Installment One - Installment Two - Installment Three - Installment Four - Installment Five - Installment Six - Installment Seven - Installment Eight - Installment Nine - Installment Ten - Installment Eleven - Installment Twelve - Installment Thirteen - Installment Fourteen - Installment Fifteen - Installment Sixteen - Installment Seventeen - Installment Eighteen - Installment Nineteen - Installment Twenty - Installment 21
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
Friday morning, Tory was up early with the dogs, and worked off some restless energy by splitting a few logs. When she came back into the kitchen, Jane, Emma and Neil were there, setting breakfast trays for their parents and great-aunt. Conversation paused as she came into the room, and Tory guessed she was in for something. She grabbed a chair and sprawled back in it, arms crossed over her chest.
Emma took the trays upstairs, Neil served leftover pie for himself and his sisters, Jane poured coffee and brewed tea. In near silence, they all gathered at the wooden table. Jane was the first to address the subject. “Tory, dearest,” she asked, “what’s up with you and Max? Are you okay?” The three of them leaned in toward her, and Tory felt a slight welling in her eyes.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I really like him, mostly as a friend, and we’ve kissed each other twice – the first time was by accident – but he’s too old for me, too rich, too sophisticated and too far away. And I don’t want a fling, and he doesn’t either, and we’re friends. I think I won’t be alone with him again. That will be best.”
Emma was shaking her head. “But if you might love him, you can make it work. You can always make it work.”
Jane clearly disagreed; Neil looked thoughtful. Tory assured them, “I don’t love him. I haven’t known him that long. I just like him. But you know, he’s not quite real to me. He’s like a crush that walked out of the television or off the poster on the wall. Larger than life; more perfect than human. Not quite real. Anyway, I’m not going to be alone with him. And he’ll leave soon, and I’ll sign up for online dating and meet someone more like us, who wants to start a family, do his own dishes, drive a used Subaru and live in New England.”
Jane reached a hand across the table; Tory took it. Emma and Neil joined the clasp. “We love you,” Jane spoke for them all. “We’re here whenever you want to talk, or visit. And you know there’s nothing at all to tie you to this house, or to New England, if you want to be somewhere else. And Tory, there is no one in this world too sophisticated for you. You are perfect, at ease and gracious everywhere you go. Do not sell yourself short.”
Neil leapt up and swung across the table, grabbing his little sister in a one-armed hug. “You are perfect,” he reiterated, his mouth close to her ear. “Absolutely perfect. Any guy in the world would be lucky beyond belief to get you.” He held her tight for another moment before he let her go. “Okay,” he said, “I think that’s enough emotional intensity for me for one morning. It doesn’t go great with carbs. I’m headed to the barn to see how many lacrosse sticks I can find, since Mother’s intent on this game she’s planning.”
His sisters got up and cleared the dishes in comfortable silence, broken only briefly by Tory’s statement, “Mother invited Max to come play lacrosse.”
Mother had invited several people to come play lacrosse, and about twenty neighbors and friends were gathered by early afternoon. Some mystifying osmosis divided them into teams, and the battle commenced. After a few instructions from Tory’s dad, Max seemed to get the hang of the game quickly, and made a useful defenseman. He was amused to see the different personalities of his new friends emerge on the field. The Bird family patriarch was a confident, effective goalkeeper; his wife and twin children were relentless attackers. Jane covered the field from midfield, and Tory was surprisingly determined on defense, responding quickly to her father’s signals – though she didn’t seem to fuss about keeping score. Scarves eventually triumphed over no-scarves, and the combatants cooled down, laughing over muddled plays and arguing close calls.
“Max,” Neil said, strolling over to the Dutchman, “good game. Would you like some tips on cradling and passing?” Max agreed to the tuition, and the two spent a few minutes in the yard while everyone else headed indoors for turkey soup and rolls. Tory eyed them speculatively, but decided most likely Neil really just wanted to help the doctor improve his play. He was a born coach. She wouldn’t have been so sanguine if she had heard their conversation.
Emma would have said her twin was feeling ‘big-brotherish.’ Tory would have been mute with humiliation. Neil started out with some ideas on stick-handling, but quickly worked his baby sister into the conversation. “Tory’s great at passing,” he noted. “Pay attention to her; you can learn a lot. Of course, that’s true for more than lacrosse.”
Max, in a voice smooth as glass, murmured, “Indeed.” Where Tory might have blushed or stammered, Neil didn’t hesitate. It takes more than a dampening manner to intimidate a man who has mastered the Haakon flip.
“She’s a great person. She’s probably a bit too much of a pleaser – you know, tries to make everyone happy, sometimes at her own expense – but she does know she needs to draw the line at some point, and she’ll do it. But she’ll wait a long while before she sticks up for herself. She’s got a little bit of an inferiority complex, always comparing herself to Jane, who’s Type A-plus-plus, or Emma, or even me. We get, y’know, some weird minor celebrity because of the sports. Her kinds of achievements can get lost in the skewed value people place on money or fame or whatever.”
“I assure you,” Max began, his voice a few degrees colder. “No need,” Neil interrupted. “I’m not her keeper; she makes her own decisions. But not a lot of people realize there are still – well, old-fashioned girls. That’s what Grammy called Tory. She’s tough as tungsten when it comes to academic work, or patient care, and you should see her get a pill into an angry cat. And she’s very successful in her work. She doesn’t always do what needs doing when it comes to protecting herself from being hurt, or taken advantage of, though. None of us wants to protect her, unless she asks for help, but none of us,” he paused and took a dramatic shot with the lacrosse ball – “none of us wants to see her get hurt.” Neil dropped his stick’s shaft to the ground, and rested his hands on the head, gazing blandly at his guest.
“No one wants to see Tory hurt,” Max noted, speaking in crisp monosyllables.
“Man, we should get in and get at that soup. My dad makes the best turkey soup in America,” Neil recommended. As he strolled to the house, he added, thoughtfully, “Y’know, I’m pretty sure Tory hasn’t even kissed, like, half a dozen guys. And she broke up with her only serious boyfriend when she was nineteen. That’s pretty old-fashioned. That and all the baking.” He grinned, as if to assure his companion the lecture had ended. The doctor did not grin back.
Tory noticed that Max seemed quieter than usual, almost grim, as he and Neil came in through the kitchen door. Once he had served himself, though, she saw him chatting with her father, seemingly content. So she circulated with the coffee pot with an easy mind – until Emma stalked toward her and hissed, “Neil talked to your doctor. I’d flay him alive if I were you. Actually, I kinda did already.” Tory froze in her tracks for a moment, coming back to life as Jenny Fisher headed for her, determined to get a top-up on her coffee. “You all right?” Jenny asked, and Tory only squeaked slightly as she exclaimed, “Great! I’m great!”
She kept an eye out for Neil, and found him in a corner of the living room, in animated conversation with Gina Semple. “Hey, Gina,” Tory carolled. “My brother’s almost 30 and you’re in high school. I need to talk to you,” she threatened, turning to Neil. She got him by an elbow – gratuitous; he would come with her, but she was in a mood to grab something – and steered him toward the pantry.
“Emma is the most unnatural twin in history,” her brother complained. “I don’t know what you’re all worked up about, but you have no reason to be. We just chatted a bit. He thinks you’re great. And I was not flirting with Gina.”
“A, Gina was flirting with you, and you were encouraging her,” Tory began, struggling to keep her voice down. “B, you are an unnatural brother. I told you already that Max and I are just fine. I do not need your intercession, he certainly doesn’t, and you’d better tell me what you said, because I think you just stirred up a fire that was dying on its own just fine, thank you so very much. Oooh!” she ended.
“Go ahead and slug me in the arm if you want,” Neil offered. “Violence is never the answer, but your puny punch hardly qualifies as violence.”
Tory had to hoist herself onto the pantry counter, but once up she was able to slump down in defeat. Neil put an arm around her shoulder and said, in a much softer and more sincere voice, “Look, kiddo, I’m sorry. It was next to nothing. I just told him you’re great, and you deserve the best. He just agreed. No big deal, really. I didn’t do it to upset you – you know that. I apologize, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t do it again. He seems like a great guy, but we don’t know enough about him just to take him on faith. I know you’re a big girl and can handle yourself, but I want him to know you’ve got lots of fans and admirers who’ll step in if there’s anything going on you need help handling. And I was totally polite about it, and pretty subtle and European for me.”
“Spell subtle,” Tory challenged. “I know you can’t define it.” She couldn’t hold out in the face of her big brother’s obvious love and concern, though. With a light buffet against his shoulder, she forgave him. “It’s okay, Neil, it is. I just wish you hadn’t, and you had better never do anything like that again. Remember that just because you and Emma have no shame doesn’t mean I don’t get embarrassed when my family butts into my private life.”
“I’ll be good,” Neil promised. “Mostly.” They headed back into the party, laughing together. Tory wasn’t laughing long, though. She had to find Max.
He was in the hall, putting on his coat, and Tory sidled up to him. “Umm...” she began, “I’m sorry about Neil. He was acting without authorization. I don’t even know what he said, but I’m pretty sure he shouldn’t have said it. You said everything we need to say to each other last night, and you’ve been great, and I hope we can be friends still and everything.” She had her eyes on the floor, so she didn’t see Max’s eyes brimming with amused tenderness.
“I am your friend for life, Tory,” he assured her. “And I quite like your brother, as well, actually.”
“Well, you’re welcome to him if you want him,” Tory snapped, then mused, “The poor thing. He wants to be macho and protective, but Jane’s out setting the world on fire, and Emma can take care of herself better than anyone I know, so he’s left with me, and I’m not exciting enough to get into any real trouble.”
The doctor laughed richly. “That’s the best kind of exciting,” he said. “Trouble isn’t as much fun as the movies make it out to be. With three sisters, I know a bit about it.”
“Really?” Tory was surprised to hear that. What kind of trouble could stolid Max van den Nie’s sisters get into? “I won’t pry,” she assured him, yearning to do just that. Instead she held out a hand, and they shook and exchanged continental kisses. He strode out the door, pausing briefly to give the gleaming brass knocker an approving look. Altogether, his first Thanksgiving had given him more than just a surfeit of turkey. He had a lot of food for thought, as well.
Jaap, sitting composed and silent in the passenger seat, was thinking also. He had seen several sophisticated young women come and go in the doctor’s life. He remembered one – Juffrouw van Trott, wasn’t it? – whom he’d overheard complaining, “You’re like something from the past, Max. Frozen in time.” That particular lady was ambitious professionally and socially, Jaap had thought, with no interest in rearing children; the van den Nies ran toward large and loving families. Even the occasional girlfriend with babies on the brain seemed to see much to change in Maximilan. Jaap acknowledged his prejudice, but he thought there was no need for his boss to take a spin class, modernize the elegant townhouse in Amsterdam, get rid of his dogs, or take any of the other actions pressed on him by various acquaintances.
As they arrived at Josh Brown’s polyglot cabin-mansion, Jaap remarked, “A lovely holiday, sir, and a delightful family. Miss Tory perhaps especially.”
“Yes,” replied his employer. “I agree, Jaap. A delightfully old-fashioned girl.”
“But, Mr. Max,” exclaimed the housekeeper, “I was just thinking that yours are old-fashioned ways.” Immediately he regretted the outburst, which suggested too close an interest in private matters. Max just laughed, though, a rueful chuckle, and entered the house looking thoughtful. He automatically turned on his phone; his lovely manners ensured he turned it off when attending social events, and good sense left it off when he was driving. His mother had left a message asking that he call as soon as possible, “but no emergency,” she added. Given the time difference, he proposed to wait until morning, and slept soundly through the night.