He wandered down the hall and into the kitchen, stood staring into the ancient refrigerator for a moment, decided he wasn’t hungry and closed the door.
He wished that Mrs. Graham and the Reverend could have met Brianna, and she them. He smiled at the empty kitchen table, remembering an adolescent conversation with the two elderly people, when he, in the grip of a mad—and unrequited—lust for the tobacconist’s daughter, had asked how to know if one was truly in love.
“If ye have to ask yourself if you’re in love, laddie—then ye aren’t,” Mrs. Graham had assured him, tapping her spoon on the edge of her mixing bowl for emphasis. “And keep your paws off wee Mavis MacDowell, or her Da will murder ye.”
“When you’re in love, Rog, you’ll know it with no telling,” the Reverend had chimed in, dipping a finger in the cake batter. He ducked in mock alarm as Mrs. Graham raised a threatening spoon, and laughed. “And do mind yourself with young Mavis, lad; I’m not old enough to be a grandfather.”
Well, they’d been right. He knew, with no telling—had known since he’d met Brianna Randall. What he didn’t know for sure was whether Brianna felt the same.
He couldn’t wait any longer. He slapped his pocket to be sure of his keys, ran down the stairs and out into the winter rain that had begun to pelt down just after breakfast. They did say a cold shower was the thing. Hadn’t worked with Mavis, though.
December 24, 1969
“Now, the plum pudding’s in the warming oven, and the hard sauce in the wee pan to the back,” Fiona instructed him, pulling on her fuzzy woolen hat. It was red, Fiona was short, and in it she looked like a garden gnome.
“Don’t turn up the flame too high, mind. And dinna turn it out altogether, either, or you’ll never get it lit again. And here, I’ve the directions for the birds for tomorrow all written out, they’re stuffed in their pan, and I’ve left the veg already chopped to go along in the big yellow bowl in the fridge, and…” She fumbled in the pocket of her jeans and withdrew a handwritten slip of paper, which she thrust into his hand.
He patted her on the head.
“Don’t worry, Fiona,” he assured her. “We won’t burn the place down. Nor starve, either.”
She frowned dubiously, hesitating at the door. Her fiancé, sitting in his car outside, revved his engine in an impatient sort of way.
“Aye, well. You’re sure the two of ye won’t come with us? Ernie’s Mam wouldna mind it a bit, and I’m sure she’d not think it right, just the two of ye left here by yourselves to keep Christmas…”
“Don’t worry, Fiona,” he said, edging her gently backward out the door. “We’ll manage fine. You have a nice holiday with Ernie, and don’t bother about us.”
She sighed, giving in reluctantly. “Aye, I suppose you’ll do.” A short, irritable beep! from behind made her turn and glare at the car.
“Well, I’m coming then, aren’t I?” she demanded. Turning back, she beamed suddenly at Roger, threw her arms about him, and standing on tiptoe, kissed him firmly on the lips.
She drew back and winked conspiratorially, screwing up her small, round face. “That’ll sort our Ernie out,” she whispered. “Happy Christmas, Rog!” she said loudly, and with a g*y wave, hopped off the porch and strolled in leisurely fashion toward the car, h*ps swinging just a bit.
Its engine roaring in protest, the car shot off with a squeal of tires before the door had quite shut behind Fiona. Roger stood on the porch waving, pleased that Ernie wasn’t an especially massive bloke.
The door opened behind him and Brianna poked her head out.
“What are you doing out here with no coat on?” she inquired. “It’s freezing!”
He hesitated, tempted to tell her. After all, it had evidently worked on Ernie. But it was Christmas Eve, he reminded himself. In spite of the lowering sky and plummeting temperature, he felt warm and tingling all over. He smiled at her.
“Just seeing Fiona off,” he said, pulling back the door. “Shall we see if we can make lunch without blowing up the kitchen?”
They managed sandwiches without incident, and returned after lunch to the study. The room was nearly empty now; only a few shelves of books remained to be sorted and packed.
On the one hand, Roger felt immense relief that the job was nearly done. On the other, it was sad to see the warm, cluttered study reduced to such a shell of its former self.
The Reverend’s big desk had been emptied and removed to the garage for storage, the floor-to-ceiling shelves denuded of their huge burden of books, the cork-lined wall stripped of its many layers of fluttering papers. This process reminded Roger uncomfortably of chicken-plucking, the result being a stark and pathetic bareness that made him want to avert his eyes.
There was one square of paper still pinned to the cork. He’d take that down last.
“What about these?” Brianna waved a feather duster inquiringly at a small stack of books that sat on the table before her. An array of boxes gaped on the floor at her feet, half filled with books destined for various fates: libraries, antiquarian societies, friends of the Reverend’s, Roger’s personal use.
“They’re autographed, but not inscribed to anybody,” she said, handing him the top one. “You’ve got the set he inscribed to your father, but do you want these, too? They’re first editions.”
Roger turned the book over in his hands. It was one of Frank Randall’s, a lovely book, beautifully typeset and bound to match the elegance of its scholarly content.
“You should have them, shouldn’t you?” he said. Without waiting for an answer, he set the book gently into a small box that rested on the seat of an armchair. “Your dad’s work, after all.”
“I’ve got some,” she protested. “Tons. Boxes and boxes.”
“Not autographed, though?”
“Well, no.” She picked up another of the books and flipped it open to the flyleaf, where Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis—F. W. Randall was written in a strong, slanting hand. She rubbed a finger gently over the signature, and her wide mouth softened.
“The times are changing, and we with them. You’re sure you don’t want them, Roger?”
“Sure,” he said, and smiled. He waved a wry hand at their book-strewn surroundings. “Don’t worry, you won’t leave me short.”
She laughed and put the books in her own box, then went back to her work, dusting and wiping the stacked and sorted books before packing them. Most hadn’t been cleaned in forty years, and she was liberally smudged herself by this time, long fingers grimy and the cuffs of her white shirt nearly black with filth.
“Won’t you miss this place?” she asked. She wiped a strand of hair out of her eyes and gestured at the spacious room. “You grew up here, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and yes,” he answered, heaving another full carton onto the pile to be shipped to the university library. “Not much choice, though.”
“I guess you couldn’t live here,” she agreed regretfully. “Since you have to be in Oxford most of the time. But do you have to sell it?”
“I can’t sell it. It’s not mine.” He stooped to get a grip on an extra-large carton, and rose slowly to his feet, grunting with effort. He staggered across the room and dropped it onto the stack, with a thud that raised small puffs of dust from the boxes beneath it.
“Whew!” He blew out his breath, grinning at her. “God help the antiquarians when they pick that one up.”
“What do you mean, it’s not yours?”
“What I said,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It isn’t mine. The house and land belong to the church; Dad lived here for near fifty years, but he didn’t own it. It belongs to the Parish Council. The new minister doesn’t want it—he’s got money of his own, and a wife who likes mod cons—so the Council’s putting it to let. Fiona and her Ernie are taking it, heaven help them.”
“Just the two of them?”
“It’s cheap. For good reason,” he added wryly. “She wants lots of kids, though—be room for an army of them here, I can tell you.” Designed in Victorian times for ministers with numerous families, the manse had twelve rooms—not counting one unmodernized and highly inconvenient bath.
“The wedding’s in February, so that’s why I’ve got to finish the clearing up over Christmas, to give time for the cleaners and painters to come in. Shame to make you work on your holiday, though. Maybe we’ll drive down to Fort William Monday?”
Brianna picked up another book, but didn’t put it in the box right away.
“So your home’s gone for good,” she said, slowly. “It doesn’t seem right—though I’m glad Fiona will have it.”
“Not as though I meant to settle in Inverness,” he said. “And it’s not as though it were an ancestral seat or anything.” He waved at the cracked linoleum, the grubby enamel paint, and the ancient glass-bowl light fixture overhead. “Can’t put it on the National Trust and charge people two quid each to tour the place.”
She smiled at that, and returned to her sorting. She seemed pensive, though, a small frown visible between her thick red brows. Finally she put the last book in the box, stretched and sighed.
“The Reverend had nearly as many books as my parents,” she said. “Between Mama’s medical books and Daddy’s historical stuff, they left enough to supply a whole library. It’ll probably take six months to sort it all out, when I get ho—when I go back.” She bit her lip lightly, and turned to pick up a roll of packing tape, picking at it with a fingernail. “I told the real estate agent she could list the house for sale by summer.”
“That’s what’s been bothering you?” he said slowly, realization dawning as he watched her face. “Thinking about taking apart the house you grew up in—having your home gone for good?”
One shoulder lifted slightly, her eyes still fixed on the recalcitrant tape.
“If you can stand it, I guess I can. Besides,” she went on, “it’s not that bad. Mama took care of almost everything—she found a tenant and had the house leased for a year, so I could have time to decide what to do, without worrying about it just sitting there vacant. But it’s silly to keep it; it’s way too big for me to live in alone.”
“You might get married.” He blurted it out without thinking.
“Guess I might,” she said. She glanced at him sidelong, and the corner of her mouth twitched in what might have been amusement. “Someday. But what if my husband didn’t want to live in Boston?”
It occurred to him quite suddenly that her concern over his losing the manse might—just possibly—have been that she envisioned herself living in it.
“D’you want kids?” he asked abruptly. He hadn’t thought to ask before, but hoped like hell she did.