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
THE HUGE ROSES (working title)
copyright 2014 by Betty van den Betsy; not for reprint or publication without permission
When Max returned her call, her brain was so stuffed with fantasies of swaying romantically in candlelight that she could barely speak. She did manage to provide Jane’s address, and agree to be ready at 7:00 on Saturday evening, when he would collect her. Then she pushed herself into the sitting room, and collapsed into the overstuffed chair there. Hal and Jennet rallied around, and she soothed herself with patting them and expressing her tangled thoughts aloud.
“One night. Not even the whole night; just a few hours. Everything perfect: romantic music, an evening gown, he’ll probably wear black tie, there’ll be candles and flowers and Champagne and dancing. It’s the perfect culmination of a late-adolescence crush, with everything like a scene from a movie, even the man. For four or five hours I’ll pretend we’re in love, and living happily ever after, and he doesn’t need to know what I’m thinking, and it’ll be pure fun and fantasy and I’ll remember it for years if not forever, and I’ll make sure it’s a happy memory. I’ll never do anything like it again, and I don’t need to, and most people never attend a gala dinner dance in their lives, so I really can be perfectly happy about it. And real romance isn’t waiters and orchestras and truffles; it’s walking the dogs and sitting up with a sick kid and apologizing when you track in mud and not minding if he’s grumpy at supper. But one perfect night will be pure fun. That’s what it will be: pure fun.”
That decided, she phoned Emma and ensured the dogs and the house would have a caretaker for the weekend. Her battering ram of a sister, for once, blessedly asked no questions. She spent the evening brushing up on her foxtrot and jitterbug, which she had fortunately learned in the swing-dance club at college.
The very next day, she drove herself to Boston directly from the office. The shops were open late for the holiday season, so Jane and she made a brief scouting trip through some of the larger, upscale department stores. Tory hadn’t fixed a precise idea of a dress in her head; that could be fatal to successful shopping. However, she knew she wanted a celebratory color, a draping fabric and a swinging skirt. They saw an awfully lot of black and straight-cut skirts in 90 minutes, then stopped for supper.
Tory hadn’t been sure Jane would approve of her date, but her big sister had joined the expedition in high spirits. Over chiles rellenos at their favorite Mexican restaurant, she explained a bit, smiling. “I think I get this,” Jane said. “I don’t necessarily agree, but you’ve earned the right to do it your way. So if you think this is your last hurrah, I’m here to help. Your dress, your shoes and stockings and everything else you need are on me – early Christmas present. And bonuses are good this year, so don’t be afraid you’ll break the bank. Christopher can do your hair if you want, but it’s probably prettiest when you just let it shine and swing. Okay?”
“No, it’s not too much.” They smiled at each other across the table, in silent understanding. Tory felt the happiness bubbling inside her.
“But, little sis, before you go deciding you’re not good enough for anyone, please think it through. Age, money, geography – those aren’t essentials of character; you know that. In the 21st century, there’s rarely a need to annihilate space and time to make lovers happy. Maybe I’m wrong; goodness knows I can’t point to my love life for examples or success stories, but I believe love is a matter of character and courage, not matching demographics. Lecture over. Do you want flan?”
Tory, still smiling, shook her head, and they headed out to Newbury Street to ramble home under the streetlights. The boutiques were closed now, but still cheerfully lit, so she could do a bit of window shopping as they went. As they approached Hereford Street, she squeezed Jane’s elbow and stopped on the sidewalk, looking up at a display of silks and velvets.
“Oh! The sunset-colored one...”
“We’ll check it out tomorrow,” Jane concurred. “Do they open at ten?” Opening time ascertained, they headed over to Marlborough Street, and Jane’s second-floor apartment with the semi-circular living room looking out over the broad, tree-lined avenue.
They were both early risers, giving Jane time for a run and Tory time for a brisk walk along the Charles River, before they made purposefully for the boutique. They were striding up the broad stone steps to the entrance as a smiling, middle-aged woman turned the placard in the door from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open,’ and she held the door for them with a friendly welcome. “Please don’t let her see the price tags,” Jane asked. “It’s on me today.” Tory giggled.
The gown in the window was available in her size, and fitted nicely. The under-dress was of heavy silk charmeuse in a pinky-beige color, and came just below her knees. Over it was silk chiffon, an ombré shading from deep red at the hem through subtle gradations of persimmon, burnt orange, gold, tea rose and finally a peachy pink that colored most of the ruched and draped bodice and its elbow-length sleeves. Below the close fitting bodice, the skirt fell in loose folds to Tory’s ankles, flaring into swirling waves when she spun in the quiet shop, Jane smiling and nodding as she watched the show.
“It’s the wrong colors for winter, isn’t it?” Tory asked anxiously. “I ought to be in green or burgundy.”
“It’s perfect,” Jane reassured her.
“Perfect,” the welcoming shop owner, Alison, reiterated. “The reds and golds of the skirt are the Yule log’s fire, and the peaches and pink above are perfect for your skin and hair coloring, and make you look like a Christmas angel. Of course, you have to be comfortable with standing out a bit. Most of the women will be in black, red, other jewel colors, and mostly in strapless and sleeveless styles.”
“I like sleeves in winter,” Tory assured her, and Alison pinned up the shoulders, promising her colleague would have them safely stitched by early afternoon, then made a few recommendations about accessories. Jane volunteered an evening cloak in chocolate, with a cream velvet collar and buttons and a complementary clutch, and the sisters set off to complete Tory’s outfit. Shoes took several hours, but comfort was critical, and Tory didn’t skimp on waltzing up and down the store aisles. Finally, she achieved a pair of glimmering, dark red sandals, with sturdy but elegant heels, that strapped securely onto her feet. She was grinning with triumph as the clerk wrapped them for her.
Next, Jane tested a few shimmering powders on her little sister, choosing a pinky-bronze one, as well as a bronze eyeliner. They stopped briefly to gobble up salads, then returned to the boutique to collect the altered gown. Jane’s personal shopper, a service of the deluxe department store where they went next, was helpful in the matter of undergarments; Tory had always made do with the everyday, but Jane insisted the perfect foundation was necessary for ‘investment dressing.’ It was 3:30 by then, and the sun was beginning to head toward the western horizon. Jane, shifting a few bags in order to check her watch, exulted, “Perfect! I booked us a table for tea at the Taj, thinking we’d finish up right about now. Come along, my dear. This is just what we need.”
Needed or not, the elaborate snack was very welcome. Tory tried not to flop back in the upholstered armchair; it seemed absurd to be exhausted by activity that resulted in nothing more impressive than a half-dozen shopping bags scattered about the soft carpet. She grinned at her sister, who was peering at a selection of precisely-garnished finger sandwiches. “Someday I may feel guilty about all this indulgence, but today it just feels magical. Thank you so much.”
Jane grinned back. “I’m not going to tell you how much I donated to the United Way for next year. But it was a lot. Have an egg and cress.” The waiter, gliding by to refresh their teapots, smiled indulgently at the two lovely young women helplessly engulfed in giggles.
The petites fours dispatched, they headed down Commonwealth Avenue to Jane’s apartment. “I wish it were still the Ritz,” Jane said reminiscently about their favorite Boston hotel, “but the new people have done a marvelous job of maintaining tradition.”
“I love coming here. Remember when Great Aunt Zelda made us all wear hats, and Aunt Lindy snipped all the elastics for us, so they wouldn’t stay on? Or was that just for Emma and me? Maybe you were big enough to keep a hat on without elastic.” Arms linked, they strolled the mall in perfect accord.
At the apartment, it was necessary to pick up the pace somewhat, but showering, dress-steaming, make-up and hair all came together nicely, and Tory was prancing about the living room with fifteen minutes to spare. Her hair, blown dry by Jane, was a gleaming curtain, and its usual mousiness took on a bit of sparkle thanks to the peachy shade of the gown. Her lips and eyelids shimmered, and her feet – so far – were delighted with the cushioning of her sandals. Outside, a light snowfall had begun.
At a few minutes after seven, the doorbell rang. Jane buzzed Max in through the vestibule, then held open her own door as he came up the single flight of stairs. “I’m just darting out to the shop,” she said, “so I’ll wish you a pleasant evening. Tory’s in the living room, straight ahead; she has a key. Enjoy!” After a friendly hug, she was in the hall and moving briskly down the stairs.
He walked the few steps through the hall, and into a sedately-furnished room whose main feature was a rounded wall of windows, relic of a 19th-century decorative turret that gave the building a small air of distinction. The curtains, drawn back still, were a rich chintz patterned in roses of many shades of pink, from almost-cream through carnation to cerise, on a pale green background. Tory was looking out at the snowflakes dancing in the light of the streetlamps.
She turned to him, and the lamps reflected as peridot sparkles in her eyes. “Hello,” she said.
“Good evening, Tory.” They moved toward each other, and he clasped both her outstretched hands in his, bending to kiss her on each cheek in the European fashion. “You look... splendid. Perfect.”
“Thank you,” she murmured. “You, too. Perfect in every detail.”
He laughed at that, and stroked a hand along his evening scarf. “I cannot think what practical purpose a silk scarf was ever meant to serve. But despite the snow, it’s not especially cold, and no cruel wind to require our bundling up.”
“Do we have to leave now? Jane has sherry, gin, peppermint tea, whatever else you might like. Jane?” she called.
“Peppermint tea,” he answered promptly. “Perfect for the season, and I don’t care to over-imbibe before dancing.” The crinkles by his eyes belied the gravity of his tone, and Tory smiled in response. “Jane has stepped out, to the shop, she said. Didn’t she tell you?” Tory shook her head as Max took off his cashmere overcoat. Her eyes widened as she recognized impeccable tailoring, and realized what it added in evening clothes. She went to get the teapot, wondering about her sister’s errand – but only briefly.
They sat together on the couch, hands touching, gazing out the windows. “Do you know the poet Louis MacNiece?” Tory asked.
Max thought a moment, then offered, “Not well; not at all, really. A contemporary of Auden?”
“That’s right. I had an elective in college, modern English poetry, and I loved his poem ‘Snow.’ The poet is sitting, like us, watching the snow fall outside, and someone brings in a vase of roses. I don’t remember the whole thing, but there’s a bit that goes, ‘World is suddener than we fancy it. / World is crazier, and more of it than we think,/ incorrigibly plural.’ And then it ends, ‘There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.’ Jane’s curtains made me think of it.” She stopped, wondering what on earth had made her start babbling about modernist poetry.
“That sounds very true, and very hopeful,” he said into the brief silence. “I suppose it may be taken as pessimistic, though.”
“I never do.”
Max chuckled. “I’m glad.”
Another brief, and comfortable, silence as they sipped their tea. Then he added, “You know the line of Auden’s, ‘We must love one another or die.’ I’ve read that he revised it several times, unable to choose between ‘We must love one another or die,’ and ‘love one another and die.’ The dilemma, I think, is as good as the line.”
“As long as we love one another,” Tory stated her opinion, still mesmerized by the drifting flakes outside. A car horn jerked her back into the living room. “Well, metaphysics is wonderful and everything, but I am looking forward to the concert.”
“Good.” He stood up and pulled his coat from the chair where he’d flung it. “I don’t care for taxicabs when I’m in my Sunday best, so I brought the car right along, and even found a parking space just around the corner. I hope it’s legal. Where is your wrap?” She pulled the cloak from the hall closet, and he wrapped it around her, turning up the wide collar to frame her face. Tory stood still as a doll, then remembered her promise to the dogs. She took in a deep breath, for courage, and exhaled gently with a smile to light the room.
They made their way down the stairs – they seemed to agree without words that the small elevator would be too confining – and Max insisted Tory await him in the vestibule while he walked the few yards to the car, although the snow wasn’t yet sticking to the pavement. He pulled the big Mercedes up to the curb, and bounded lightly up the stairs to usher her to her seat. When he was settled beside her, he turned to look at her, eyes shining in the lamplight. “One perfect night,” he said, gently, echoing her thoughts of a few days before.
“Yes,” she replied, and he put the car into gear.
Indeed, it was a perfect night. They shared a table with three other couples, enjoying the desultory conversation of strangers with no agenda but pleasure. The men courteously invited each of the women to dance, and Tory was pleased by the sociable attention. She was more pleased, though, by her several dances with Max. The orchestra of course was excellent, but that was no guarantee their steps would fit. Somehow they did, though – maybe they wouldn’t another time, but tonight they did. Max led her around the floor with gentle assurance, and by the second dance they had gained enough confidence to execute a few spins, and begin to step out with more liveliness. Several waltzes led to a lively version of the traditional carol that the conductor announced as “Good Swing Wenceslas,” which left them flushed and laughing. “Maybe time to toy with our dinner,” Max suggested, and Tory gladly concurred.
The food clearly wasn’t the focus for the evening, but it was more than adequate, and the excellence of the music, the wines and the exercise more than offset a predictable menu with too much butter. As expected, Champagne was the drink of the evening. Tory discreetly gobbled up several rolls in an attempt to counter the effects of the sparkling wine. Her effervescence was much more the result of happiness than alcohol.
With the entree plates cleared away, Max stood again and extended a hand. They stepped back to the dance floor together as the orchestra struck up “The Christmas Song,” with a marvelous soloist beginning to sing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...” Max pulled her close, and her head found a perfect resting place by his shoulder. His arms went around her, and they swayed together. Tory felt the ludicrous sensation that had come on her just once or twice before in her life, that if she could freeze time right now, she could live perfectly happily forever.
Instead, they enjoyed a sherry trifle, a few more dances and a few more toasts, applauded the orchestra and shuffled with dozens of others back to the lobby for their coats, and Max handed his ticket to the valet organizing the return of patrons’ cars. With no need to speak, they strolled outside to wait for the Mercedes in the cold and the snow, leaving the bright, crowded hall behind. They held hands, still in silence, and Tory thought of the one night now drawing to its close. She felt a shiver quiver through her body, and Max felt it, too. He stepped behind her, and wrapped both his arms around her, drawing her back against his warmth. That must have been his lips she felt press against her scalp as she relaxed into his embrace. ‘Maybe,’ she thought, but tonight was not for thinking about the future. She let out a breath and felt happy. Wistful, perhaps, but happy.
The car arrived, and the journey to Jane’s was short. Max double-parked, stepped around the hood to open Tory’s door and offer her his hand, and escorted her into the foyer. He took the key she fumbled from her purse, unlocked the big door, and wordlessly accompanied her inside. Still silent, they climbed the single flight of stairs together, and Max unlocked the door to Jane’s apartment. This time, he didn’t open it. Instead, he leaned against the jam, his face toward Tory’s, his eyes hooded. “Thank you, Tory,” he rumbled quietly, “for a perfect evening. I return to Amsterdam on Tuesday; Josh and Sheila will be back on Wednesday. Perhaps I ought to have told you so sooner. I suppose I preferred not to admit it.”
Tory could only stare up at him, eyes wide, while the conflict of joy and regret kept her mute. She wanted to fill her brain with the image of him, a few flakes melting on his black collar, the fair hair thick, and just long enough to suggest it might curl a bit. She thought she could read intelligence, contentment and determination in the bones of his face; humor and kindness in his lips and the tiny lines by his eyes. If only she could see his eyes; could try to understand what he was thinking!
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.