thank you for everything you did for her."
He raked a hand through his hair. "If I'd reported Wickham sooner, I could have spared you and your family the anguish you've suffered."
Not that Wickham could prey on underage girls any longer, not while he served time for a laundry list of convictions. At least Georgie had avoided the worst of his depravity, and Lydia was alive and sober. Will was grateful, yet sorrow underscored his gratitude; he couldn't shake the peculiar sense of brotherly obligation he felt toward his father's godson.
Elise touched his furrowed brow. "You're not responsible for his choices. He's suffering his own consequences."
"I know, but it doesn't make it easier."
Enticing aromas wafting from the food stalls distracted them, and they passed vendors preparing matsuri specialties: yakisoba noodles and yakitori on a stick, sausages rolled like pinwheels, halved squid grilled into oblong pancakes, scallops simmering on their shells, and cups of fried sweet potato wedges, the pale yellow flesh contrasting sharply with purple skins. The hot wine reminded him of strolling through a Christkindlmarkt, mulled glühwein in hand. Among the sweets, he smiled to find what any State Fair might offer: cotton candy, crepes, candied apples, and chocolate-dipped bananas rolled in nonpareils.
Elise couldn't bypass the steep snow slide without trying the inner tubes, naturally, and the subsequent quarter hour found them laughing their way through a snow maze. Before he could protest, she removed her boots and socks, rolled up her pants and plunged into a foot onsen.
"Join me, Will. I know it's not a full onsen," she arched a brow, "but it will have to do."
"I'd rather wait for the real thing." He seated himself beside her, his back to the pool. Why would he dispense with perfectly warm boots to soak his feet in the middle of a public festival? "So, tell me about the rest of your family."
"Let's see." She exhaled a white cloud and began to tick them off on her fingers. "Mary's in her first year at divinity school, still intent on teaching at a Bible college. Cat will be home in a few months from her exchange program in Germany, and I'm curious to see how she's changed. Oh," she brightened, "I bet you didn't know the Bingleys are moving. Charles' office is relocating him to Denver and Jane's really excited."
"I didn't know. That's not far from the Springs."
She flicked a few drops of hot water at him. "It'll make it easier for me to visit you."
"I'll look forward to it." Although, he had a more permanent arrangement in mind, could almost hear the shouts of Darcy and Bingley cousins echoing from Pemberley's vaulted ceilings. "What about your parents?"
"Dad's the new director for the Center on Leadership and Ethics. And Mom is… well, mom. When she's not hounding us unmarried daughters, she's at Lydia's salon trading in gossip. I guess she's happy enough."
He rubbed his jaw in mute amusement; Francine Bennet was a force of nature. Even in her late forties, she was attractive and she could cook like nobody's business, but her nonstop, often senseless chatter had nearly driven him crazy. Yet now, he thought, he could love even her, simply because Elise did.
He watched her dry her feet and pull on her socks. "I've always wondered. How did your parents end up together? They're so…"
"Yes, though you and I are opposite in complementary ways. But your dad's the quintessential professor and your mom's -"
Elise saved him the trouble of selecting an appropriate descriptor. "My dad was a hot-blooded young man once. Actually, a very young university professor." She pulled her pants over the top of her boots and they resumed walking. "When this twenty year old bombshell flounced into his class and sat in the front row in her short skirt and long lashes, he was a goner. My mom heard business courses were the best for catching husbands: up and coming entrepreneurs, future CEOs and the like. By her logic, if the students were a catch, then the professor must be even better."
"Oh my, your poor dad." He laughed stoutly.
"It caused quite the scandal. Mom dropped out, they married in a hurry, and Jane was born just before their first anniversary."
When they approached an igloo adjacent to the foot onsen, Will bent to peer through the arched entrance, spying several low tables with blankets.
"It's a sake bar," Elise explained. "The kotatsu, where you sit, are heated."
"But it doesn't look open." He straightened. "In fact, this whole place seems a little deserted for a festival. I expected larger crowds."
"The party doesn't start until after dark. There'll be music or taiko drummers or drama performances on the snow stage," she pointed to the vacant platform, "and colored lights everywhere and the fireworks…" Her eyes sparked. "If you thought the fireworks at Naqua were spectacular, you should see them over the lake. Maybe we should come back."
He smiled, but shook his head. "I'm enjoying this and I'm glad we came, but I have something else in mind for tonight."
"So you admit good things can come from a little spontaneity?"
"I don't think I realized how routine my life had grown, until I met you." He dropped an arm across her shoulders and pulled her against him as they sauntered down the boardwalk beside the vivid blue waters. "For all their differences, I'm impressed your parents are still married."
"Yeah, I guess. Sometimes we girls didn't think they'd make it, but they're committed, old-fashioned that way. It's not the type of marriage I want, but I know they love each other."
Will bit his lip to keep from smiling at the opening. "Are you saying you don't want a committed marriage?"
"No, of course not," she looked askance, "you know what I mean."
"I wouldn't want to assume. Why don't you tell me?"
"Well…" Her eyes widened and she took a deep breath. "Jane and Charles seem to have it about right, not that I'm anything like my sister. I appreciate that they're not only lovers, but also best friends. They share everything and respect each other." She kicked a clod of snow before glancing up at him. "What about you?"
All I want is to marry you, he thought, but said, "I agree."
"You think I'm going to let you off that easily?"
He stopped, facing Elise, and the hills circling the caldera's rim framed her in a silver crown. The disaster of his first proposal forced him to reexamine his opinions long ago, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
He hesitated a moment longer, before fastening her eyes with his intensity. "I want old-fashioned, 'til death do us part, love that lasts a lifetime. I want to love my wife with every last breath in my body; to walk with her through hurts and sorrows, joys and triumphs; to help her become the extraordinary woman she was meant to be. I want to make love to her," he stroked his index finger along her cheekbone, "to reclaim Eden with her. I want to raise children with her and see them mature into young men and women who know how to love well and live with real joy. And I want to grow old with her, to hold her hand when the sun is setting, and to greet her with a kiss when the Morning Star rises. That's what I want." His heart was pounding when he finished. He'd confessed his deepest hopes, and she was at the center of them all.
"Wow." Her eyes were shining and, though she blushed, she didn't look away. "That's beautiful, Will. She'll be one lucky woman."
"Whatever you say," he traced the rosiness at her temples, "but I'll be the one blessed by such a wife."
Casual conversation seemed suddenly too mundane, and they turned to amble among the ice sculptures, the snow crunching underfoot. They paused now and then in mutual quiet to circle one critically. Some were small and some large, in varying levels of intricacy, but each reflected the creativity of its sculptor. The subjects ranged from Thomas' smiling train face and Pokemon's pointed ears to elaborate recreations of historic buildings.
Eventually, Elise stopped before a bas-relief of a woman dressed in traditional garb, astride a galloping horse, a notched arrow and drawn bow in her hands, and an expression of intense concentration on her face.
"I've heard about these women, they're something of a local phenomenon. A mounted archery competition is held annually." She reached toward the scene, not touching it, her face equal parts admiration and wistfulness. "If I knew how to ride, I could've competed."
"I'm sure you'd take to it swiftly."
Will left her to her contemplations and halted before the neighboring figure, a larger-than-life samurai. The embodiment of virility, he stood on a pedestal of ice, feet spread, shoulders back, two scabbarded swords slung near his ribs, and a spear gripped in one fist. The sculpture was rendered in such exquisite detail that he could have counted each plate in the threaded rows of lamellar armor. The warrior stared watchfully across the lake, as if on the alert for an enemy, ready to defend his village to the death.
"He reminds me of you," said Elise. He wasn't even aware she'd joined him.
"Japan is, genuinely and in appearance, quiet and dignified, yet it hides this solid, fierce, passionate strength. Like you."
Her words caused him to straighten unconsciously. He looked once more at the samurai, strength calling to strength, and then at her. She beheld him with a degree of respect and esteem that made his heart swell, and the thought rose again that he would give his life for her. Realization swept through him with stunning force: such love was no longer a dream, no longer beyond the horizon, but truly within his grasp.
He tore a hand from his pocket and her cheek was cold under his palm, but her lips were warm on his. He kissed her with controlled power, though he felt his own pulse accelerating. She responded eagerly, leaning into him, her arms wrapping tighter around his waist, and restraint dissolved. He became the warrior reuniting with his wife after a long and bloody battle; the waterfall in the gorge, no longer frozen, but swollen with melting snow; the boundless ocean hurling itself into the shore's tireless embrace.
When they parted, Elise crumpled against him, enclosed within his arms, and he blinked in the chill wind as it skimmed across the azure mirror.
Driving past a segment of road construction, Darcy smiled to himself. The safety screen was embellished with a cartoon-like gaggle of grinning geese; earlier, they'd passed a similar fence sporting teddy bears in pink bow ties. And the town loudspeakers played songs from The Sound of Music at day's end. When he first arrived in Japan, he reacted with mocking cynicism, but now he viewed it with almost childlike enjoyment. Why not make the roadside cheerful?
He'd said as much when they passed a restaurant sign bedecked with what looked to be happy turtles. Elise snickered and explained they were river demons with a penchant for proper etiquette and a taste for children. Excellent. At least they'd eaten at the festival, and he was spared the dubious experience of a conveyor belt and mini-Shinkansen delivering fast food sushi to their table without need for wait staff.
Besides, no sushi could rival the private tatami room where Rich and Anne had taken them last night. He'd never tasted better sashimi, plus he'd learned how to grate fresh wasabi root. He couldn't believe Elise persuaded him to swallow the three tiny white fish swimming in his cup.
"It must be love," Rich told her, with a hearty chuckle, "we couldn't even get him to try takoyaki."
However, Will drew the line at a squirming prawn and instead watched, with a sort of fascinated horror, as the waiter prepared it and Elise ate it live, no doubt why the Americans affectionately termed it "suicide sushi." Between her and Rich, their evening abounded in good humor, a minor earthquake even triggering new heights of hilarity. When Elise excused herself to the restroom, Anne leaned across the table conspiratorially and suggested Will hasten things along so that she could attend the wedding before her pregnancy made it impossible to travel.
Tonight's dinner, however, would be different; he pictured private, refined, classy. Will had a short list of fine restaurants in one pocket and the ring in another. The purchase may have been spontaneous, but its significance had borne in upon him. Unlike traditional diamonds, more valuable the nearer they approached perfection, vivid yellows were prized for the very imperfections that made them a rarity, maybe one canary for every ten thousand white. The impurities present during the pressures of formation gave them their color, making each one unique. Like Elise, who was shaped by her experiences, by a family he was learning to appreciate, by her year in a country unlike their own, and himself, molded through loss and grief, through responsibilities and decisions, through the strength that sustained him and the grace that forgave him. The Great Disappointment had become the Great Discovery.
With those thoughts washing through him and Elise sitting beside him, one word echoed in his soul: faithfulness. For the briefest moment, his perception shifted and he saw the past in a broader context, neither as mistake nor as necessity, but as a series of choices made, sometimes wisely and often not, yet none outside an infinite Love. It was a moment beyond understanding, and it came into him with the consolation of being known and loved and held.
"Where are your thoughts?" Elise's voice and her hand on his thigh recalled him. How did he answer? How did he speak truths for which he hardly had words himself?
"I suppose I was being grateful, for the miracle that reunited us, but also, in a way, for all that's come before and how it's brought us to this point, made us into who we are," he covered her hand with his own, "and for what that promises for the future."
Darcy happened to glance at Elise as she read a highway sign and her face lit with pleasure. "Hakkoda? You're taking me to the mountains!"
When the road began to ascend in elevation, the climb grew steep and the hairpin turns dangerous, he released her hand to keep both of his on the wheel of Rich's four-by-four. The snow banks increased, until they loomed twice, and even three times, the height of the car. He found it hard to imagine the annual spring trek through the imposing snow corridors of the remote mountain roads before they were opened to vehicles.
The remaining kilometers disappeared quickly as they talked, and soon they exited the ropeway's shelter, stepping into the blinding brilliance of the mountaintop. Will led Elise along the crest and, within a five minute hike, they entered an alien landscape studded with mammoth phantasmagorical shapes. Who knew white could come in so many shades or with such depth? For all the winters he spent at Pemberley, he felt as if he had never actually looked at snow.
"Wow," breathed Elise. "It's unlike anything I've ever seen."
"Me either." And this despite viewing photos on Rich's computer.
They rambled between the fantastical formations, the biting wind tugging at their caps, and in the crisp sunshine of that January day, it really did seem like a winter wonderland.
"What are they?" she asked, as she began to snap photos.
"That does seem apt, but, what are they really?"
"It's what they're called, although they're just snow-encrusted treetops."
"Or ice sculptures designed by someone with an outrageous imagination," she backed away in order to frame an especially elaborate creation in her viewfinder, "and a really big chisel."
"Rich said this is one of only two places in Japan where the conditions are consistently perfect: constant wind, blizzards, over fifteen meters of snow…"
"Amazing." She circled another, giving the cavernous well at its base a wide berth. "This one looks like an elephant tiptoeing on its hind legs." She giggled and posed in front of it, imitating the shape.
"Here, give me your camera." He took several pictures, enjoying her antics and even consenting to be photographed himself, though he adopted a more dignified pose.
She bounded up to him, bussed him on the cheek, and twirled away, her arms outstretched, her face upturned to the cloudless bowl, whirling round and round, reminding him of the daisies she loved.
He recognized the joy overspreading her countenance, a heart-deep joy that had less to do with where they were and more to do with who she was. At some level, he was aware, from that first moment they were reunited, that she was not herself, but now, now the veil was removed and she was ablaze. Joy bubbled from her, spilling into him, infusing him with profound contentment.
She staggered, dizzy from spinning, and collapsed onto the ground. She was stationary for a moment, before beginning to wave her arms and legs. "Come make a snow angel with me."
Had he ever made a snow angel? He couldn't remember.
"Please?" She was irresistible.
He sank down beside her, feeling positively silly as he moved in rhythm with her.
When he stopped, she caught his gloved hand and her head lolled toward him. "See? That wasn't so bad. We could make a whole choir of angels."
"Let's not get carried away."
They brushed the snow from each other's backsides and wandered closer to the peak's edge, eventually stopping side by side to survey the endless panorama. In the crystalline air, he could see for miles, the land stretching away to the sea, patterned like an inverted giraffe, a network of brown on a patchwork of white.
Elise shaded her eyes in the intensity, rotating slowly as she scanned the skyline. "Spring in Japan is so lush that this must be like overlooking an emerald sea."
"I saw autumn photos. The mountains were on fire, wave after wave of red and orange and yellow."
"I should've made the trip last fall." She sighed. "Thank you for giving me one last adventure on my holiday."
"We'll have to come back."
"I like the sound of that."
"Maybe, when you're a more experienced skier, we could try the back-country. I understand, now that I see it, this would be an incredible experience. Normally, you'd have to take a helicopter to find powder like this and even then it's often not this nice."
"You have more faith in my abilities than I do," she shook her head disbelievingly. "I'd kill myself if I attempted it."
"Not now, but give us a few years." His hopes made him feel expansive. "There's fine skiing in Pemberley's backyard, and I'll take you to Europe. You'll be surprised how quickly you improve."
She grew very still and the quiet lengthened before she spoke. "What are you saying?"
"That I'm looking forward to skiing with you." He grinned nonchalantly.
"Hmm…" One eyebrow arced meaningfully, before she returned her attention to the landscape, focusing through her lens and then lowering her camera slowly. "The snow monsters, this view, you know what it makes me think of?" Her inflection was low and earnest.
"'When I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked… I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires: I hoarded the hills.'"
She was clearly pleased. "You've been reading."
"He was good company on a quiet evening, since I couldn't have you."
"I suppose I can't be jealous." She tucked her camera away, stepped forward, as if onto a stage, and finished the quote. "'For the universe is a single jewel… This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price.'"
Without peer and without price. Will looked at Elise, silhouetted by distant glory, tendrils of hair dancing about her face. The air was heavy with grandeur, and he knew this was the moment. It was not a hasty decision, but a timely one.
He unzipped his left breast pocket and withdrew the small red box. The photo fluttered out with it and she caught it in her glove as she turned.
"The Outer Banks," she exclaimed. "You really have carried it everywhere."
"Elise." He said her name gently, caressing her with his voice, and she raised her head. "That day, on the beach, I was longing to kiss you, to tell you how much I loved you. I almost did. Same with the night we danced in the street, and at Jane and Charles' wedding, and on more occasions than I can recount. But I was always waiting for the right moment. If God celebrates every daisy, I want to celebrate every moment with you. I don't want to miss a single one, not now, not ever again."
He lowered himself to one knee and he saw, from his lower angle, how round her eyes had grown behind her sunglasses.
He took her free hand in his. "You are my life and breath, my very heart, and I love you. You know what I want in marriage, but what I didn't say is that the only woman beside me in that vision is you." The wind whistled, spiraling around them. "Will you marry me?"
She simply stood, radiance gracing her face and a smile dimpling her freckled cheeks.
"Yes." She spoke quietly at first, but then she laughed her musical laugh and it resounded with joy. "With all that I am, with all my heart and soul, yes."
He rose and slipped the glove from her hand, the ring from its box, and placed the canary diamond where it had always belonged. Had it been only one week since he found the ring, with only the faintest hopes of locating and winning her, and prayed for just such an opportunity? His spirit soared, rising to the heavens on a current of gratitude.
Elise lifted her hand, angling it this way and that as yellow flashes of sunlight glinted from its golden depths. "It's beautiful, almost like a… daisy."
Will rested his forehead against hers and pressed her hand to his heart, a heart that had never known such fullness.
The sun slowly circled the windblown sentries at their backs and still they stood, joined in the breath of life and hope, their lips sometimes speaking and sometimes drinking deeply from the wellspring of love newborn. When the shadows lengthened and a wintry draft gusted, murmuring that it was time to leave, it was only that their shared dream had finally unfurled its wings and taken flight.
Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, and come with me.
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come…1
Will wove his fingers through Elise's, the unyielding metal of the canary diamond, coupled with a wedding band, pressing into his palm. The heirloom Darcy ring sparkled from her opposite hand. A new tradition, by mutual agreement.
He led her along the twisting paths, familiar yet curiously naked without their bordering snow banks. Memories waved for his attention like a field of wildflowers swaying in the wind. He was replete.
He raised her arm and touched his lips to the inside of her slender wrist, inhaling her fragrance.
She lifted her brilliant gaze to his. "Thank you for bringing me to Aoni. I can't imagine a more perfect place to celebrate our anniversary."
Lost in the brown warmth of her eyes, as well as his recollections of their last visit and his hopes for their holiday, her gratitude registered belatedly. "Hmm? You're welcome."
"You seem a little distracted."
"Oh…" he shrugged. She tickled him in a sensitive spot along his ribs and he lurched sideways, nearly toppling from the rail-less stone bridge. "Hey, none of that. I want to bathe in the onsen, not the stream."
"Come on, confess, my dear."
A cool breeze stirred and cherry blossoms rained over them. Elise tilted her head to the sky, her laughter ascending, melodic and pure. He laughed with her and began plucking pale petals from her dark hair.
When she focused on him again, her smile softened. "You were thinking about luring me into the konyoku, weren't you."
He attempted an innocent expression.
"See how well I know you?" She bumped her shoulder against his upper arm.
"Maybe the idea has crossed my mind. You can't deny you've entertained similar thoughts."
"Who, me? I was merely thinking I could finally show you Japan not buried in snow. Although, now that you mention it," she tossed his yukata to him and skipped ahead, calling back, "first to change has first dibs on the wash barrel."
He followed more sedately. Past the thatched roof of the traditional building where she'd stayed. Over another bend in the burbling brook as it meandered through the small valley, feeding each pool with its therapeutic heat. Past the entrance to the konyoku's bamboo enclosure where they were reunited. Under the steep overhang, no longer capped with snow, and up the stairs into the spacious tatami room where he'd slept and dreamt, alone. He found Elise, still in her clothes, smoothing twin duvets atop the futons she'd arranged side by side. A tasteful arrangement of daisies adorned the low table, exactly as he'd requested.
"I thought we were rushing to the onsen," he said.
"We are, not that you seem in any hurry, but a good soak always makes me sleepy." She regained her feet and rested her hands on her hips. "You'll thank me later."
He stepped to her side and kissed her forehead. "I'll thank you now. You're very thoughtful."
He efficiently dressed in his yukata and, while he waited for her, peered from a side window which was opened to the fresh day. The same spring-fed waterfall bounded down the hillside with a cheerful clamor, this time surging through early greenery that was itself nearly leaping from the fertile soil. Everything erupting with life. And everywhere, in a spectrum from white to pink, cherry blossoms showered down, fluttering in the air, floating on the water, so much confetti flung from the heavens.
Knowing Elise would appreciate the view, he rotated, but words failed him, transfixed as he was by a sight more stunning than any nature could afford.
The sun spilling through the latticework window caught her in luminous profile, as she unfolded her robe and sought for its sleeves. Perhaps he should have looked away when he beheld her thus on that providential January morn, but he could no more have torn his eyes from her then than he could now. To marvel was finally his right, his privilege. He reveled in her radiance, his eyes traveling leisurely, treasuring her exquisite form. He was decided. She was even lovelier than on their wedding. The passage of time could only increase her beauty, for each new day unveiled further mysteries of her heart and awoke in him a corresponding depth of love.
She swiveled her head slightly, as if sensing his adoration. "And just what are you staring at?"
Oh, the wonder of her. "My wife."
Answering admiration ignited in her countenance and a smile teased at her mouth. "Why, my husband, I do believe you require assistance with your obi."
Her yukata slipped from her shoulders, slid down her legs, pooled around her bare feet unheeded, and she advanced.
The onsen would have to wait. After a year of marriage, Will should not have been surprised, but he was. He neither anticipated Elise's playfulness, nor the brief chase which ended when he allowed himself to be caught. Why was he running anyway? Nor the sheer glory of her, her merry eyes transmuted to tenderness, her intoxicating breath warm upon his face, her lips soft in sweet agony, her fair skin aglow against his own. What could compare to the unparalleled pleasure of holding her in his arms?
Dizzying in splendor, drowning in joy, from the highest heights into the limitless, starry depths, he took her hand and they leapt.
1 Song of Songs 2:10-12The End