American nurse Tory Bird, visiting Amsterdam with her sister Jane, meets Dr. Maximilan van den Nie whilst giving first aid to an injured English tourist. After a lovely weekend, Tory returns home to the United States, daydreaming of the handsome Dutchman. To her surprise, Max arrives in Tory's New Hampshire village a few weeks later! Their paths naturally cross in the small town, but his request that she accompany him to France and Namibia to care for an elderly friend throws them together more than either one had hoped.
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 - Installment 22 - Installment 23 - Installment 24 - Installment 25 - Installment 26 - Installment 27 - Installment 28 - Installment 29
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
In the next second, with a muttered foreign word, his precious face swooped down to hers, and their lips met with a ferocious passion she had never experienced before. She swung her hands up to grip his shoulders, clinging desperately to his solid form, and opened her mouth to allow her tongue to tease his lips. He responded in kind, and she felt as if her brain were swirling about in an electric whirlpool of colored lights and soaring cello chords.
And then the elevator chimed, loudly, and they pushed away from each other, breathing heavily, as the metal grated door ground open. “Do you want to come in?” Tory panted, as the new arrivals walked down the hall in the other direction.
“Yes,” he declared, “but I won’t. Tory...” They both waited for him to finish. Instead he shook his head, took her hands, and kissed her lips, as lightly as milkweed down floating on a puff of summer air. Then he walked to the stairs, turning when he arrived there. “You will be one of my happiest memories,” he said. “Thank you for everything.” Again he turned, and headed down and away – away from her, forever.
Tory staggered into the apartment, and found a note from Jane stating that she had gone to bed, and was wearing earplugs as she’d been sleeping poorly for the last few weeks – “So if you need me, knock hard.” The implication – that Jane had prepared to give them the maximum possible privacy – made Tory choke back a sob. Then she stumbled toward her sister’s room, knocking violently as she shoved the door open. Jane sat up in alarm, took one look at her baby sister, face red, wet and twisted, and threw her arms wide. Tory fell headlong into the embrace and began to sob.
“Is it bad-bad or sad-bad?” Jane demanded fiercely. “Tory, answer me. Are you sad or are you hurt?”
“He’s leaving, he’s leaving,” Tory cried. “I’m so sad.”
Jane’s voice dropped to a murmur. “Oh, yes, of course you are. Oh, my poor darling, oh, Tory, Tory, Tory, oh so sad. I’m sorry; I’m sorry.” She stroked Tory’s hair, whispering condolences. It felt like hours, but was only about ten minutes before they were sitting side-by-side, backs to the headboard. Tory’s cape was off, and she clutched a handful of tissues, still snuffling and weeping, her head against Jane’s shoulder. There was nothing much to say, so they were quiet. Eventually, Tory stripped off her beautiful gown and its investment infrastructure and pulled on flannel pajamas. She slept on Jane’s bed with her big sister, in a welter of sheets and throws, with the comforter wadded awkwardly between them.
Max slept not at all, standing in his four-star hotel room, looking down on the lights of the Public Garden, and drinking a glass or two too much. He looked forward to the headache.
In the morning, while Max pushed his big rental car rapidly up the highway, Tory picked at the blueberry pancakes Jane offered. Then she let herself be bundled into warm clothing, and taken out for a walk along the river, crunching gently through an inch or two of frosty snow. The wind off the water almost brought some color to her face, and she clutched Jane’s arm tightly as they strolled the curving paths. Back at the apartment, Jane installed Tory in an oversized velvet armchair with a mug of cocoa, then went away and packed her little sister’s overnight bag for her. She insisted on driving Tory’s Subaru back to Bristol for her. “I’ve already booked a car to collect me and bring me back to Boston, and I’d have to pay them if I cancel anyway, so don’t argue. Let’s go.”
In the car, Jane nattered gently about a promising diabetes drug in clinical trials, their mother’s latest research paper and the possibility of growing a few tomatoes on her building’s roof deck. Tory suggested a pot of basil as well, and was unsurprised when she saw Emma’s small, four-wheel drive Chevy Colorado parked by the family farmhouse. Both twins were in the kitchen, and after a meal of minestrone and thick slabs of bread and butter, Jane handed over her charge like a precious package.
Neil made tea while Emma popped a batch of applesauce cookies into the oven. Tory sat, sniveling occasionally, with both dogs’ heads on her knees. She knew she should feel grateful for the love her siblings showered on her, but she was having a hard time feeling anything at all – until she looked up from the wooden tabletop, and saw her loose cannon of a brother placing the lid on the teapot with a degree of control very different from his usual slapdash approach to kitchen chores.
“Neil, don’t do anything. Promise me you won’t talk to him or hit him or anything,” she gasped in horror.
Both twins looked at her with concern. “Of course I won’t,” Neil said. “I absolutely would if it would do any good, but we all know that the only thing that cures sorrow is time. Sorry, kiddo. I’d fix it if I could.”
“Time and work,” his twin amended. “You’re working ’til Christmas Eve, right? We have to leave early tomorrow, but not before you do.”
“Oh, you should head home now. Please, I’ll be fine. I mean, I’ll be okay. It’s really nice of you to be here, but you really don’t have to.”
“We know,” Emma said, “but we want to be here. And we’re staying until morning. It’s called love, and there’s some loyalty in there, too, and apparently these are qualities in short supply in the Dutch medical profession.”
“He’s not,” Tory choked. “He doesn’t, I mean, he never...” Neil glared at his twin.
Eventually Tory dragged herself up to bed, to find that one of her siblings had unpacked her case. When she slid herself under the covers, both Emma and Neil appeared, to sit by her bed and take turns reading from a collection of Robert Frost poems. Tory managed to cry silently, both in sorrow over the loss of Max, and in appreciation of the bittersweet kindness of her family. Eventually she drifted into a sort of dozing state, waking too often and feeling the freshly-stabbing pain each time. Finally, she could get up, shower and dress. She chose to bike to work despite the cold, and could see the predictable approval in Neil and Emma’s faces as they hugged her good-bye, with promises of seeing each other very, very soon.
Auto-pilot took her through the work day; the dogs, cats and chickens, and her decision to cut her own Christmas tree, kept her busy through the evening. By the time she had cleaned the ax, dragged the tree into the living room, and set it up in its stand, she was battered, scratched, filthy and exhausted. After a long, hot shower, she fell into bed without noticing she had had no dinner, slept for a couple of hours, and then woke again to toss and turn until the cats abandoned her. She grabbed her laptop from the desk and went back to bed with it, to watch superhero movies until it was time for work.
At the office, her mind kept wandering south toward Logan Airport – had he boarded yet? Was he boarding now? Would he have an overnight flight, and spend the afternoon strolling Newbury Street, picking out Christmas gifts for his family? ‘No,’ she thought viciously, ‘he’ll get everything in the Netherlands. There’s nothing in America that he would want.’ She smiled brightly at Millie on the thought, and whisked herself into the powder room, hoping the sound of running water would cover the noise of her two-minute breakdown.
It was early day at the office, so she had plenty of time at home to wash the kitchen floor and polish each of the copper-bottomed saucepans before Jane arrived a few hours after sunset. Tory looked up from her final pot as her sister strode into the kitchen, and began, once again, to weep silently. Jane pulled off Tory’s rubber gloves and damp apron, smoothed her hair, and pulled her into the living room, where they could sit close together on the sofa. After a few minutes, the tears ceased to dribble out of Tory’s tired eyes.
“So, other than that, how are you?” Jane asked, and Tory managed a damp chuckle.
“Merry Christmas, Jane.”
“What do you need from me?” Jane had always been direct.
“Well,” Tory admitted, “I need you to sit in the kitchen, with your back to the table, while I wrap my presents. They’re almost all from Amsterdam and Namibia, and I don’t want to be alone with them. Does that sound foolish?”
“Heavens, no, sweetheart. Although, anything any of us says when we’re heartbroken sounds at least a little foolish. You go get them, and I’ll make tea. And maybe toast some English muffins; I’m in no mood for Christmas cookies. The office is so piled with sweets I couldn’t find files I needed three times today.”
While she wrapped her gifts, Tory tried not to imagine that her whole entire life would be spent in near-solitude, in a lonely kitchen, with too many pets and an occasional visit from a kind relative who would indulge her strange behavior. It mostly worked, especially since Jane’s obscure grumblings over a report she’d pulled up on her tablet made Tory’s own eccentricity less prominent. And here was Jane, 34 and still single. Tory chose to live alone – only for the school year her parents were away, anyway – and she could change that anytime she wanted.
Her heart cracked again as she affixed a last, listless – and seriously off-center – bow on the last gift. “Jane?” she said meekly. “It’s a bad one. I was trying to pretend I’m sad because I’m lonely, but that’s not it. I am heartbroken because I want to spend the rest of all my days with Max. I don’t care about kids, or where we live, or what work we do, or if we’re healthy or quadriplegic with scabies. I just want to make him laugh, and push his eyelids up when he does that irritating half-shut eyes thing, and hold his hand when we play Pooh sticks. And if the quadriplegic thing isn’t an issue, have sex with him, like, four or five times a day for about three weeks, and then dial it back to about twice a day for another month or two, and then maybe settle down to ten times a week for the rest of our lives. I have never even seen him with his shirt off, and I am crazed with lust for him, and why I kept my hands to myself on all those airplanes is a complete mystery to me. Complete, and alarming. I should at least have jumped him.”
“Except that’s not what I wanted. I guess. I guess I knew that. I mean, I am just not built that way.”
“Do you think he’ll come back here ever? Should I go over there? I mean, I could just write to him, and maybe we could be friends, and when he marries some sleek sophisticate, I could go to the wedding and cry and cry and then babysit their kids, crying. Oh, my heavens, I am a crazy person. I am so nuts. I knew it was coming, I knew this would happen, I knew I’d be hurt, and I’m still hurting so much more than I ever imagined. Oh, you can turn around now, by the way. I’m done wrapping.
“And, y’know, I’m done crazy-talking. For now.”
“Anytime you want to crazy-talk, li’l sis, you go ahead. I’m here.”
That night, Tory slept for several hours. She still woke long before dawn, but lay still in the darkness, listening for Christmas Eve to settle itself around the old house.
She and Jane spent the day talking, walking and reading. They got the lights onto the tree, and prepared the family’s quasi-traditional bean enchiladas with red and green salsas, ready to pop into the oven when the twins arrived. Tory thought frequently of Max, wondering how he and his family were celebrating. “Christmas didn’t use to be a big deal in the Netherlands,” she informed Jane. “They did presents and parties on Saint Nikolaas, and Christmas was just a quiet day at home. But somehow it switched, and now Christmas gets all the fuss and attention. Isn’t that weird? How does that happen, to a whole country?”
“Let’s blame Hollywood,” Jane suggested, and Tory started to smile, then remembered. Her lips collapsed oddly.
“How about popcorn and cranberry strings?” she asked with false cheer.
At 4:30, she raced to the church to help wrangle children in the Christmas pageant. Jane attended the service, and they drove home together. The exigencies of getting small shepherds on and off the chancel, on cue and in costume, had swept Max from her mind briefly, but the quiet service that followed the play allowed him to return. Nonetheless, she was shocked when Jane broke the comfortable silence between them by saying, “You okay? I imagine being around all those kids must leave you wistful.”
“Being around... Wait! You mean, like, wanting to have kids with Max? Jane, the only wistfulness I feel after that... that... scrum is a vague regret that I didn’t shove that demon baby of Bethany’s into a sack and deliver him to Herod. Oops. I don’t mean that, of course, that kid is going to be amazing someday. But meanwhile, I did almost curse in church thanks to his antics. I still would love to have Max’s children – oh, no.” She had teared up again. “But I don’t want 17 of them, in an enclosed space.”
She paused and reflected a moment. “Jane. Do you feel wistful?”
“My biological clock is a few ticks ahead of yours.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wish I knew something useful to say.”
“It’s the knowing you would if you could that’s useful, Tory. We’ll all be fine.” The comfortable silence resumed.
Emma and Neil joined them late, bearing a bottle of sparkling wine from California. “Finished my Master’s thesis,” Emma explained. “Plus, Merry Christmas.”
“We saved the tree to decorate with you,” Tory announced, as Jane flung open the lid on the decorations box. Somehow, Tory even felt a little bit merry, for minutes at a time.
Christmas Day dawned crisp and lovely, the sky blue and sunshine sparkling on the snowy lawn. The four siblings unpacked their stockings around the fireplace, showing off the toys, treats, silly socks and ostrich biltong Santa and his helpers had brought. Their parents Skyped, and caroled their thanks for the small gifts tucked into their luggage before they left New England.
After a big breakfast of blueberry pancakes and hot chocolate, the Birds bundled up and set out with the dogs, dropping gift boxes of homemade soaps and pickles at various neighbors. “Not the most secret Santas,” Emma noted, looking back at their four sets of footprints and two of paw prints tracked across the Fishers’ lawn. Tory laughed, and three heads swiveled toward her, startled by the sound.
Back home, they consulted as to whether they should Skype their parents again before or after opening gifts. “After, of course,” Tory recommended. “So we can say thank you for whatever they got us.”
“It’s already 7:00 there,” Emma worried.
“It doesn’t take long to open gifts,” Neil replied. “Especially if we want to be quick. Smart-quick, not greedy-quick,” he qualified.
They settled back into the living room, and began distributing the gifts they had just spread beneath the tree a few hours before. Jane was thrilled by the antique Parisian ring, and Emma was delighted to be re-supplied with the ingredients for ginger-and-Gouda sandwiches.
“I could not believe how good those were. With a jar of ginger this big, I can eat them all winter. Perfect, Tory! Thank you!”
Tory’s main gift to her brother was a CD by a Dutch band she had heard in a coffee shop during her October trip with Jane. “I think you’ll like them – they drive hard, and there’s something very snowy about some of the songs. And if you do, you can download their other albums with the gift certificate.” Neil insisted on putting the music on straightaway, and pogo-ing his sister around the coffee table.
Tory’s gifts included a huge, thick silk scarf from Jane, in Delft blue decorated with patterns of lace in white. “From the Rijksmuseum,” her sister explained. Her parents had left several gifts, including a luxurious wool shawl in rich browns, reds, yellows and other spicy shades, and a gift certificate for Fortnum and Mason, a swanky English shop with which Tory was oddly, and only very mildly, obsessed . “Skee!” she cried. “I get to pick out a hamper. Chocolate digestives and pickled quails’ eggs.” Emma and Neil had uncovered a 1920s edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories in a Dartmouth bookshop, and clubbed together to buy them on their student stipends. “You must read them,” Emma said. “We were stunned when you said you never have.”
“Oooh, I started on the library’s collection,” Tory exclaimed. “Derek, the new librarian, told me anyone who likes Dorothy Sayers will like Laurie King, but King writes about Sherlock Holmes after Watson, so I have to read the Doyle stories first, and this will make it much easier. And the books are so beautiful. Thank you, guys.”
By the time they had finished up, Tory almost felt back to normal. Too bad she was about to blow it. “Um, hey,” she said, as they tidied carefully folded paper into the Christmas box for re-use next year. “Um, I got this little package in the mail, and I don’t even want to think about it, but I think it might be from Max.” She held up a small padded envelope.
“Do you want one of us to look inside?” Jane asked.
“No, no, I don’t think so. But will you just be here while I do? I know it’s silly.”
“If it’s silly to want your family and friends around when you’re going through a rough patch, then I’m ridiculous,” Neil assured her. Emma snorted.
“Didn’t say it. I did not say it,” she protested when Neil glared at her. “Open it up, Tory, honey. It’ll be something nice. He may be a jerk about love and commitment, but he’s got very nice manners.”
“He’s not...” Tory protested.
“We know,” Jane soothed. “Whenever you’re ready. We’re here.”
Tory ripped open the envelope, and pulled out a small, wrapped box and a formal note card. “A very merry Christmas, Tory, with profound gratitude for your many kindnesses. I wish you a joyous new year, M blob blob squiggle,” she read. The box came from an exclusive Boston jeweler, and contained a silver chain dangling a silver pendant of an art-deco snowflake, glistening with a dusting of clear pavé crystals with a large, light blue crystal in the middle. “Okay,” she announced. “It’s very nice, and a little personal but not too personal, and not goofy expensive – unlike certain silk scarves on top of the dress and everything, Jane, although I thank you most sincerely. Anyway, the perfect gift for the woman who helped you in a snowstorm and stood around airports guarding your friend. Very, very well done, Dr. van den Nie. I’m okay; I’m fine. Someday I’ll even wear this,” she added, with a half-hearted smile.
“Neil, start the popovers,” Emma ordered. “I’ll get Mum and Dad on the computer in their office.” Tory and Jane joined Neil in the kitchen, the first to whip egg whites for the pavlova, the second to begin a rich mushroom gravy. Emma jogged down the hall after a few minutes, to ask, “Who’s next? Neil, you go, I’ll take over.” When Neil had finished his brief conversation with their parents, Emma put him in charge of the gravy so Jane could have a turn. Finally, Tory abandoned her meringue and rushed to the computer.
“Jane,” Emma demanded as soon as the youngest was out of the room, “look at my water glass. I got hold of Tory’s necklace from Max, and it scratches glass. Does that mean it’s diamonds?”
“The name on the box means it’s diamonds,” Jane confirmed. “And it may be white gold, though more likely platinum, but it is certainly and entirely not silver. The central stone, as anyone the slightest bit greedy would have guessed, is an aquamarine, Tory’s birthstone. Also very pretty in the design. And probably not too expensive for a rich jerk, but nonetheless far and away the most expensive gift she got this year.”
“Should I have punched him?” Neil asked. “Is expensive bad?”
“Only if punching him would help get his head on straight,” Emma growled. “What is this guy thinking? I know not to meddle, but I really wonder if he’s just being stupid, or if he really is a jerk. He never seemed like a jerk.”
Down the hall, Tory was assuring her father that Max was not a jerk. “I know the sibs are all worked up, and I’m awfully sad for now, but he was honest and straightforward and I knew all the time that he was going home without me, and I wasn’t in over my head or anything. No lies, no insults, no need to fuss.”
“I’m glad to hear he was honest. I think it’s the most important quality of anyone’s character.” Her mother’s face appeared on the screen.
“Right, Dad. He’s a good guy, just not the one for me. But I’ll be okay, and I love the little Nightingale picture.”
Her father’s smile lit the screen. “You come for a visit, and I’ll take you to the funny, tiny shop where I found it. You’ll love the place. Merry Christmas, Tory – even if it’s not the happiest one ever.”
“My turn, Peter,” her mother asserted; and when he was gone, “Tory, do you feel you can tell me all about it? Or would you rather not?”
“I want to tell, actually, but I may snivel a bit.” Tory gave a précis of her brief relationship with Max, a tissue in one hand. “So that’s about it. He seems so perfect in so many ways, but he’s a lot older than I – ten years, I think. That’s a lot, isn’t it? And he lives so far away. And, really, I hardly know him. I mean, you can’t fall in love with someone in, like, two months, right?”
“Your father and I met on a Tuesday and were living together the Friday of the following week. Ten days, I think? And if we had been marrying-type people in those days, we probably would have married just as quickly. But there, you’ve always liked more time to make up your mind. Just if you do, Tory, make it up according to what you want, and how you feel, not according to what the calendar says or what the fairytales said, or what your parents or his ancestors said or did. Your heart and your guts are often much smarter than your brain, so don’t ignore them.
“Now, that’s a bit stern for Christmas, so we’ll talk about gifts and dinner for a bit, shall we?”
Dinner was delicious, and afterwards, Emma took a fashion consultation, showing the others the choice of ski suits one of her sponsors was offering. They decided on a pearly pink model, with black zig-zag stripes. Then Jane, a yoga adept, pulled out the Twister® game and challenged all comers, which precipitated gales of giggles and several uncomfortable heaps of collapsed siblings, protesting judges’ rulings. As a nightcap of sorts, Emma shared the Dutch chocolates that had been one of Tory’s gifts to her. Tory slept, again, for several comforting hours before waking a few hours ahead of the rooster. She grabbed her new Sherlock Holmes stories and tried to lose herself in Victorian London, but it didn’t quite work.