Interlude II 

Christmas Presents, or, Unreconstructed Romantic Mush 

(Volume 6 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

 

"So you're really going to do it." Mickey paused in primping the table to study Robert. He was studying the flowers nervously, almost reaching to adjust something, then pulling his hand back at the last moment. "McCall, you're going to have a stroke. Sit down." Mickey pulled out a chair and shoved Robert into it. "Don't keel over before you even pop the question."

Robert subsided with an anxious sigh. "Am I doing the right thing, Mickey?"

"Oh, man, you're asking me?"

"Yes, I am."

Mickey sighed and pulled out the other chair. "You talk about her incessantly, you can't go for three hours without calling her, she giggles whenever your name is mentioned. What do you want, clouds of angels streaming glory from their wings and trumpeting, 'Robert McCall, marry this woman'?"

"It would be simpler. Then I'd have a good idea if she'd say yes or not."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but you two are seriously planning to go to Europe together next year. I've got her number in my speed dial so I can find you. She made a joke that you ought to just move in with her, and you thought about it. You have three choices, Robert. Marry her, move in with her, or never talk to her again. Anything else is stalemate." Mickey back pedaled from his seriousness. "Me, I think you should just move in with her. You shouldn't marry a woman till you see her waking up in a bad mood."

Robert smiled. "I have seen her wake up in a bad mood." He chuckled, but more at Mickey's concern for him. Nerves took him again, the dread that she could still refuse him. He hated not being certain. But as Mickey said, it was marry her or leave her. His cellular phone bill was approaching outrageous.

He checked his watch. "The car should be picking her up about now. Is everything ready here?"

"Pete threw me out of the kitchen because she said there was nothing more to do, the wine is chilling, the table's set, the snow's stopped so I even cleared the walk. You just get your words straight."

"'Please come home for Christmas,'" Ann sang along with the Eagles on the radio as she studied herself in the mirror. "'If not for Christmas, then New Year's night.' Ankh, if you shed on me I'll Nair you. You can't come with me." She caught up the cat, careless of hair on her turquoise silk. "Could you stand to have him around full time, Ankh? I know I could."

She hugged the cat and wondered about the future. They'd begun talking about the things they wanted to do together, trips they wanted to take, places they wanted to see. Most nights they spent together, and if they didn't, long phone calls sufficed. Robert had spent many a stake-out on the car phone with her. She was getting quite good at programming with the phone tucked under her ear. From hard-won independence, she'd gone to a real loathing of sleeping alone. When she'd mentioned it to Robert, he'd nodded knowingly.

The last thing she wanted, though, was to pressure him. If they sailed through the next few years together the way they were, she'd be happy. She just wondered, was all, and her family tomorrow at the clan gathering would be asking. It just seemed very logical that he should move in. What he saved on mileage on the car alone would make it worth it.

If, oh, if. To wake up next to him on a regular basis by right. She kept playing grade school games with hers and Robert's names to see what was in their future. If she used his middle name and her first initial it worked out right.

Don't push, don't push. Three months ago you'd never have dreamed you'd be spending Christmas Eve with him, much less that he'd be willing to spend Christmas itself with the Torquemada Institute of Higher Interrogation. Then again, he was a professional. Her mother was just a talented amateur. It could be intensely amusing.

The door bell rang, and Ankh complained as Ann dumped her on the floor. Why Robert couldn't have just picked her up in his car, she didn't know. But he'd wanted to do something special. She checked in the mirror for cat hairs, poked hopelessly at her hair, then threw it all in the lap of the gods. After all, what was a brand-new Oscar de la Rente to a man who had used her car keys to defuse a bomb?

She grabbed her opera cloak from the hall closet, ignored Tut's rendition of a dying creature whose only cure was her attention, and looked out the spyhole. Oh, my god, a 1931 Rolls Royce limousine, and the chauffeur was standing on her doorstep. Come on, girl, savoir faire, you can do it.

She opened the door and couldn't help giggling in delight when the chauffeur tipped his hat. "Good evening, Miss Marshall. I'm Rodney from Classic Transport. Mr. McCall sent me to take you to the restaurant." He handed her an envelope bearing her name in Robert's handwriting.

"Just a note" it read, "to assure you you're getting into the right car. This is Rodney. I helped his brother with a small problem a few months ago. Dinner is waiting. Happy Christmas."

"So how's your brother?" Ann asked.

"He's fine now, thanks to Mr. McCall," Rodney answered easily. "I'm afraid, though, Mr. McCall was quite insistent that I take you to O’Phelan's with all due speed."

"Of course."

Ann secured the house, reassured the cats that they weren't being abandoned, and let Rodney help her into the back of the limousine. She giggled again as she sank into the deep seat. Trust that man to make the grand gesture. If only her neighbors could see this.

As Rodney piloted the car away from the curb, the concealed intercom crackled. "Mr. McCall wants me to tell you that he ordered the decorations back there especially for tonight."

Only then did Ann notice the silver bud vase with the single rosebud. Next to it was a small package. She ripped it open, sending gentility to the winds in her delight at a present. Inside was a first edition of "The Hobbit," autographed by Tolkien.

Ann held the book against her carefully as she gazed out the windows. They were passing a park filled with lighted trees. New snow covered the ground, laying a fresh white blanket over the dingy city. For the first time since she'd achieved what passed for adulthood, Ann felt what Christmas was supposed to be. She was glad she'd bought a new dress.

Robert checked his watch for the sixth time.

"McCall, if the guy's any good, he's taking his time on these streets," Mickey explained, again. "There wasn't enough snow to warrant the snow plows, and, besides, the city doesn't want to pay Christmas Eve wages."

"I should have told him to call me when he picked her up," Robert muttered.

Mickey gave up and went to look out the front door with Pete.

"He's a mess," Pete whispered.

"How many times do you propose to a woman?"

"What do you think she'll say?"

"Three to five she says yes, but longshots happen. Oh, there they are. She's here," he called back, and he laughed as Robert looked around anxiously one more time.

"We're on," Pete said, heading for the kitchen.

"O’Phelan's," Rodney announced, pulling up at the curb behind Robert's Jaguar. Ann gathered her rose and her book and mentally rehearsed getting out gracefully. She noticed, as he opened the door, that he'd managed to miss the puddles. With Rodney's help, she managed to exit the car without embarrassing herself.

The door opened, and Mickey grinned at her. "Good evening, madam."

"Good evening, Mickey." She turned to Rodney. "Thank you so much." He tipped his hat and got back into the car. Ann headed inside.

"May I take your cloak?" Mickey asked.

"Of course." She saw he'd been persuaded into a proper waiter's jacket. She forgot him when she saw Robert approaching. "Hello, sweetheart."

"Hello, darling." He kissed her, then held her away to look at her. "You look splendid. Is that a new dress?"

"Yes, I couldn't resist. I adore full skirts. Oh, how beautiful."

The fireplace was burning merrily beside a linen-draped table bearing crystal and silver. Soft music played from somewhere. Ann saw more roses as Robert held her chair for her.

"This is wonderful." She put her book on the table. "And where did you find this?"

"I have my sources. I've heard rumors of autographed copies of the full trilogy."

Mickey came up to the table and bowed. "Good evening, I'm Mickey, and I'll be your waiter tonight. The first course is O’Phelan's famous french onion soup, followed by the salad. Our main course is grilled salmon with water chestnuts. Dessert is chocolate mousse." He headed for the kitchen.

"Fiend," Ann said fondly.

"It's Christmas Eve. You're supposed to be decadent."

She gazed at him, memorizing the play of light on his face and his smile. "I love you," she said simply.

"I adore you." He kissed her hand and began considering timing.

They talked of Christmases past and the things that had made them happy in their youths. Mickey eavesdropped shamelessly and reported to Pete in the kitchen that no progress was being made to the main event.

"You think he's waiting for us to leave?" Pete asked.

"I'm not leaving till I find out what happens."

"Good, I'm with you."

Over dessert, Ann remembered the events scheduled for tomorrow. "I apologize in advance for the rudeness of my family tomorrow. Christmas is the time when partners pass muster. Grandma is worse in her own house."

"I'm sure I'll manage."

"Actually, I'm amazed she invited you, and I'm astounded you accepted."

"Why shouldn't I? So much the better if they consider us a social unit." He paused as Mickey appeared to clear away the plates. "You do that very well."

"Thanks, do I get a tip?"

"Buy IBM at 48," Ann grinned.

"Thanks a lot."

"Seriously, Mickey--" Robert started.

"Don't start, you're welcome. Me and Pete'll be in the kitchen working on the leftovers." He gave Robert a significant look. When he returned to the kitchen, he told Pete, "We're making progress, he's fidgeting with his cufflinks."

Ann gazed around the room. "This is nice," she smiled. "Oh, look, it's snowing again."

"The drive out to the Island should be lovely. Over the river and through the woods."

"If only Grandma's house didn't look so much like something out of 'Wuthering Heights.'" She stopped talking and just looked at him, amazed that he should love her. It struck her that way sometimes, a wondering joy that left her speechless.

"I bought you a gift," Robert said, reaching to the sideboard.

"Robert, I told you--"

"And I ignored you." He placed a smallish box in front of her. "The top lifts off."

Greed warred with good manners. Greed won. She lifted the top of the box, and her jaw dropped. "Oh my--a Faberge egg?"

"A reproduction." Robert watched intently, anticipating the look on her face. "Open it."

"Blessed be, there's more?" She worked the tiny gold catch on the front of the blue-and-gilt egg and gently raised the top. All she could do was gasp. On the blue satin lining lay a necklace of freshwater pearls and diamonds. "Robert, you . . . I . . . " With shaking fingers, she pulled it out and draped it across her fingers. "You shouldn't have."

"I told you I wanted to see you in diamonds," he said, immensely pleased with her reaction.

"But--"

"But what?"

"I thought we weren't getting each other anything." She shook her head helplessly as he took the necklace from her hands and came around to fasten it around her neck. "I mean, the book is one thing, but this . . . "

"Beautiful women deserve beautiful ornaments. Though if you really dislike it I can always take it back."

"Oh, no, I love it." She couldn't help reaching up and fondling it.

He laughed and kissed her. "Poor darling, your better nature keeps trying to make you do the right thing, but you don't stand a chance."

"You do this to me on purpose."

"Yes, I do. I take great pleasure in seeing you flustered and speechless."

"But when I asked you what you wanted . . . "

"I said all I wanted was you. I told you the truth." He resumed his seat.

"Men always say that, though."

Robert rested his chin on his clasped hands. "My love, no diamond could be as bright as your eyes tonight, no treasure as precious as your smile. There is no gift the equal of you."

Ann blushed, having no words to counter him.

The box in his jacket pocket became a little heavier. "There is one thing, though," he said carefully.

"What?"

He ignored his stomach's twisting and waded in. "You could do me the honor of granting me your hand in marriage." He fidgeted with a spoon as he waited.

She blinked and stopped breathing a moment. "I beg your pardon?"

The spoon started to bend in his tight grip. "Will you marry me?"

Marry him? Now? Did she dare? Was she ready? Her mind ran rapidly through the pros and cons, trying to make the wisest decision. "Yes," said her heart, overruling. Oh, OK, cool, said her head. "Oh, yes."

Robert blinked. "Yes?"

"Yes."

They stared at each other for several breathless seconds, then he jumped from his chair to pull her into his arms. "And do you really mean it?" he asked in disbelief.

"Yes, I will marry you." Ann dragged his mouth down to hers. She had to break it off for crying. "Oh, lord, are you serious? You really want to marry me?"

"You, no one but you, forever you." He framed her face in his hands and stared at her in wonder. "You said yes. I was half-afraid you'd laugh in my face." He swallowed hard and blinked rapidly.

"Oh, beloved, never ever." A tear escaped from his eye. She bit her lip to keep from crying worse and brushed the tear away. "Husband," she said softly, trying out the sound of it. So odd to think of that word as something wonderful. For so long she'd avoided referring to husbands as something she might have for herself. The Scrooge in her soul cleared its throat, trying to get everyone's attention so it could point out the hazards. The rest of her soul entities threw it in a convenient snow bank.

Robert's soul trembled at the contemplative happiness in her voice. "I never thought anyone would call me that again." His voice was still shaky.

"I will try to be a good wife," she said plaintively. "I'm not sure I know how."

"All I ask is that you stay as you are. You are the woman I love. My future wife." He hugged her till she squeaked.

She laughed when she got her breath back. "Mom is going to have a cow. I can't wait to see her face. Cousin Tanya will hate me, she thought she'd be the only one showing off a ring this season."

"The ring. I almost forgot." He dug into his pocket.

"Oh, Robert, you got me a ring already?"

"I am nothing if not hopeful." He handed her the small blue box with the Tiffany label.

She grinned at him. "Did you get the necklace there too?"

"Yes, I did. The sales clerk wants to find out what happened. She reminded me that engagement rings are returnable if necessary."

"How sad that they thought of that." She held her breath as she opened the box. Robert normally had exquisite taste, but she'd have to wear this ring for the rest of her life. She hid her sigh of relief. "Oh, sweetheart, it's wonderful." The three-quarter-carat emerald glowed like sunlight through all the leaves of spring. A pavement of dozens of tiny diamonds swirled along the band and around the emerald with Art Nouveau grace. "Wherever did you find it?"

"In a design book at Tiffany from the turn of the century. I must have spent two hours looking through books."

"When?"

"When we got back from Key West."

"That was barely a month ago. You got a custom design done that quickly?"

"I told them to hurry." He took the ring from the box, then took her left hand. Slowly he slid the ring onto her finger. "The future Mrs. McCall." She burst into tears again, and he pulled her into his arms.

"I can't believe how much I'm crying," she managed.

"Never apologize for being happy." He held her tight as she cried on him. For a change he didn't mind if she heard him sniffle.

A loud crash came from the kitchen. "What in the world?" Ann said.

"I think I know," Robert laughed. "Yes, you can come out now!" he called. Ann joined his laughter at Pete and Mickey's rapid appearance.

"About time," Mickey griped. "I figured we'd either break a stalemate or remind you there were people waiting for news." He studied the couple and grinned in satisfaction. If McCall was smiling that hard after being turned down, he was a sick man. "So when's the day?" He laughed at the looks on their faces. "Come on, folks, you're going to have to think of this stuff eventually."

"I think I'd better warn my family before we start making plans," Ann said.

"What'll they say?"

She grinned at her fiancé. "I don't give a damn."

Pete produced a bottle of champagne. "I figured you wouldn't mind breaking into the Lafitte-Rothschild tonight," she grinned at the man who paid half the costs of the place.

"You mean there's some left?" Robert said. "Good idea." He handed Ann a glass and took one himself. "To my future wife," he said proudly.

"Hear, hear," Pete said. Mickey just smiled and drank.

"And my future husband," Ann responded. She sipped the champagne and grinned at the ring. "Robert, you give the best Christmas presents."

"May you always think so."

Pete refilled the drinks. "But, seriously, do you have a time frame in mind?"

"Day after tomorrow," Ann proposed. "To hell with the family."

"The wedding license office is closed till the 28th," Robert replied.

"You checked?"

"It crossed my mind." He laughed at her thoughtful face. "Is that any way to start a life together, with hundreds of people swearing blood feud against us? Besides, Mickey, didn't you say you had to be out of town in a few days?"

"Yeah," Mickey answered carefully. It wasn't like him to bring up work in front of civilians. "So?"

"I'm expecting you to be my best man," Robert smiled. "It would be best if you were here."

Mickey blinked. "Best man?"

"Well, who else would it be?" Ann pointed out reasonably.

"Unless you have a deep-seated reason why you don't want to," Robert added.

"Only surprise," Mickey finally said. "I would be honored."

"Good," Ann said. "I only hope Suzy is similarly honored." She looked at Robert. "Sweetheart, do you have any idea how much work we've just let ourselves in for?"

"Like what?"

She shook her head. "Men, they live in such an innocent world."

Pete drained her glass. "Well, that's settled. Anything in the kitchen can last till the 26th, and I have Christmas presents to finish wrapping. So I think I'll head home." She looked at Mickey pointedly.

"Oh, yeah," Mickey said quickly. "I promised my brother I'd show up for midnight mass this year. Priests get so picky about these things. He says I should show up early if I want to work in a penance or two."

"Are you in need of one?" Ann asked archly.

"Always." He went to hug her. "Thank you for saying yes. I'd have had to deal with him if you hadn't."

"Oh, trust me, it was my pleasure. By the way, what are you doing tomorrow?"

"Dragging my cousin's kids out of the Christmas tree. Don't worry about me."

"Just asking." Her gaze fell on her left hand again. "Oh, my god," she giggled.

Mickey shook his head. "Merry Christmas, you two. See you later. Try to decide when the big day's going to be, I have to schedule these kinds of things." He left to get his coat, followed by Pete.

"Alone at last," Robert said, pulling Ann into his arms. She returned his kiss enthusiastically. "Happy, my love?" he asked eventually.

"Beyond all words," she answered, her arms still around his neck. "Unless this is all just a dream."

"No dream, but one come true." He pulled her to the inglenook by the fire. She settled into his arms with a happy sigh. "So let us start thinking of the practicalities."

"I can't wait. Where shall we live?"

"I rather assumed I'd finally take you up on your offer to move in with you."

"Oh, boy, when?"

"After the wedding, my own."

"Poo, why?"

"I'm still old-fashioned about some things."

"Sigh. Which brings up when again."

"How involved do you want it?"

"Twenty minutes in front of a judge sounds like fun."

"Your mother would not approve."

Some of her joy faded. "My mother won't approve of any of this, if I know her."

"Really? Is that going to be a problem?"

"I won't let it be. She lost her right of approval after the first one. She approved of him, and we know what happened there." Ann closed her eyes and fought off flashbacks.

Robert brushed her hair back and looked at her, concerned. "I'm going to go make sure everything's secure in the kitchen. I'll be right back." She nodded absently. Robert decided to take several minutes so she could regain her composure.

After a few moments, Ann stood and walked slowly to the windows. Light snow drifted through the light from the street lamps, glittering as it fell. Traffic was almost nonexistent. Ann raised her left hand and gazed at the ring, watching the light in the gems. To live with Robert and be his wife. That was happiness so overwhelming as to be a little unreal. How could she have been missing so large a part of her soul and not notice? But instead of delightedly looking forward to the day she said "I do" to Robert, all she could think of was the moment she'd sworn "Till death do us part" to Randy. It had almost been her death that had parted them.

The divorce had been almost more shocking to her family than Randy's attack on her. Domestic violence could be dealt with, explained away, treated. To give her family credit, they'd agreed that Randy needed serious help and that little could forgive assault. But they didn't agree that the attempt had been at murder. Veiled remarks questioned Ann's insistence that she had in no way provoked him. "He must have had a reason," ran the whisper. But the subject had been anathema for years. They pretended the whole marriage had never happened and hinted delicately at the suitability of this nephew of old friends or that recently bereaved co-worker of mostly appropriate age. Ann was willing to bet they never thought she'd find a man for herself, and such a man. Her mother's chagrin was not well concealed.

"I'm glad to see you happy, dear," she'd said, all sincere concern, "but surely we can find you someone more suitable."

"Like the last one you found suitable?" Ann had replied tartly.

"Ann, really, there's no need . . . " Her mother had trailed off and changed the subject.

But the subject could not be changed now. It was time to face it finally. Ann wasn't sure she could. Her family wasn't alone in trying to forget the subject.

Robert closed the door quietly behind him, not wanting to disturb her. She was twisting the ring on her finger as she gazed outside, as if it wasn't sitting comfortably. He didn't know if he should interrupt, but if he planned to marry her he'd have to deal with her worries. He walked to her quietly.

"Second thoughts?" he asked carefully.

"About you? Never." She didn't turn from the window. "About tomorrow, hundreds."

"We have to face them eventually."

"I know. What's hard to face is the past."

"I understand." He wrapped his arms around her and felt her relax against him. "Tell me about it."

"When I made those vows I meant them. We were good friends and honestly liked each other. Decent marriages have been made on less. He was possessive, but not overwhelming. The first year we were happy enough to make it work."

He stroked her hair. "What was the wedding ceremony like?"

Ann shook her head. "Dear god. Daddy said he wished we were Catholic so he could get St. Patrick's. As it was, he got St. John the Divine. I had a real cathedral wedding. It was amazing."

"Why so huge?"

"I was the first Marshall girl of my generation to get married, plus I was the oldest daughter of the oldest son."

"Royal wedding, hm, for the Princess Royal?"

"God help me, yes. Society reporters everywhere, our picture in Town and Country--hell, they did a page on the thing in New York Times Magazine. If I'd married Isaac Schaeffer's grandson like they were hinting, it would have been worse. As it was, Mom arranged everything, and I was caught between her, Grandma, and Tricia, my mother-in-law. I never want to go through that again."

"You don't have to."

She snuggled closer. "They released doves at the wedding reception, which we had at Tavern on the Green. It was like some bad soap opera. I had no say in anything."

"They'll only browbeat you if you let them, and if nothing else, I won't let them."

"You don't know what they're like," Ann warned. "Especially Grandma."

"I expect I'll find out."

She looked at him and finally smiled. "They don't stand a chance against you."

"In this case, no. In no case involving you. And in the second case, you're not the woman you were then."

"Girl. No one that stupid deserves the title of woman."

"Darling, 'tis no crime to be young. We all do it."

"I wouldn't be that age again for anything."

"Luckily you don't have to be." He rested his cheek on her hair and gazed out the window. "The Chrysler Building is blinking red & green."

She let the peace of his love wrap around her soul. "Too bad Rockefeller Center is full of reporters covering the carolers. This is the first time since I was a kid that Christmas feels like the hype."

"I'm sure we could find Christmas music on the radio. I have an idea. You call Suzy and tell her the news, and I'll find appropriate music."

"A wonderful idea."

As she went to the phone, Robert plugged in the Christmas lights around the windows and turned off the interior lights. The fire and the tiny blinking lights sent a warm glow through the room. Ann watched her fiancé move through the new, moving shadows as she listened to Suzy's phone ring.

With a click, the speaker at the other end came on. "Hello," Suzy's harried voice said through a crackle of paper. "Merry Christmas and all that."

"Oh, dear, are you still wrapping?"

"Yes, and I've got three more to do. How the hell do you wrap stuffed Barneys?"

"In lead weights preparatory to throwing them off a bridge." Robert paused in resetting the stereo to look at her. She grinned. "Or you could cut one ear off of each and send them to your nieces with ransom notes."

"Sick," Suzy said. "I love it. The thought will get me through tomorrow. Why are you calling me? You're supposed to be having a fancy dinner with Robert."

"Oh, I am."

"Did he like the dress?"

"Apparently so."

"Are you still wearing it?"

"Susan," Ann scolded, glad she hadn't put the speaker on. "The reason I called was to tell you about the presents he got me." She accepted a refreshed glass of champagne from Robert.

"Just like a man. They say don't buy them anything, then they give you something. Well, go ahead, gloat. Malik refuses to celebrate Christmas on the grounds it's symbolic of oppressive European ideology."

"And you like this man?"

"Don't start."

"Sorry, love. Anyway, he got me three things."

"Are there wise men involved in this and a star in the east?"

"Not so far. First off, he got me an autographed copy of 'The Hobbit.'"

"Cool." There was more crackling of paper.

"Then this absolutely incredible pearl and diamond necklace in a gift box of a Faberge egg, one of the new ones."

"Wow. How incredible?"

"Some clerk in Tiffany can make several car payments on the commission incredible."

"My god. What's the third thing?"

"A ring," she said simply, smiling at Robert.

Suzy missed a beat. "A ring? Annie--"

"A very beautiful emerald that's currently sitting on my left hand."

Something ripped as Suzy charged squealing for the phone. Ann held the receiver away from her ear. "You're kidding!" Suzy shrieked. Robert, five feet away, heard her clearly.

"No, I'm not kidding."

"You're going to get married? He really asked?"

"Yes and yes."

"Oh, Annie, that's incredible! When?"

"We don't know yet, we've got to spring this on my folks yet. You're the first one outside this building to know."

"Did he get down on one knee and everything?"

"Actually, no. He sprung it on me after dessert. You know what this means, don't you?"

"Yeah, you're going to be grinning a lot."

"I was thinking more on the lines that you're going to have be maid-of-honor again."

"Oh, sis, that's no trauma. Please say I get to wear a better dress."

"That wasn't my fault, Mom picked out that dress. But nothing pink, I swear."

Suzy sniffed for a moment. "Oh, Annie, this is so wonderful. You two are so right together. Can I talk to him?"

"She wants to talk to you," Ann said to Robert.

He accepted the receiver. "Hello, Suzy. I take it you're pleased?"

"I'm so pleased I'm going to give you a big kiss when I see you. I'm very thankful you showed up to make her so happy. I've worried about her."

"She's lucky to have a friend like you."

"Speaking of friends, is Mickey going to be best man?"

"Yes, he is."

"Good, I'll plot the parties with him. Do you two have any idea when you're going to do it?"

"Not really. Mickey's schedule for the next few weeks is quite hectic, but Ann was thinking about a judge."

"Oh, my god, Sylvia would lynch the both of you."

"That's what I told Ann. I imagine plans should wait till we've told the family."

"Don't let Anastasia railroad you."

"Suzy, no one has railroaded me in a very long time." Ann looked quizzical, and he smiled at her reassuringly. "Let me give you back to Ann."

"You don't mind, do you?" Ann asked when she had the phone back, "that I assumed you'd be my maid-of-honor?"

"Sylvia Anastasia Marshall, I'd have been upset if you'd thought of someone else."

Ann chuckled and thought of all the things she wanted to gossip about. But she had a brand-new fiancé to talk to, as well. "If we start talking about all the fun things, we'll be here for two hours."

"And we both have other things we should be doing, right?" Suzy said knowingly. "Good night, Annie. Call me the day after tomorrow--no, come over, we'll do lunch and talk our heads off."

Ann agreed, then she hung up. Robert sat down beside her, and she settled against his shoulder. A choir on the radio sang something peaceful in Latin, the fire crackled contentedly to itself. Someone outside walked by singing "Silver Bells."

"If heaven isn't like this," Robert said finally, "I don't want to go."

"This is close enough to heaven for me." Some of the joy faded. "Sweetheart?"

"Hm?"

"What's Scott going to say?"

Robert was silent a moment. "I don't know. I won't say I don't care, but whatever his reaction, I don't intend to change my mind."

"I don't want to cause trouble between--"

"Darling, hush. You won't. He dealt with Kay's remarriage like a gentleman, I imagine he'll do me the same courtesy."

"All right." Ann decided she'd worry about it later. "May I ask a personal question?"

"My dear woman, you're going to be my wife. I might even go so far as to let you talk to my doctor. Personal questions are the rightful province of fiancées."

The whole scope of his hidden heart opened before her. This was what he'd given her. The view was breathtaking. "Do you have any other family you want to tell?"

"Ah," he sighed. "The rest of the family. Yes, I suppose it's time you knew. Swear to me you won't laugh."

"Laugh? Why on earth should I?"

"Because it will sound like something out of a Dorothy Sayers novel."

She looked at him, a dreadful suspicion forming.

He took a breath and spit out the awful secret. "I have an uncle who's an Earl. My grandfather was an Earl."

"Dear god. Robert, you're not saying that you're--"

"Actually, no, I'm not. You may breathe easy. My father was the youngest son, predestined to make his mark in the Army with little to help but a worthless Lord to put before his name. The only thing even the most generous herald would ever grant me is an Honourable, and being an American citizen, of course, I've given up all that. Darling, you look disappointed."

"Oh, no, not really, it would probably be the worst thing to have to deal with." A bedazzled gleam entered her eyes. "But it would have been lovely to throw at Grandma. She remembers the days when the highest goal a girl could achieve was marriage to a European nobleman." She bit her lip.

"Go ahead, get it out of your system."

"No, you asked me not to laugh."

"It's killing you not to. Go ahead."

Ann giggled for half a minute, then went after the history. "What Earl? And why was your father's title worthless?"

It was a good tale for a Christmas Eve. "The Earls of Foxleigh aren't a very old line. Gilbert M'Call wangled the title out of poor old George III somehow in 1764. Family history is vague on the whole thing, but the Victorian earl, Apollonius--"

"Apollonius?"

"His father was one of those overly classical sorts who did their own translations of Homer and such. Anyway, Apollonius tried to put together a retroactive tale of discreet financial support for the House of Hanover. I think it's more likely that Gilbert caught George in a suggestible state of mind one day and had him sign some papers when no one was looking."

"Is there a great house?"

"Well, not very great. Foxleigh Crag. A fine Elizabethan house ruined by Apollonius' fashionable taste for Gothic Revival."

"It can be restored, can't it?"

"If there were the money for it, yes. The Earls of Foxleigh didn't adjust very well to the 20th century. The wars were very rough on the estate. My father's share gives me roughly fifty pounds a year."

"Ouch. How much is left?"

"Only the house and about one hundred acres. The rest of it's been sold. They were starting on the paintings in the house when the Gas Board asked if they could put some test wells in behind the stables."

Ann found herself caught up in the drama. "Did they find anything?"

Robert smiled. "The well team was seen holding hands and dancing around the wellhead."

"How wonderful!"

"Not wonderful. Uncle George said wells would ruin the view from the library. Uncle Andrew and Aunt Mary managed to appeal to enough of my family pride to get me to go over there and join them in arguing with him."

"And?"

"The wells were dug."

"Hooray! The estate is saved, the house is secure. Happy ending."

"Well, mostly."

"Oh, now what?"

"They're still not very talented in dealing with the modern world. The wells bring in enough to allow the family to continue living there and pay for minor repairs, but it's not enough for a place like that. The last I heard there's a debate over the propriety of allowing tours. Richard, the current heir, thinks it's all very bad form but can't think of any way else to patch the holes in the roof. His son George would like to sell the whole thing to some rock star and wash his hands of it."

"Boo George. What do you want to do with it?"

He sighed. "I have very little say. My citizenship was a big blow to them. They never really did approve of my mother."

"But you do care."

"Yes. I care. I would like to save it, if we could, but genteel poverty is still poverty."

"How much does a great house roof cost?"

"Quite a bit, why?"

"What's the phrase? With all my worldly goods I thee endow? I'm going to be a McCall, I should do my bit for family honor."

Robert bit off his own snickers. "This is all turning into a huge cliche, you know. The heir of the youngest son of impoverished nobility finds himself an American heiress to save the family."

"Well, it's only fair," Ann said. "At least no one's asking for a dowry. You're going to terrify the board at the bank when they realize you might try for that seat that's in my name."

"Not likely."

"Oh, but don't tell them too quick. Uncertainty will do them good." She leaned against his shoulder and sighed contentedly. "I'm happy."

"That shouldn't come as such a surprise to you, you know."

She chuckled. "And I get to keep you."

"For as long as you want me."

"What's your schedule for forever?"

"Where you're concerned, open."

"Good."

They sat by the slowly dying fire, not disturbing the peace which had sneaked up on them from out of chaotic lives.

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