From Cornelia Flower to Mrs Michael van Alden, or how Corney met her perfect match.
Spin-off from A Second Chance. The timeline runs alongside and is woven around that story. It's not essential to read it first but like all of the spin off drabbles from Evvy's story, it might help them make a little more sense!
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Domestic, Family, Friendship, Humour, Romance
Josie's Quintette Universe
20 Sep 2017 Updated:
06 Feb 2018
1. Chapter 1 by Josie
2. Chapter 2 by Josie
3. Chapter 3 by Josie
4. Chapter 4 by Josie
5. Chapter 5 by Josie
6. Chapter 6 by Josie
7. Chapter 7 by Josie
8. Chapter 8 by Josie
9. Chapter 9 by Josie
10. Chapter 10 by Josie
11. Chapter 11 by Josie
12. Chapter 12 by Josie
13. Chapter 13 by Josie
14. Chapter 14 by Josie
15. Chapter 15 by Josie
16. Chapter 16 by Josie
17. Chapter 17 by Josie
18. Chapter 18 by Josie
19. Chapter 19 by Josie
20. Chapter 20 by Josie
21. Chapter 21 by Josie
22. Chapter 22 by Josie
23. Chapter 23 by Josie
24. Chapter 24 by Josie
25. Chapter 25 by Josie
26. Chapter 26 by Josie
27. Chapter 27 by Josie
28. Chapter 28 by Josie
29. Chapter 29 by Josie
30. Chapter 30 by Josie
31. Chapter 31 by Josie
32. Chapter 32 by Josie
33. Chapter 33 by Josie
34. Chapter 34 by Josie
35. Chapter 35 by Josie
36. Chapter 36 by Josie
37. Chapter 37 by Josie
38. Chapter 38 by Josie
39. Chapter 39 by Josie
40. Chapter 40 by Josie
41. Chapter 41 by Josie
42. Chapter 42 by Josie
43. Chapter 43 by Josie
44. Chapter 44 by Josie
45. Chapter 45 by Josie
46. Chapter 46 by Josie
47. Chapter 47 by Josie
48. Chapter 48 by Josie
49. Chapter 49 by Josie
50. Chapter 50 by Josie
51. Chapter 51 by Josie
52. Chapter 52 by Josie
53. Chapter 53 by Josie
54. Chapter 54 by Josie
Yet another of my Quintette Universe drabbles from back-in-the-day on the CBB that, thanks to real life becoming overwhelming, I never got around to finishing. Now I finally have! :)
For those who've read, or are currently reading, A Second Chance, this begins when Evvy is visiting Corney in Boston, a few months after the war, and runs alongside (and occasionally overlaps) that story for the next three years, up to the posts when Corney and Mike get married.
For those who haven't read A Second Chance, you'll have no idea what I'm on about in that last sentence, but I hope you enjoy the story anyway!
Richard van Alden picked up a spoon, checking quickly that nothing was stuck in his teeth. Then placing it back on the table, he grinned as he caught sight of his friend walking towards him, a dinner jacket clutched in front of her.
“Better?” he asked with a grin, as she reached him.
Cornelia slid into her seat and handed him his jacket. “I will be once it’s dried.”
Richard glanced down at her feet. “You’ve a tissue stuck to your shoe by the way,” he pointed out, under his breath.
“Oh for god’s sake.” Corney reached down and pulled it off, balling it up and putting it on the table. “Why can’t I do elegant?” she asked, with a roll of her eyes.
Richard laughed. “Well if you will constantly knock glasses of water into your lap!” Cornelia glared at him and he relented. “Anyway, you wouldn’t be you if you were, you’d be some refined society woman like all these other bores. You and Evvy are different. It’s a good thing.” He glanced out across the dancefloor where Evadne was twirling around in someone’s arms, and sighed. “She’s a real beauty, that friend of yours.”
Cornelia caught his wistful expression and grinned. “Yes I know. Bane of my life.”
Richard laughed and turned his attention back to his friend. “I’d make a move myself, but she seems a mite disinterested.”
“Yes, well she’s not exactly in the right frame of mind just now. Anyhow, playboys have never really been her type.”
“Ah well,” he replied, seemingly unperturbed, “you win some, you lose some. Plenty more fish in the sea and all that.”
Cornelia grimaced. “If you weren’t so charming, you’d be the crudest guy I’d ever met!”
“Yes, well, the Van Alden charm has to count for something, you know.”
Corney laughed and rolled her eyes. “I thought you were with Elisabeth, anyhow? She’s certainly under that impression!”
Richard frowned and turned to stare in the direction of Elisabeth Lowell, his beautiful, well-connected, ice-queen of a girlfriend, who was currently busy conversing with another man. “You think so?”
Cornelia followed his gaze and saw her throw her head back with laughter and touch the stranger flirtatiously on the arm. “Oh. Well maybe not then.”
“Yes, maybe not,” Richard replied, with a smile. “I think that one may have run its course now – neither of us have been into it for a while.”
“You’ve only been together four weeks! You met her the same night you met us!”
“Yes, well sometimes four weeks is just too long.”
Cornelia shook her head. “You’re unbelievable! I can’t believe women actually fall for you!”
Richard grinned. “Most ladies I know fall over themselves for a bit of roguish charm!” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Really? Then explain to me why I get all the girls and my elder brother, who is one of the nicest men I know, rarely gets a look in.”
“Maybe he’s just holding out for the right girl?”
“Or maybe no girl will give him a chance? Believe me, you women are as shallow as us guys, whatever you may think otherwise. You’re not interested in the intelligent conversation of my kind, considerate brother. You're interested in the charming, roguish, hard-to-pin-down kind of guy like me!”
Corney rolled her eyes. “Well I’m not, not that you care. And nor’s Evvy, so don’t you even think about it!” she retorted, as she caught him staring at her friend again.
Richard grinned wryly back at her. “I had picked up on that. She really is beautiful though. I find it incredible that she’s alone.”
“There’s a reason, Richard,” she replied more soberly. “Just not one she chooses to share with you.”
“Fair enough,” he replied with a shrug. Then returning his attention to Evadne again, he watched her closely before adding, “Listen, are you two going to the benefit dinner on Friday?”
Cornelia nodded and gave him a smile. “Yes, it’s our last night out before Evvy goes back to Long Island. Why d’you ask?”
“Mike’s going to be there – my brother. He’s been working in Chicago and gets back tomorrow. I’m dragging him along whether he likes it or not.”
“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.”
Richard grinned. “It’s for his own good. He needs to get out more. He’s always complaining he never meets any girls he likes. I think I may be able to prove him wrong.”
He was still staring at Evadne and Cornelia gave him a stern glare. “Don’t push things with her, Richard. I mean it.”
“I’m not going to. But I think we should at least all sit at the same table, give them a chance to meet, don’t you? I’ll know the chap in charge – I’ll sort it tomorrow.”
Cornelia looked doubtful and Richard decided to swiftly move the conversation on.
“Has that water dried now?” She nodded. “Excellent, ‘cause we’ve been sat here for long enough while my erstwhile other-half is busy flirting with other men. Come along, Miss Flower. Let’s show her that two can play at that game!”
“You’re not using me like that, Richard van Alden!”
Richard laughed. “Stop being so obstructive, you sourpuss! I’m asking you to dance!”
Hauling his suitcase onto a trolley, Michael van Alden made his way off the platform and onto the station concourse. It was the second time in a matter of months that he had walked across these same tiles. Last time had been when he arrived back in Boston on the train from New York, still in his army uniform, fresh from the boat back from Europe. Then he had been greeted with a hero’s welcome, his family and friends waiting with banners and flags, welcoming him home with open arms.
Now, there was just him and his bag. He smiled to himself as he glanced at the few people milling about, waiting to collect their loved ones. It was funny how quickly things changed, how easily people forgot.
He knew he was one of the lucky ones. Not only had he come back unscathed, save for a small shrapnel wound in his right thigh, but he had been able to go straight back to work. His old firm in Boston had kept his job open for him while he had been away. So many men had come home to find themselves with nothing. From hero to zero in a matter of weeks. The country had gone about its business without them, celebrated their homecoming, and then gone back to its business again, forgetting what these young men had been through. It was a return to reality that none of them had expected.
It seemed so long ago now, though it was only a matter of months since V.E. Day. He still had the nightmares, though. He supposed that they would never truly go away. He had seen and done things that he never thought he would have to, things he scarcely wanted to believe, and he did not think he could ever share the memories with anyone. How could they possibly understand?
Still, at least he had his life back. There were so many men who had nothing, and nobody seemed to want to know.
As he emerged into the open air, he sighed and held out his hand to hail the nearest cab. The driver pulled up to the kerb, taking his bag and loading it into the trunk as Mike climbed into the back seat.
“Where to?” the driver asked as he climbed behind the wheel again.
“Mount Vernon Street, Beacon Hill, please.”
As the car pulled away from the kerb, Mike smiled and sat back in his seat. It was good to be home.
The taxi pulled up outside the tall, red-brick townhouse in Mount Vernon Street, and Mike climbed out, handing some money over to the driver in return for his bag. Then hauling it up the front steps, he pulled out his keys, unlocked the door and stepped into his entrance hall.
The first thing he noticed was the mess. A coat was on the floor underneath the coat stand, an umbrella tossed on top of it, and glancing through into the front room, he could see newspapers scattered all over the floor. Putting his bag down, he made his way through to the kitchen to grab a glass of water, only to find dirty dishes all over the countertops, and washing up in the sink. Heaving a sigh, he took a glass out of the cupboard, filled it and went to collect his bag and make his way upstairs. As he passed one of the spare bedrooms, he glanced in through the open door and saw clothes strewn all over the carpet. Clearly he had a houseguest. It didn’t take a genius to work out who.
Walking into his bedroom, he threw his bag down on the bed and stared out of the window at his small backyard. Sometimes it felt strange being home. Though he’d never miss the war itself, everyday life seemed so mundane in comparison. Still, mundane was not always a bad thing. He knew he could do a lot worse than the everyday trials and tribulations of work, family and romance. Not that there was any of the latter on the horizon for him at the moment. No doubt his mother would have some girls lined up to introduce him to, but he was really not interested in any of that. He knew one day he’d meet the right girl for him. He just hoped it would be one day soon.
“So how was Chicago then? Get all your business done? Pick up any nice dames along the way?”
Mike started at the unexpected voice, and turned to see his brother standing in the doorway. Richard smiled, walked across to the bed and made himself comfortable, stretching out his legs, his arms behind his head, and looking up at his brother with a nonchalant grin.
Mike grimaced. “I was wondering when you’d show your face. So what happened this time? Been booted out of dorms again?”
“You malign me!” Richard returned, not looking in the slightest bit put out. “I decided to leave of my own volition this time. The room I was allocated wasn’t up to my standards, so I’m waiting for a new one. In the meantime, I decided to come and grace you with my presence – I know you get so lonely on your own.”
“What’s wrong with Mom and Pop’s?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“You're right, I guess that wouldn’t be the best arrangement if you wish to live,” Mike replied with a grin, and sat down on the window seat. “So how’ve you been, little brother?”
“Fine and dandy as ever. Mother informed me yesterday that I’m even more of a disappointment to her than she originally thought, so things are going well!” Mike laughed and shook his head, and his brother grinned back at him, seemingly unperturbed at his mother’s view of him. “Anyway, you didn’t answer my question.”
“Which question’s that?”
“Did you pick up any dames?”
“They’re women, Rich, not dames,” Mike replied, sounding exasperated.
Richard shrugged. “That’s a moot point. What I wanted to know, is did you meet anyone nice?”
Mike sighed and shook his head. “Richard, I was in Chicago to work, not play. You’ll understand one day when you get a proper job and stop being a professional bum.”
“I’ll thank you to remember that I am not a bum. I’m studying for a profession at our nation’s most prestigious house of learning.”
“You’re only at Harvard because Pop threatened to cut you off if you didn’t do something useful with your life rather than running off to Hollywood.”
Richard grinned. “I’d have made a fine actor, I have cheekbones to die for. Anyway, stop turning the conversation onto me. Did you, or did you not, meet anyone in Chicago?”
“No, I didn’t. Happy?”
“Of course I’m not happy! Believe it or not, I want to see you meet the right girl, regardless of my own nefarious romances and whatever I may say or do.”
Mike smiled. “I know, I’m sorry. As for Chicago, I wasn’t exactly looking. There’s no point in starting anything with someone who lives hundreds of miles away, now is there?”
“There’s such a thing as a letter!”
“I know that, but that’s not the point. I want to be able to wine and dine her and look after her properly.”
Richard shook his head. “Too damn chivalrous, that’s your problem.”
Mike shrugged. “Maybe. Or perhaps I’m just waiting for the right girl to come along.”
“Well if you don’t get a move on, you’ll be well past your prime when she does!”
“Gee thanks! I’m not that old!” Then sobering, Mike continued, “She’s out there somewhere, I know she is.”
Richard watched him closely in silence for a few seconds, then grinned. “Well I have some terrific news. I do believe I’ve found her!”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Don’t you start! Mom fixing me up is bad enough.”
“Yes, but I have better taste than our mother.”
“Anyone has better taste than our mother!”
Richard laughed. “Listen, I really think you’ll like Evvy. She’s beautiful, witty, intelligent and more importantly, she can’t stand idiots like me.” Mike chuckled and Richard added, “She and her friend Corney are going to this benefit thing on Friday. I’ve booked us both tickets and we’ll be sat at their table.”
“And what if I don’t want to go?”
“Come on – just give her a chance, you never know. You’ve nothing to lose.”
Mike considered for a minute, then said, “Okay I’ll come, but on one condition.”
“You clear up your mess from around my house – right now!”
“Consider it done,” and getting to his feet, he swiftly left the room.
Mike watched him go, and then lying down on the bed in his place, he stared at the ceiling, smiling and shaking his head.
“If you hate it that much, you can leave as soon as dinner is over. But you have to stick it out ‘til then.”
Mike grimaced at his brother as they walked up the steps at the front of the hotel. “Yes sir! When did you get so bossy?”
“Not bossy, just telling it as it is,” Richard replied as they walked into the lobby.
He turned back from his brother and looked around him, and at that moment, Cornelia emerged from the ladies cloakroom, a piece of tissue stuck to her shoe again. Richard grinned as he caught sight of her, and as they walked over to join her, he nodded towards her feet. Confused, Corney looked down. Then seeing what he meant, she bent and pulled it from her shoe with a roll of her eyes.
“Sometimes I think it would just be easier if attached it to my shoe before I left home, and be done with it!”
Richard laughed. “Well it would save you some time. No water yet, I see.”
She grimaced. “Just give me an hour or so!” Then noticing that Richard had someone else with him, she turned to Mike and said, “So, you must be the famous Mike then?”
“Well I’m not so sure about the famous, but my name’s Mike,” he replied, turning red for no apparent reason.
Cornelia grinned. “Richard’s told me a lot about you. I’m Corney.” She held out her hand to shake his, and realised she was still holding the tissue. “Oh darn it”
Looking around, she threw it into the nearest vase. Mike watched her, amazed, and Richard grinned.
“You do realise that’s probably worth a fortune?”
Cornelia shrugged. “Rats to that! What did they make them for if not to put things in?” Then turning back to Mike, “Let’s try again. Hello, I’m Corney. Generally I come minus the extra accessories though.”
“No, you generally come with them!” Richard put in.
She grimaced at him and Mike laughed. “Well it’s a pleasure to meet you, with or without them.”
“Pleased to meet you too,” she replied, shaking his proffered hand.
Richard looked around him. “So where’s Evvy?”
“Ah yes, the one you’re really interested in,” Corney retorted, looking from one to the other, and embarrassed, Mike cringed at her words. “Don’t worry, I’m quite used to it,” she said with a grin. “She’s already at the table, surrounded by admirers as usual! Come on, let’s go interrupt,” and turning on her heel, she walked off in the direction of the ballroom.
Richard turned to face Mike. “Now, let’s see if we can manage not to run out of conversation or say the wrong thing, shall we?”
Mike glared back at him and rolled his eyes. “Don’t start, Rich. It’s not my fault that most of the women I’ve met don’t interest me,” he said with a frown. “They’ve about as much substance as jello. As long as this Evvy has some spirit about her and something decent to say, I won’t have a problem. If she’s anything like her friend Corney, I should be fine.”
Richard grinned. “She’s something, isn’t she? Zany as you like. She’ll be a handful and a half for the poor chap who marries her, that’s for sure. She’s great company though. We’ve had a blast over the past few weeks. But don’t worry, Evvy’s just as much fun, just less scatty and more sophisticated than Corney is, and she’s just stunning.”
“Come on,” Richard interrupted, ignoring him, and taking him by the arm, he towed him towards the ballroom as he caught sight of Cornelia gesturing for them. “I think we’re wanted.”
As they approached the table, Mike caught sight of a slender, elegant girl, with fair, curling locks and pretty, delicate features. She was talking animatedly to Cornelia, who was waving her arms around in the air. Richard was right, Evadne was beautiful, but for some reason it was not her who caught his eye.
Corney looked up as they approached, and Mike at grinned at her. She returned his smile and then poked Evadne’s shoulder.
“Evvy, see who’s here! This is Richard’s brother, Mike,” she introduced, flinging her arm out as she did so, and knocking a glass of champagne over the girl next to her. “Say, I’m sorry!” she exclaimed as the girl shrieked and jumped out of her chair.
“You stupid, clumsy…”
At that point, Richard stepped in to calm the woman, who was a friend of his, and Mike picked up the glass and got her fresh one in its place. Before long, Richard had smoothed things over, Cornelia had agreed to cover any cleaning costs, and the lady had run off to the bathroom to dry herself down.
Corney turned to Richard with a sheepish grin. “Thanks, you saved my bacon there. I think I better go sit down before I cause any more damage. I’ll see you in a little while,” she added to Mike and Evadne, and then made her way around the table to her seat. Richard followed in her wake, chuckling as he went, and before long the two of them were in sitting together, Richard clearly ribbing Corney about what she had just done.
Evadne turned to speak to Mike, and saw him staring across the table towards his brother and her friend.
“So you’ve met Corney, I see?” she asked with a grin.
Recalled to his senses, Mike nodded and gave her a smile. “When we first arrived, outside in the lobby. She was walking around with tissue stuck to her shoe!”
Evadne laughed. “That sounds just about right. She’s fabulous, you know, even if she is a little harebrained at times!”
Mike glanced back at Corney, who now had her compact mirror open at the table, pulling strange faces into it as she checked her make-up was all still intact.
“Harebrained is good.”
Evadne gave him a curious glance. “Yes, it is,” she said slowly, a little light beginning to dawn in her mind. “So how is it you’ve not been out with us til now then?”
Mike turned his full attention back to her. “I’ve been in Chicago working for the past couple of months – I just got home yesterday.”
“And then you find yourself dragged out to some charity benefit and fixed up with a girl you don’t even know?”
Mike went bright red and grimaced. “Not exactly subtle, my brother, is he?”
Evadne laughed. “Well no, not exactly. Still, sometimes it’s best to just humour them, don’t you think?”
“You mean this was Corney’s idea as well?” he asked in surprise.
“Well she knew about it, I’m fairly sure, though she didn’t mention it to me,” Evadne replied. “I’ve a suspicion she participated under duress. I’m not exactly looking to date just at the moment and she well knows it.”
For a fleeting second, a sad look flashed across her face and Mike caught it before she had time to correct it. Evadne took his frown to be at what she had just said.
“Sorry, no offence meant. Tact isn’t a big thing with me,” she apologised hurriedly.
Mike grinned. “None taken. I’m used to being turned down by now!”
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Evvy responded, turning bright red.
“I know, don’t worry, I’m only kidding!”
Evadne pulled a face and shook her head. “Perhaps I should add gullible to the list after tactless.”
Mike chuckled and then catching sight of his brother again, his grin turned to a frown. “So is anything happening there with Richard and Corney?” he asked, watching them as they sat with their heads together, deep in animated conversation.
Evvy looked up and laughed. “Heavens, no! They get on well and enjoy ribbing each other, but that’s all there is to it. Richard couldn’t cope with Corney for a million dollars – he’s far too much of a wimp! I’m not sure he’s ever met anyone quite like her though, he seems fascinated!”
Mike smiled. “No, neither have I.”
As he continued to gaze across the table, Evadne watched him, her brain ticking over. Richard had got the looks in his family, there was no doubt about that, but when Mike smiled, he somehow seemed far more handsome than his brother.
Glancing round, Mike caught her watching him and blushed, knowing that she must have seen him staring at her friend. He turned his attention back to her again, and the pair of them soon fell into easy conversation, as the champagne was poured and the hors d’oeuvres appeared
After about twenty minutes, Mike excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he returned, he found another man sitting in his seat, chatting to Evadne.
She looked up as he approached and mouthed, “Sorry,” at him, grimacing as her new companion droned on.
Seeing Mike, the man went to stand up and move, but Mike stopped him with a smile and a shake of his head. “It’s fine, really. I’ll catch up with you later, Evvy.”
She nodded, and he picked up his drink and walked around the table to sit down in the other man’s seat. As the starters arrived, he made pleasant small-talk with the women either side of him, but his eyes rarely left Cornelia and his brother. He was entirely unaware that Evadne was watching him across the table, now absolutely convinced that her instinct had been right.
When the starters were finished and the waiters were clearing away the plates, Richard said something to Cornelia, got to his feet and wandered off. Seizing the opportunity, Mike quickly excused himself and went to take his brother’s place. Evadne grinned to herself and turned her attention back to her companion once more.
As Mike sat down next to her, Cornelia turned to him with a smile. “And what brings you here?”
“Chivalry, I’m afraid,” Mike replied, returning her smile. “I thought you may need saving from my brother’s charming commentary!”
Cornelia grinned. “He’s not all that bad. Well okay, maybe he is,” she agreed, as he raised an eyebrow, “but I like him all the same.”
Mike laughed. “I know – it’s that smile, it helps him get away with murder!”
“Well you have the same smile,” she responded curiously, “does it work for you too?”
“It’s been known to once or twice,” he replied with a wink.
Cornelia laughed and then nodded her head in Evadne’s direction. “Say, I’m sorry about the whole fix-up with Evvy. I did try to tell him it wasn’t a good idea.”
Mike shook his head. “Not a problem. Evvy and I have agreed to be friends. Anyhow, I think it’s my brother who has the crush on her, not me,” he added, watching Richard hanging over the back of Evadne’s chair as he talked to her. “So tell me, where do you hail from then?” he asked, turning his attention back to Cornelia. “Why is it I’ve never met you before now?”
Corney smiled. “We’re from Vermont originally, though Poppa and I have actually been in Europe for most of my life,” she replied. “We only moved to Boston a few months ago, when we came back after the war.”
“And how do you like it?”
She grinned. “I like it fine now I’ve met some people. Despite your brother’s dubious charms, he's actually been a godsend. He’s introduced me to quite a few folk these past few weeks. I knew no-one before.”
Mike rolled his eyes in mock despair. “Yes, he’s quite the social butterfly, my brother.”
There was silence as he watched her closely for a few moments, and Cornelia found herself blushing under his gaze.
Mike noticed and grinned. “So, why don’t you tell me more about yourself?” he suggested, nodding to the waiter to fill up their glasses of champagne. “I like to know who I’m talking to, after all, make sure they’re not a freak!”
Cornelia laughed and found herself relaxing again. “Well what you see is what you get, pretty much.”
He smiled back. “Somehow I find that hard to believe.”
Feeling herself going red again, she tried hard to fight off her blushes. “Okay, how ‘bout this then?” she said briskly, trying to regain control of the conversation. “For every fact I tell you about myself, you have to tell me one back about you.”
Mike laughed. “You sure you want to know?”
“Well if I can cope with hearing all about your brother’s dealings for the past three weeks, then I think I can cope with hearing about yours!”
“Maybe I have a hidden side?”
She grinned. “Well then you’ll just have to divulge it, won’t you? Right you go first.”
"Oh no you don’t, it was my idea!" Mike replied indignantly. "And anyway, I’m a gentleman, so ladies first!"
Cornelia laughed. "Okay, I’ll go with that just this once. Let me think." She paused for a moment wracking her brain for an idea, and then suddenly a wide grin spread across her face. "I was once kidnapped and carried off into a cave by a madman," she said blithely, and sat back to await his reaction.
Mike opened his eyes wide and whistled. "Well that’s some opener!"
She smiled complacently. "I like to make an impression."
"Well you’ve certainly done that! Go on, you can’t leave me dangling by a thread, you have to expand."
Cornelia grinned and did as he asked, and Mike listened open-mouthed. Then he sat back, not quite sure what to say.
"Come on then, it’s your turn," Corney prompted. "You have to equal that."
Mike grimaced. "I’m not entirely sure I can. I did once set the school gymnasium alight by accident. Will that do?"
She burst out laughing. "However did you manage that?"
"Rogue bonfire, long story," he grinned. "I’ll tell you all about it some other day, if we stay friends. Right, over to you again."
Corney screwed her face up in thought. "I once tried one of Poppa’s cigars when I was a kid."
"Hey, what d’you know? I did that too! Got a good switching for my troubles while I was at it.”
"That makes two of us!" Cornelia laughed, as she sat back and took a sip of her drink. She liked this man, with his easygoing manner and dazzling smile. He was funny and charming, and he seemed interested in what she had to say. She smiled to herself. It seemed like she might enjoy tonight.
They soon fell into an easy rapport, their conversation growing slowly deeper as they started to share more about their lives. As the waiter cleared the main course plates away and brought around the dessert, Mike sat back and listened as she talked about Austria, thinking that he had never felt so comfortable with anyone in his life. He liked how lovingly she spoke of her father, noticed how intently she listened as he talked about his job and his family, was impressed at her fierce loyalty and how much she seemed to care about her friends. Before the meal was over, he felt as if he had known her forever.
By now, Richard had managed to manoeuvre himself next to Evadne and glancing over, seeing the flirtatious way his brother was leaning into her as they chatted, a frown furrowed Mike’s brow. Something was not quite right there with Evvy, she didn’t quite look comfortable, and Richard seemed oblivious. Taking another sip of her champagne, Cornelia caught Mike staring across the table and gave him a sympathetic smile.
"So are you disappointed it didn’t work out with Evvy tonight?"
Turning back to her, Mike smiled and shook his head. "Not in the least. She seems a charming girl, but I’m not sure she’s really my type."
Cornelia pulled a disbelieving face. "Rot, she’s everyone’s type!"
Mike shrugged. "Not mine, I’m afraid. As I said, she’s thoroughly charming but when it comes to it, she just wouldn’t be for me - and vice versa I’ve no doubt."
She frowned at him. "What’s your type then?"
Mike didn’t reply. Instead he gazed at her intently, mesmerised by her bright blue eyes, and Cornelia stared back at him, thoroughly confused. "What?"
He smiled and shook his head. "Nothing, just ignore me."
Corney shrugged. "Sure, if you say so! She’s not really looking to date anyone just now, anyhow," she added, returning the conversation to Evadne again.
"It’s perfectly fine, don’t worry. I picked up that something was wrong, unlike my dear brother over there," he replied, glancing at Richard again.
Cornelia was surprised. "You’re perceptive!"
"She just seemed a little sad, that’s all,” he replied. Cornelia went to respond and then suddenly hesitated. Mike noticed and gave her a smile. "You don’t have to tell me why if you don’t want to."
Corney thought about it for a few seconds. "You mustn’t let on to her that I told you," she said finally, making up her mind.
"Of course not."
"Okay, well," she began, taking a deep breath, "her fiancé died a couple of years back - he was shot down over Africa somewhere. Evvy was working over in England at the time and she only just got home a few weeks ago. I think with getting back to Long Island and Ralph not being there, she’s only really taking it in now. I reckon she could shut it out more when she was over there. She’s putting on a brave face right now, but deep down she’s real sad."
There was silence for a moment and then Mike shook his head, his eyes full of sympathy. "Oh no, that’s awful, poor Evvy. You’d never know."
Cornelia nodded sadly. "I think that’s the idea, to convince everyone she’s fine." She swallowed hard. "It broke her heart into tiny pieces though. She’s not said as much to me, but I’ve known her so long I can just tell." She looked so sad for a fleeting moment, that Mike reached out and squeezed her arm. She gave him a smile. "Anyhow, now you know," she finished, forcing a cheery note into her voice.
"Yes, now I know." Mike gazed intently at her as she picked up her glass to take a sip. She may not have Evadne’s looks, but with her full, delicate mouth and huge, soft, shining blue eyes, he thought she was every bit as beautiful in her own way.
As she took a sip of champagne and glanced around the room, Mike cleared his throat. He needed to change the subject, and now seemed as good a time as any.
"Corney?” She turned back to look at him with a smile, and he took a deep breath to steel himself. “Do you reckon I could take you out to dinner sometime?"
Taken completely by surprise, Cornelia spluttered into her glass of champagne, sending the contents down the front of her red dress. Grabbing a napkin from the table, she began to mop her front as Mike stammered an apology, taking the glass from her hand and setting it back on the table.
Just then, Richard appeared at his brother’s shoulder, swaying slightly under the influence of too much champagne. "You really need to learn how to drink properly, Corney," he teased with a wide grin.
Cornelia ignored him, wiping champagne from her throat and chin, as Mike stared at her, perplexed by her reaction. Oblivious as ever, Richard leant over his brother’s shoulder, nodded towards Evadne and asked, "You strike out again?"
Mike glared at him. "Go away, Richard."
Richard grinned. "Sorry, didn't mean to offend! You still in one piece talking to this one?" he added, with a wink in Corney’s direction. “Surprised she's not thrown champagne on you too!”
Cornelia grimaced. "Rub it in, why don’t you?" she muttered back, and then excusing herself, she got to her feet and hurried off to the bathroom to finish wiping down her dress.
The room was empty when she got there, and grabbing one of the hand towels, she wet it, gently sponging the drink from the silk material, wondering as she did so why she was even bothering. It was only going to stain anyway. Deciding to give it up as a bad job, she lay the towel down on the edge of the sink and stared at herself in the mirror.
Had he really just asked her to dinner? She could not quite believe it. Of all the women in the room, he had chosen to ask her, Corney? It didn’t seem real, it never happened like that. She was so used to being the girl that all the men got along with and then told her that they wanted to date her friends. She grinned widely at her reflection as it began to sink in, and then pinched herself, just to check that it really was true.
"Ow!" she cried, as she pinched her arm a little harder than she had meant to.
"Are you okay?"
Cornelia hadn’t heard the door open, and she jumped at the sound of her friend’s voice. Evadne looked her up and down, taking in the marks on the front of her dress.
"What happened to you?"
"Spilt champagne down my front," Corney replied, grimacing as Evadne chuckled. "How’s your evening going? Enjoying yourself?"
Evvy nodded and smiled. "I’m a little tired though, that’s why I came to find you. Would you mind if we head off?"
"Of course not. I just have to do one thing first, it won’t take a minute."
"I'm sure I can wait," Evadne grinned. ‘"I'll get our coats and go say goodbye to the boys. Meet you back at the table," and good as her word, she turned and walked back out the door.
Cornelia took one last look in the mirror, and then followed her friend out of the room. Crossing the lobby to the reception desk, she asked for a pen and paper, scribbled something down, and then returned to the ballroom. Mike was chatting to Evadne, saying his goodbyes, and with a smile, Corney made her way towards them.
Before she reached them, Richard accosted her, looking thoroughly contrite. "Corney, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you."
She looked up at him, puzzled, and then smiled as she realised what he meant. "You didn’t, don’t worry," she reassured him, seeing the anxious expression on his face. "It takes more than a fatuous comment from you to get my goat!"
Richard grinned back at her, relieved. "Glad to hear it. Are you and Evvy leaving?"
"Yes, we’re a little tired, and I think this thing’s run its course. I’ll see you soon, okay?" she added, as he bent to kiss her on the cheek. "Make sure you say goodbye to Evvy too – she goes home the day after tomorrow," and leaving him to do as she suggested, she continued on her way over to Mike.
He was sitting in his seat, feeling a little despondent. He had been so sure she would say yes, sure that she had felt the same connection that he had himself. Instead she had run off and not come back, and now he was convinced that he had blown it, that she wasn’t interested, that he’ had read the signals all wrong. He heaved a sigh and sat back in his chair. It was hardly the first time he had been turned down by someone he liked, but somehow this time it stung that little bit more.
Seeing her approaching him, he dragged himself out of his reverie and gave her a smile.
"You heading out too?"
Cornelia nodded. "Evvy wants to get home. Thanks Mike, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. I’ve had a really good night."
"So’ve I." He gazed up at her for a second, before adding, "Listen I'm sorry about..."
Before he could finish, he became aware of her pressing something into his hand.
"Hopefully I’ll see you soon," she said with a meaningful smile, and then turned on her heel and followed Evadne out into the lobby.
Mike watched them go, and then glanced down at the piece of paper in his hand. Written on it, in an untidy looping scrawl, were a phone number and address, and the words ‘Thank you. Dinner would be swell.’
A warm feeling spread throughout his body as he read her reply, and folding the piece of paper, he put it in his pocket, a wide smile lighting up his face.
Richard appeared at his shoulder again. "What've you got there?"
"None of your business. What are you up to now?"
"We're going on to another party. You want to join us?"
Mike shook his head. "Thanks all the same, but I think I'll just head home."
"You’re hopeless, you know," his brother replied in mock exasperation. "You’ll never meet anyone if you don’t get out there." Not deigning to reply, Mike got to his feet, brushing his jacket down and shaking his head. "You should listen to me," Richard added, "I know what I’m talking about!"
Mike stared at him for a second, and then patted him on the shoulder, the wide grin still plastered on his face. "You what, little brother, I think I’ll do just fine."
It was not until she stepped outside and into the fresh air, that Corney realised quite how much she had had to drink. The cold October night hit her like a tonne of bricks, and feeling distinctly light-headed, she clung onto the railings at the top of the steps.
“Corney, what…are you okay?”
Evadne came running back up the steps towards her friend, a worried look on her face, and Cornelia gave her a sheepish grin.
“I, er…” she began conspiratorially, leaning into Evadne and glancing around her. “I think I may be a little drunk!”
Evadne laughed as she linked her arm through her friend's. “Here, keep a hold on the railing and I’ll help you down the steps. I was wondering when it would hit you!”
“I didn’t have all that much!” Cornelia retorted as she almost lost her footing.
Evadne, who had seen the waiters topping up Cornelia’s glass several times when she wasn’t looking, just grinned back at her, and helped her down the last few steps and into the waiting cab.
The twenty minute drive home passed by with Cornelia giggling to herself and reliving her conversation with Mike, while Evadne listened on amused. It was obvious to her that her friend was deeply interested in this man, though Cornelia was sober enough to withhold the information about being asked out on a date. That was a secret she wanted to keep to herself, at least for tonight.
When they arrived back at the Flowers' house, Corney headed straight upstairs to bed, as the giddy, light-headed feeling she had had when they left the hotel was beginning to turn to drowsiness. Shutting her bedroom door behind her, she threw herself down on the bed, face-down and closed her eyes. She felt she could happily have just gone to sleep there and then, but realising she should at least change into her nightclothes, she finally hauled herself up and pulled her nightdress out from underneath her pillow.
Kicking off her shoes, she wriggled out of her dress, tearing one of the seams slightly as she pulled it over her head without undoing the hook and eye. Then throwing it onto the nearest chair, she unhooked her stockings and began to peel them off. Balancing on one leg, she rolled the nylon down to her foot, and was just tugging it off from the toe when she suddenly overbalanced and landed face-down on the floor with a shriek.
Giggling to herself, she rolled onto her back and put her legs in the air, somehow managing to pull both her stockings off, though not without some difficulty, and then holding onto the end of the bed, she pulled herself back onto her feet. Grabbing her nightdress from the bed, she put it on back-to-front, and then made her way through to the en-suite bathroom, still chuckling as she went. She quickly brushed her teeth, and then made a token effort at washing off her make-up, sticking her head under the cold tap to rinse off the soap. When she lifted her head again, the room seemed to spin for a second and she grabbed the edge of the taps, staring in the mirror until everything came back into focus. Then making her way back into her room, she pulled back the covers and climbed into bed.
She was just sliding down between the sheets when there was a knock at the door, and Evadne came into the room, holding a glass of water.
“Thought this may come in handy,” she said with a smile, walking around the bed and placing it on the bedside table. Then staring down at her Cornelia, she grinned at the make-up still smeared around her eyes. “Nice job taking your kohl off!”
Cornelia grinned. “I’ll finish it in the morning – it won’t hurt to wait awhile! You off to bed?”
Evadne nodded and bent to kiss her friend on the cheek. “Think I may fall over where I’m standing if I don’t. You sure you’re okay?”
Sure I'm sure. ‘Night, Evvy. Thanks for my water.”
“You’re welcome. See you tomorrow,” and walking back around the bed, Evadne went to leave the room.
She stopped in her tracks as Cornelia called her. “Yes?”
“Mike’s a nice man!”
Evadne smiled. “Yes, I know.”
Corney grinned back at her. “Goodnight!” and then turning over and switching off the light, she snuggled down under her covers again as Evadne laughed and headed off to her own bed.
Curling up on her side, Cornelia’s thoughts were still on Mike. He wanted to see her again. She still coul hardly believe it, that he was actually interested in her. He was so nice and kind and funny. Men like that rarely looked at her twice. She smiled to herself, as she pictured his face in her mind. He had the sort of soft, sensitive eyes and warm smile that made her feel oddly safe and at home. And he was so witty and intelligent and he didn’t seem to care about tissue stuck to her shoe, the drinks spilt down her front, her hair being a little out of place. Somehow she knew she could be herself with him, not have to put on any airs and graces, and he wouldn’t mind a bit. He would still be there, still be interested in what she had to say. She had never met a man who had paid her that sort of attention before. She smiled to herself again and snuggled further into her pillow. And now he was going to ask her out for dinner. She could hardly wait.
The following morning, Mike was sitting at his kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee and reading his newspaper, when the kitchen door opened and Richard entered the room, looking rather bleary-eyed. He staggered across to the stove, pouring himself a cup of coffee from the pot, and then as he sat down at the table, Mike looked up at him, eyebrow raised.
“Good night last night?”
Richard grimaced, as if the sound of his brother’s voice was just too much for his head to bear. “I’m never drinking scotch again.”
Mike laughed. “Don’t let Pop hear you say that, you’ll be disinherited!”
Despite his hangover, Richard grinned. “Let’s face it, it was going to happen one day anyway!”
“True enough,” Mike replied jokingly, as he turned a page. “So, how was last night then?”
“We went on to another party somewhere in Cambridge – no idea where. I do remember, that Elisabeth and I are no longer an item, however.”
“You know – Elisabeth Lowell, tall, blonde, talks as if she has a plum in her mouth.”
“Did I actually meet her?” Mike asked, sounding doubtful.
Richard stopped to think for a moment, the effort clearly hurting his throbbing head. “No, I don’t think you ever did, now I come to think of it. I only met her myself a few weeks ago.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “So what happened?”
“Nothing fearfully exciting. We both decided things had run their course, and I met someone else last night.”
Mike grinned. “Surely not little Isobel whose pigtails you used to pull in the schoolyard?”
Richard nodded. “The very same!”
“Is she not a little young for you?”
"She’s only five years younger than me,” Richard replied, utterly unabashed. “She’s nineteen now, believe it or not, and quite a beauty if I do say so myself.”
“Well I give it a couple of months, tops,” Mike replied, turning his attention back to his paper.
“Oh my cynical brother, what am I to do with you?” Richard retorted shaking his head. Then taking a sip of his coffee, he lounged back in his chair and fixed Mike with a critical eye. “Anyhow, enough about me. What about you last night? You took off rather rapidly – what happened? Any news?”
Mike’s cheeks flushed slightly pink and lowering his paper again, he lifted his cup and grinned into his coffee. “As a matter of fact, you were right for once. I met a very nice girl last night, one I’ll most definitely be seeing again.”
“You really liked Evvy?” Richard exclaimed with interest, sitting up straighter in this chair. “Well aren’t you the dark horse! And there was me thinking you’d nixed it when you hardly spoke to her all night.”
Mike shook his head. “You’re a little off the mark, I’m afraid. Delightful as Evvy is, she and I will only ever be friends.”
Richard looked puzzled. “Well who else can it be? It know it can’t be either of the girls you sat next to during the first course, for Sylvia’s married, and Gretchen’s the biggest bore known to man. Who else did you talk to?” He screwed up his face in thought, trying hard to remember the previous evening. “I’m fairly sure I only saw you with Corney.”
Mike’s cheeks grew a deeper shade of pink, and a slight smile touched the edge of his lips. Richard’s eyes opened wide and he was suddenly very alert.
“Corney?” Mike’s grin grew wider and he nodded his head. Richard stared at him in disbelief. He appeared to be in shock. “You like Corney? You have to be kidding me?”
Mike’s smile instantly turned to a frown. “That’s a particularly tasteless comment, even by your standards,” he replied coldly.
Thoroughly flustered, Richard continued digging himself a hole. “I didn’t mean it in that way,” he replied indignantly. “I’m very fond of her, you know I am. But really Mike, how could you pick Corney over Evvy, for pete’s sake? Evvy’s sophisticated, elegant and beautiful. Corney’s scatty, clumsy and well…not so beautiful.” Mike raised his eyebrows and Richard shook his head in disbelief. “Oh come on, you can’t tell me you believe she is. I know she’s not ugly, but compared to Evvy…”
Mike put his paper down on the table, set his cup firmly on top of it and sat back in his seat again, glaring across at his brother, his arms folded across his chest. His face wore a look of anger such as Richard had rarely seen before.
“Okay little brother, let’s get a few things straight. Firstly, Evvy has absolutely no interest in a relationship right now. I’m going to tell you this for your own good, so you will hopefully leave the poor girl alone, but you’re to repeat this to no-one, least of all Evvy herself. Her fiancé died during the war and she is still devastated at his loss. What she needs right now is not some idiot sniffing around trying to be her suitor or fix her up with dates, but rather for people to be her friends.”
He paused for a second to let this sink in, and Richard swallowed hard, mortified to hear of Evadne’s loss. Mike noticed, and generally his compassion would have taken over at this point, but for once he was frankly too angry to care. Besides, his brother had spent far too long swanning through life, getting away with things because of his charming smile and effusive manner. It was about time he began to grow up.
Mike cleared his throat and continued.
“Even if that were not the case, Evvy and I are not interested in each other in that way. I’ve no doubt we’ll be friends, but nothing more.
As for Corney, I happen to like that she’s scatty and not in the least embarrassed about it, that she doesn’t have an ounce of pretension in her body, and that yes, she’s clumsy and unsophisticated, because it’s all part of who she is. She is also funny and charming and gutsy, and has the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met. Talking to her last night, I felt as if I’d known her my entire life, and when she left, all I could think of was getting to know her more.
And as for not being attractive, she has a smile that melts my heart and the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever set eyes on. And anyhow, physical beauty isn’t everything - that’s something you’ll learn one day, when you grow up. Most beauty comes from inside. It’s what really makes Evvy a beautiful woman, not the obvious looks that you see, and in my mind it puts Corney streets ahead of the competition.
So in answer to your questions, yes, I do like Corney, no I am not kidding and yes, I would pick her over Evvy. Just now, I'd pick her over any other girl in the world.”
As his brother finally finished speaking, Richard remained stock still in his chair, gaping at him open-mouthed. Ignoring him, Mike got to his feet, set his cup down in the sink, and marched out of the door, leaving Richard staring after him, still trying to wrap his hungover mind around what he had just heard.
Evadne tossed the cushion she was holding to one side and then grinned across at her friend. “You know you can’t just leave it there!” she exclaimed excitedly. “I need to know all the details. When did he ask you?”
Despite her still throbbing headache and nauseous stomach, a wide smile crossed Cornelia’s face as she looked back at her. “When we were at the table, not long after we’d eaten,” she replied, the colour deepening in her pale cheeks as she spoke. “We were talking about…something else, and then he just came out with it out of the blue. It’s what made me spill champagne down my front – I was so surprised!”
Evadne laughed. “I can’t believe you didn’t see it coming!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cornelia retorted indignantly. “Why would I have seen it coming?”
“Corney, it was so obvious!” Evvy responded, still chuckling. “I could tell right from the start that he liked you. You’re so oblivious when it comes to things like that.”
“That’s ‘cause nobody’s ever interested in me,” Corney replied, pulling a face at her friend. “You’ve heaps of practice at people wanting to know you, that’s why you can tell better than me!”
Evadne laughed again and shook her head. “So am I right to assume you said ‘yes’?”
Cornelia grinned, her cheeks turning an even deeper shade of pink. “I actually said ‘Dinner would be swell’! I wrote it on a piece of paper with my number and gave it to him as we left. I didn’t even see his reaction. I hope he read it,” she added with afterthought, her grin turning to a frown.
“Of course he read it!” Evadne sounded incredulous. “What d’you think he’d do otherwise?”
“Be nice to me, I’m feeling fragile!” Corney pouted, realising how ridiculous her comment had been. Suddenly she chuckled to herself. “Richard’ll be disappointed – he was hoping for you to be Mike’s dream girl.” Then with a quick rethink, she added, “Actually, maybe he won’t. Mike reckons it’s Richard who really wants to court you, he just knew he didn’t stand a chance!”
Evadne laughed. “Sadly I think Mike has it right!” she replied with a slight grimace. “Richard doesn’t seem to take no for an answer – short of telling him the real reason I’m not out for a date, there was nothing else I could say!”
Cornelia gave her friend a sheepish glance. “Say, Evvy, I hope you don’t mind, but I told Mike about what happened. He asked why you looked a little sad.”
Evvy stared at her for a moment and then shook her head. “S’okay, I don’t mind him knowing. He’d have found out soon enough anyhow, I’d imagine, if he’s taking you out on a date.”
A brief silence followed, as Cornelia mulled something over in her mind. “So how d’you feel about going home tomorrow?” she asked hesitantly, her voice full of concern.
Evadne stared at her fingers, picking at a snag on one of her nails, and then heaved a huge sigh and shook her head. “In all honesty, I really don’t know. A little scared, I guess, about how I’m gonna cope.”
Corney watched her for a second, and then getting up from her seat on the sofa, she walked across to her friend’s armchair, sitting down on the arm and giving Evadne a hug.
“You just make sure you call or come see me whenever you need me, okay?”
Evvy smiled and squeezed her friend’s arm. “I promise.”
“Good. Now,” Corney added, a wicked grin on her face, “how ‘bout you go fetch me some coffee and cookies.”
“How ‘bout you fetch them yourself!” Evadne retorted. “I’m the guest here, remember?”
“But I’m sick!” Cornelia replied in a whinging voice. “You wouldn’t want me to get sicker would you?”
“How is you walking to the kitchen and filling the coffee pot gonna make you sicker?”
“I’ll show you just ‘cause!” and turning slightly in her seat, Evadne gave her friend a gentle shove, sending her tumbling off the arm of the chair with a wild shriek.
“You mean!” As Evvy dissolved into laughter, Cornelia got to her feet and glared at her. “That wasn’t fair!”
“Serves you right! Now go on, go make the coffee!” Evvy replied, with another peal of laughter.
“You’re never coming here to stay again, Evvy Lannis, you hear me?” Corney muttered loudly, as she stalked out of the door.
Holding a box of donuts in one hand, Richard tentatively opened the door of his brother’s workshop and stuck his head into the room. Catching the movement out of the corner of his eye, Mike laid down his hammer and turned his attention away from the bench that he was building.
“You should have gone into furniture designing, not stockbroking,” Richard said in an overly cheerful voice, admiring his brother’s handiwork.
Mike glared at back at him. “What do you want, Richard?”
“Peace offering,” Richard responded, holding out the box of donuts, a hopeful smile fixed on his face.
“I think I’d prefer an apology rather than donuts, if it’s all the same to you,” came the stony reply, as Mike picked his hammer up again and turned back to his work.
“Yes, well I come bearing that too,” and walking across to the far side, Richard sat himself down in one of his brother’s chairs.
He looked around or a few seconds, taking in all the different bits and pieces of woodwork around the workshop. Then, glancing at his brother, he realised that Mike was staring at him, eyebrows raised.
“Oh yes, that! Sorry.”
“That’s it?” came the incredulous reply.
Richard grimaced and shook his head. “Well no, not exactly. I’m just not sure what to say - you know I don’t do apologies well.”
“Why don’t you give it a try?” Mike retorted, sardonically. “You never know – it may even become a habit. Stranger things have happened.”
Richard opened his mouth to deliver a stinging rebuke, but then thought better of itand took a deep breath instead.
“I didn’t mean to be rude about her, Mike. That wasn’t how I meant it at all. Surely you know I’m fond of her?”
“That doesn’t excuse what you said,” Mike responded, his voice still hard and cold.
For once, Richard had the grace to look ashamed of himself. “I know. I guess I was in shock, that’s all.”
“Because you can’t understand why I’m interested in Corney when you’re not?”
“Well yes…” Richard began hesitantly.
“We’re different people, Rich,” Mike interrupted incredulously. “Surely you’ve figured that out by now?”
“I know that!” There was an awkward silence for a few moments, and then Richard continued, “The thing is, I’ve thought about it and now I can see it.”
“You and Corney. Why it would work.” Mike stared back at him, saying nothing, and Richard tried again to get his point across. “I mean, it makes sense, I guess.”
“You guess it does, or it does?”
“It does,” Richard replied decisively. “At least, it will, once you’re together. You know what I mean.” He paused for a second. “It’ll just take some getting used to, that’s all.”
Mike raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is there for you to get used to, Richard?”
“Well, you know…”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Well you being together – with Corney…”
“I still don’t see why you have to get used to anything,” Mike stated impatiently. “I like her, I will ask her out to dinner when I get back from Greenwich, and hopefully things’ll progress from there. I’ll have to wait and see. But in all honesty, whatever happens or doesn’t happen is none of your business! I am twenty-nine years old and I can date whomever I choose. Obviously I would prefer it if you don’t have a problem with her, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t make that much difference what you say – I’ll still date her.”
“Well then I’ll thank you to just keep your views to yourself! You don’t hear me passing judgement on every girl you step out with, so perhaps you’d extend me the same courtesy?”
Richard stared down at his feet, looking thoroughly apologetic. “I will. I’m sorry. I really am fond of her, you know,” he added, with a slight smile, “even is she is a little crazy!”
Mike rolled his eyes, and then his face broke into his familiar smile. “I know you are. And I accept your apology – just don’t do it again. Now,” he said, holding out his hand, “how about you hand over those donuts before I change my mind!”
It was Wednesday by the time Mike returned from visiting a couple of his clients in Greenwich, and once he had arrived home and unpacked his bags, the first thing he did was try and call Cornelia.
Sadly, his attempts were in vain. In her haste to scribble down her phone number, she had somehow managed to write it down wrong, and after the third time of apologising to an increasingly disgruntled old woman on the other end of the line, Mike finally gave up and decided to drive out to her home instead.
It took him a little while to find the road in Brookline, where Cornelia and her father lived. Her handwriting wasn’t the greatest and he spent a good hour driving around trying to find Tampledown Avenue, before he finally located the Templeton Avenue that he actually wanted.
Pulling up in the gravel forecourt of number 1204, he turned off the engine, climbed out of the car, and walked across to the front door, butterflies fluttering in his stomach at the thought of seeing her again. Taking a deep breath, he reached out his hand, and pulled the cord attached to the large, brass doorbell. There was no reply. He might have known it – Cornelia and her father were not in. No matter, he thought to himself, he would just wait in the car until they returned.
Two hours later, he was still sitting in the same place, there was still no sign of them, and he was starting to get cold. He needed to go home and get some rest, but he was reluctant to leave without seeing her. He sat back, a frown clouding his face. Then suddenly an idea struck him, and reaching into the glove compartment, he pulled out a pad and pen, tore off a sheet of paper and began to scribble out a note.
It’s Mike van Alden here – I hope you remember me from the benefit last week? I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day, to no avail, so apologies for the note but it’s my last resort.
I would still very much like to take you out on that dinner date we talked of - if you would still like to come, that is. I hope that’s the case.
Are you by any chance free this coming Saturday afternoon and evening? If not, please contact me on the telephone number or address below. Otherwise, if I don’t hear from you, I will be by to collect you at 3pm on Saturday. Wear something nice, and bring a warm coat and scarf to wrap up in!
Yours hopefully, and with fond regards,
Scribbling his number and address down at the bottom of the page, he folded the piece of paper over twice. Then driving out of the forecourt, he pulled over in front of the mailbox, tucked the note inside, and then climbed back into the car and headed home.
By Friday lunchtime, Cornelia had still heard nothing from Mike, and she was beginning to feel increasingly despondent. She had thought that he was different, that he really was interested in her, but clearly her instincts had been wrong. Sitting on the window seat in the salon, staring out at the rain as it teemed down the glass panes and soaked the garden, she told herself that there must be a reason why this kept on happening to her. Maybe Maud, the cheerless woman who had kept house for them in Ireland, was right after all. Maybe she just wasn’t the type of girl that a man wanted for a wife.
Tucking her legs up under her, she curled herself up on the big cushions and leant her forehead against the glass. Perhaps she should just get used to the fact that she was going to end up alone after all. She heard the door to the salon open as her father came into the room, but didn’t bother looking around. She wasn’t sure she was in the mood to talk to anyone just now.
Joseph Flower watched his daughter, noting her sad expression as she continued to stare out of the window. Then weaving his way between the furniture, he crossed the room and sat down next to her, his eyes still on her face.
“What’s eating you?”
Cornelia glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and then turned her attention back to the garden. “Nothing, I’m fine.”
“Well you don’t look so fine to me. Come on, Corney, tell your old Pop what’s wrong. You never know, I may be able to help.”
Corney looked at him askance, and then shifting position so that she was facing towards him, she poured out the tale about meeting Mike, her hurt that he hadn’t called, and her fear that maybe Maud had been right after all.
“I don’t understand it, Poppa. What’s wrong with me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you whatsoever,” Joe replied firmly, angry that anyone could make his daughter feel that way. “Corney, I know I’m a little biased, but any man who can’t see what you’re worth and how wonderful you are, doesn’t deserve you. Maud was a bitter, sour-faced old nag who couldn’t find her own husband and didn’t want anyone else to have one either.”
Cornelia shook her head and stared down at her hands, twisting her fingers together. “It not just her. No-one ever likes me, Poppa, not in that way. I thought Mike was different but he’s just the same as all the rest. I guess that when the champagne wore off he realised he’d made a mistake. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Mr. Flower reached out and squeezed his daughter’s arm. She was his pride and joy, the only love in his life for so long, and he hated seeing her this upset. “If he’s worth you, then he’ll get in touch,” he replied gently. Then as he gave her a smile, he suddenly started to cough.
Cornelia stared at him, alarmed as his chest heaved. “How long have you had this?” she demanded, forgetting her woes and jumping up to grab a blanket a nearby sofa. “Here, come over here, sit on the couch.”
“Corney, I’m fine!” her father protested, as he stopped coughing and mopped his streaming eyes with his handkerchief. “Do stop fussing, it’s just a little cough, that’s all.”
“I don’t care!” Cornelia exclaimed, taking hold of his arm and pulling him to his feet. “This is our first winter back here and I’m not having you take any chances. I’ve almost lost you once, I’m not letting you get that bad again – not if I can help it. Now you’ll do as I tell you,” she ordered as her father rolled his eyes, acquiescing to her wishes all the same. “Go get into bed and I’ll bring you some soup and bread. I’ll come eat my lunch with you up there,” and with one hand on his back, she steered him out of the salon as he began to cough again.
Mr. Flower had just settled himself in his bed, several pillows supporting his back, when Cornelia appeared, carrying a tray that was laden down with soup, bread and what looked like a mountain of post. She crossed the room, pulling up the small table that fitted around the bed, and then placed the tray down in front of him.
Joe eyed the pile of letters with a twinkle in his eye. “Corney, when did you last clear out the mailbox?”
“Wednesday morning,” she replied briskly, her cheeks going red, and she busied herself trying to plump up his pillows a little more. “I’ve been busy since and I…er…forgot. Anyhow,” she added defensively, “you could have cleared it yourself, you know!”
“Yes I know, I’m only kidding! Careful!” he cried, as she pushed another pillow behind his back and he shot forward, knocking the tray and spilling some soup over the edge of his bowl. “You’ll have me planting my face in the bowl if you carry on like that!”
“Sorry,” Corney muttered sheepishly, as she straightened the pillows up properly and then stood up straight. “I’m just going to fetch my own tray. You read your mail and I’ll be back in a minute,” and leaving him to obey her orders, she disappeared out of the door.
She returned a few minutes later bearing a second tray laden with soup, glasses and a huge jug of juice.
“Watch out, you’re gonna spill it!” Joe cried, as she tipped the tray precariously and the contents slid to one side.
“No I won’t, it’s fine,” she retorted, proving her point by just making it to the dresser in time. “See?” Then picking up one of the glasses, she poured him a drink and walked over to place it down in front of him, helping herself to some of his bread in return. “Anything interesting?”
Joe looked up from the letter he was studying, and gave her a smile. “Work letters mostly,” he replied, picking a folded piece of paper off his tray and holding it out towards her. “This may be of interest to you though.”
Frowning, Cornelia reached out and took it from his hand. “What is it?”
“Why don’t you take a look and see?” he replied, his eyes twinkling. “By the way, there’s no name on the front so I opened it and read the first few words before I realised it was for you. Sorry about that.”
Cornelia shook her head to indicate that she didn’t mind, and then sat down on a stool by the dresser, curiously unfolding the note. Her eyes shone brightly as she scanned the words on the page. After readingthe note through several more times, she folded it up and looked across at her father, a wide grin lighting up her face.
“I gather he came?”
Corney nodded, her eyes still shining with happiness. “He still wants to see me!” she replied excitedly, opening the note and glancing at the words again. “He’s asked me to dinner on Saturday. Say,” her face fell, as realisation set in, “that’s tomorrow! But I’ve no time to prepare! What’ll I wear? I don’t have anything…”
“Well why don’t you go get something new this afternoon - put it on my account.”
“But I’m no good at picking out clothes, Poppa, and Evvy’s not here to help me and I don’t have any girlfriends in Boston I can ask either,” she answered, sounding panicked.
Joe chuckled and shook his head. “Corney, what were you wearing the night you met him?”
“My red dress - the one that got ruined.”
“And did you pick it out yourself?” She nodded, confused and distracted. “Then what’s the problem? You can evidently pick clothes okay, you don’t need Evvy’s help. Stop worrying yourself about it and concentrate on looking forward to the date instead. Now, don’t you think you should call and tell him you accept? He mightn’t think you want to go otherwise.”
Cornelia shook her head. “He says to telephone if there’s a problem, otherwise he’ll be here at three tomorrow afternoon,” she replied scanning the note again.”
Her father grinned. “Well there you are then,” he stated, picking up his spoon and taking a mouthful of soup. “Say, this is delicious, sweetheart, you’ve outdone yourself!”
She returned his smile, his comment recalling her to the present. “Thanks, Poppa. You feeling a little better now?”
Joe nodded. “Much. I’m just a little tired and have a small cold, that’s all. Don’t you go worrying about me, okay? Concentrate on enjoying yourself tomorrow. It’s about time you had a little fun - you’ve been far too tied up with me over the past few years.” He paused and placed his spoon back in his bowl. “I am sorry, you know,” he added, glancing across at her as she folded the note again and laid it on the dresser. “I think I’ve taken the best of your girlhood away.”
Cornelia stared at him in amazement. “No you didn’t – you took nothing away from me. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.” Joe smiled back at her, his heart warmed by her words. Embarrassed by her uncharacteristic sentimentality, Cornelia picked up her spoon and took a mouthful of soup. “Well whatta you know?” she declared in her usual clarion tones, “I really have outdone myself haven’t I?”
Mr Flower laughed and shook his head. “That’s what I like to see, my usual modest girl!”
Richard glanced up from his textbook and wolf-whistled as Mike entered the kitchen, dressed in his best suit and an expensive woollen coat.
“Not at all,” Richard replied, with a grin. “I’d date you looking like that!”
Mike laughed. “Sorry, but I’m hoping I’ll soon be spoken for! How’s the studying coming along?”
Richard grimaced. “Horribly.” Then throwing his pencil down and sitting back in his chair, he added, “You’ll be pleased to note, though, that I’m all packed and I’ll be out of your hair by tomorrow afternoon.”
“What are the new rooms like?”
“I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse. Still, enough of that. Where are you taking her?”
“I thought we’d head up to Burrell’s Point for a little while, until it gets dark, and then back here to Guiseppe’s for dinner.”
“Burrell’s Point?” Richard exclaimed, staring out of the window at the wintry November day. “In this weather? Are you out of your mind?”
Mike shrugged nonchalantly. “If she’s the girl that I think she is, then she won’t mind a bit. And it’ll be a true test of whether she really is right for me, though that’s not why I’m doing it.”
Richard shook his head. “No wonder you can never get any girl to date you! Top of a cliff on a November day, I ask you!”
Mike just grinned back at him. “We’ll see. Now, I should get going or I’ll be late, and that will not make a good impression! I’ll see you later,” and wrapping his scarf around his neck, he picked up a basket that he had packed earlier in the day, and set out to collect Cornelia from her home.
“You look a million dollars, sweetheart.”
Making her way down the stairs, dressed in a periwinkle-blue dress that perfectly matched her eyes, Cornelia looked up at her father with a tentative smile. “You really think I look okay?”
“Are you kidding me?” Joe replied enthusiastically. “You’ll knock him dead!”
Cornelia laughed. “Well let’s hope I don’t actually manage to do that!” Then as she reached the bottom of the stairs, she took hold of his outstretched hands. “I’m so nervous, Poppa!”
Her father smiled and squeezed her hands affectionately. “You really like this man, don’t you?”
Cornelia’s cheeks flushed pink and she nodded shyly. “I just hope he likes me too.”
“How could he not.”
There was silence for a moment as they stared at each other, Cornelia feeling the butterflies slowly disappearing from her stomach at her father’s encouragement. Then suddenly the doorbell rang, and she all returned once more.
Mr. Flower smiled. “I’ll get that – you go see to getting your coat.”
As Cornelia did his bidding, Joe walked across the entrance hall and opened the front door to find a stocky, pleasant-faced young man in his late twenties standing on the doorstep.
“You must be Michael?” Joe asked cheerily, holding out his hand in greeting. “Joseph Flower at your service.”
“Michael van Alden,” Mike replied, shaking the proffered hand, the grin on his face just managing to mask his nerves. “Nice to meet you, Sir.”
“Well come on in then,” Mr. Flower said, standing back and ushering his guest into the hallway. “Cornelia’s just fetching her coat – she won’t be long.” He closed the door on the cold air outside, and then turned to face his daughter’s date with an inquisitive air. “So tell me, Michael, what is it you do for a living?”
Nervous as he was, Mike failed to spot the twinkle in his host’s eyes. “I’m a broker, Sir,” he replied politely, steeling himself for the inquisition.
“A broker, eh?” Joe looked him up and down with a critical eye. “Where is it you live again?”
“Mount Vernon Street, Beacon Hill.”
“I see. And what, may I ask, are your intentions towards my daughter?”
“Poppa, leave him alone!”
The two men turned at the sound of Cornelia’s voice, Mike’s eyes lighting up as he caught sight of her.
“Ignore him, Mike. Poppa, stop being a mean and coming over all protective!” she ordered with a disapproving glare.
Joe grinned. “Okay, okay, I’ll stop. You two kids go have a good time. I’ll see you later, sweetheart,” and he stooped to kiss his daughter on the cheek. Then turning back to Mike, his face took on a stern expression. “You look after her, young man, you hear me?”
“I will, Sir, I promise.”
“So I should hope!”
“Poppa!” Cornelia gave her father an exasperated glance, and as Joe chuckled away to himself, she hurriedly ushered Mike out of the house.
They walked the five or so strides to the car in silence. Bending to open the door for her, Mike gave her a dazzling smile. “You look beautiful, by the way.”
Cornelia blushed to the roots of her bright yellow hair, muttered a quick thank you, and rapidly climbed into the car. Grinning, Mike shut the door and made his way round to the driver’s seat. By the time he was in and settled, Corney had regained her usual composure and she turned to face him, a questioning look on her face.
“So where are you taking me then?”
“That’s my surprise,” he returned, with an aggravating grin. “Where would you like to go if you had the choice?”
“As long as it’s somewhere nice, I don’t mind!” she replied nonchalantly, refusing to rise. “Is it?”
“Let’s go and find out shall we?” and with a quick wink, he started the engine and they made their way out of the drive.
They drove north out of the city, passing through the suburbs of Somerville and Everett, chatting politely as they went and catching up on each other’s news. It wasn’t until Mike turned the car onto the Salem road, wending their way towards the coast, that their nerves began to dissipate a little and they both started to relax.
As he finished telling her that Richard was finally moving out of his house and back into halls, Cornelia grinned and shook her head.
“Thing is, you say he drives you crazy, but you’re lucky having a brother. It sure gets lonely sometimes, being an only child.”
Mike glanced at her briefly and then turned his attention back to the road. “Yes, I imagine it would. But you’re far closer to your father than I am to either of my parents, especially my mother, so it works both ways.”
“Oh I know, and I’m not complaining, honest to God. I love my family just the way it is.”
“He seems real nice, your Pop.”
Cornelia smiled. “Yes, he is. He’s the best Poppa in the world, even though I say so myself.” She paused briefly, then added, “Say, Mike, I’m sorry he quizzed you like that.”
Mike grinned. “Not a problem. I was expecting a far worse grilling than the one he gave me!”
“I guess,” she responded, a frown knitting her brow. “And I’m pretty sure he was only kidding. He’s a little protective, that’s all.”
“So he should be.” Mike smiled, concentrating on his driving as the ocean loomed up ahead of them, unseen waves crashing on the rocks below the cliffs.
He turned left onto the narrow coast road, and Cornelia stared at a signpost on the grass verge and then turned to face him, puzzled. “You do know that this road’s a dead-end?”
Mike stared straight ahead, his lips twitching. “Apparently so.”
Corney grimaced. “Where are you taking me?”
“I told you, it’s a surprise,” he replied with a maddening air, and as he spoke, the road began to narrow and then came to a halt in front of a low wooden fence.
Mike stopped the car and climbed out, taking a bunch of keys from his pocket and using one to open a padlock on the gate blocking their path. Driving the car through into the private land, he relocked the gate behind them, and then continued on up the dirt track. As they neared the clifftop, a dark, weathered, clapboard house came into view, looking lost and isolated in its wilderness-like surroundings.
”Mike, where are we?” Cornelia asked, staring out of the window in amazement.
“This is Burrell’s Point, the former home of one Wilbur Burrell III, now deceased,” Mike replied with a grin. “He also happened to be my great-grandfather, and nowadays all this belongs to me.”
“This is yours?” came the incredulous response, as they drove past the house towards the cliffs.
“Well, mine and Richard’s, to be precise. But as he hates the place and never comes near it anymore, it’s pretty much just mine these days.” He drew the car to a halt a few metres from the edge of the cliffs and turned to her with a smile. “Want to get out and take a look at the view?”
“As long as you’re not planning on pushing me off?”
Mike’s mouth fell open, aghast, and he began to stammer a protest before noticing the slight smirk touching the sides of her mouth. “Another comment like that and I just might!” he retorted indignantly.
Cornelia laughed. “Got you!” she giggled, somewhat reprehensibly. Then opening her door and climbing out, she waded through the long grass towards the edge of the cliff.
As the wild, stormy sea opened up below her, she gazed out at the vista, a rapt expression on her face. The sky was all purples, blues and greys, with rainclouds out on the horizon and dusk beginning to take a hold. Tiny fishing boats tossed and turned on the waves as they made their way back to shore after a day on the ocean, and a few seagulls hovered between clifftop and water, their cries carrying on the breeze as they searched for their dinner.
“I guess you think I’m crazy, bringing you out here on a day like today?”
Cornelia turned her head as Mike came to stand beside her, and he glanced back at her, an anxious expression on his face.
“It may seem like a god-awful place, but it really isn’t.”
“Actually, I think it’s charming and romantic,” she responded with a smile.
“Yes, I do.” Turning around fully to face the house, she gazed around her, taking in the rest of her surroundings. “If you’d told me where we were going before we came, I’d have said it was everything I’d hate about a place, but seeing it, I don’t feel like that at all.”
Mike smiled. “Glad to hear it,” he said slowly, and paused briefly, gazing into her enormous blue eyes as she stared back at him. Then indicating the wicker basket he had put next to him on the grass, he asked in a brisk voice, “Now, can I tempt you with a drink, Miss Flower?”
Cornelia grinned. “Consider me tempted! What do you have on offer?”
“Scotch or champagne.” He bent down to undo the basket and pullled out two bottles. "I’m assuming it’ll be champagne for you?”
“In actual fact, I think I’d prefer a scotch.”
“Yes please, if that’s okay? It’ll warm my bones!”
Mike laughed and retrieving two tumblers from the basket, began to pour them both a drink. “Very wise.”
“You don’t live in the mountains for several winters without learning the medicinal qualities of scotch and brandy!”
“I guess not.” Standing up, he handed her a glass and then raised his own. “To your very good health, Cornelia Flower!”
“To yours too,” she responded in kind. Then, as she shivered involuntarily, she added, “”I think I need warming right now.”
“Come on then, let’s go shelter at the house,” and turning, Mike led the way towards the car. Climbing in, he waited until she was settled and then handed her his drink. “Here, can you hold this for me whilst I drive?”
Putting the key in the ignition, he started the engine and they set off slowly across the grass towards the house, chatting as they went. Just as they were approaching the porch, one of the wheels of the car hit a stone and there was a shriek as the drinks Cornelia was holding splashed down the front of her dress. Mike slammed on the brakes, making the spillage worse, and stared at her in horror.
“Oh Corney, I’m so sorry.”
Still clutching the glasses, Cornelia closed her eyes and bit her bottom lip, willing the tears that were pricking the back of her eyes to disappear. She just couldn't believe it. For the first time in her life, she had felt beautiful and special this evening, knowing how much the dress suited her, and now this had happened. It was just not fair.
“It’s okay,” she mumbled, opening her eyes and staring down at her skirt. If only she had not undone her coat on getting into the car.
“No, it’s not okay.” Mike reached out and took the drinks from her, handing her his handkerchief in return. “I should have been more careful.”
“It doesn’t matter, Mike, honestly.”
Her voice caught as she dabbed futilely at her front, and Mike watched her, concerned. “Will it come out?”
Seeing how upset she was, despite her trying to hide it, Mike was furious with himself. Then a sudden idea came to him. He couldn’t fix the stain on her dress, but perhaps he could make her smile. Picking up one of the glasses that he had placedon the dashboard, he tipped the remaining contents down his shirt. Cornelia caught the movement from the corner of her eye, and looked up at him, amazed.
“What are you doing?”
Mike grinned back at her. “Well, I can’t fix what I did, so I thought I’d join you, make sure you’re not alone.”
Cornelia stared at him for a second as if he had gone mad. Then suddenly she began to laugh. “You really are loopy!” she managed to stammer through her giggles.
“Just call us the spiller twins!”
Sitting up, Corney wiped her eyes, smearing her make-up in the process, and Mike reached out and took his handkerchief, gently wiping away the black smudges from her cheeks.
“I really am sorry, Corney, I’m such an idiot.”
She shook her head. “No you’re not. Well maybe a little bit,” she grinned, as he raised his eyebrows.
Mike chuckled. “Come on, let’s go explore the house.”
They spent the next two hours happily exploring and then sitting on the porch, chatting amiably, and by the time they were ready to leave, Cornelia had forgotten all about her dress.
“I can’t believe Richard hates this place."
“Funny story, that,” Mike replied, grinning as he turned to lock up. “We were staying up here one weekend, when he suddenly started shrieking that he’d seen a ghost. He was terrified, I’d never seen him like that before, so I ran outside to see what was there.”
“What was it?”
“A sheet had blown off the washing line in the wind!” Cornelia burst out laughing and Mike continued, as they made their way down the porch steps towards the car. “He wouldn’t believe me at first – I had to march him outside to prove it. He’s not been back since. I think it’s the humiliation that puts him off.”
“When was this?” Corney asked, still chuckling. “When you were kids?”
“Oh no, not nearly so long ago as that! It was about two weeks before I left for England and the war.”
Cornelia started laughing again and Mike opened the passenger side door for her, and then went to put the basket in the boot. As he climbed into the driver’s seat, she gazed around her one last time and turned back to face him.
“So what made you bring me here?”
Mike stared at her for a moment, and then smiled. “It’s my special place,” he replied simply.
Corney watched him closely, a wry smile touching her lips. “So how many other girls have you brought here on first dates?”
“None, as it happens. You’re the first.” Her eyes opened wide in surprise, her mouth forming an ‘o’, and Mike gave her a wicked grin. “Or at least, the first to live to tell the tale!”
“Oh, you!” Cornelia exclaimed, hitting him on the arm as he chuckled at his own joke. “Anyhow, I may have survived, but my dress didn’t and nor did your shirt!”
“True enough,” he responded as he started the engine and they began to drive away. “Now, Miss Flower, how does a little Italian take your fancy?”
“The meal or the man?” Corney replied, giggling again.
Mike grinned and rolled his eyes. “I can see this is going to be a long night!”
Mike parked the car outside his Beacon Hill home, and they walked the short distance down the hill to Charles Street, heading for Giuseppe’s, a local favourite and haunt of the Van Alden family for many years.
Giuseppe’s wife, Lucia, a short, dark, portly woman with an effusive all-encompassing manner, greeted them at the door. She threw her arms around Mike as if he were the prodigal son and eyed Cornelia critically between fast bursts of chatter, checking whether this newcomer was good enough for her beloved boy. Finally, after leaving them outside in the cold for five minutes while she chattered on, she decided that Corney would do, for now at least, and ushered them inside.
Once they were seated at a private, candlelit table in one corner, and Lucia had bustled off to get them some wine, Mike turned to Cornelia with a grin.
“You handled her very well just there.”
“She’s something else, isn’t she?” Cornelia grimaced. “I feel like I’ve two heads, the way she was looking at me!”
“Well, I promise you I can only see one!” Mike replied, giving her a quick wink. "And if it’s any consolation, you passed muster!"
“You think so?”
“Oh yes, definitely. Believe me, you’d know if she disapproved! Ask Richard to tell you tales of how she’s dealt with a couple of his dates!”
Cornelia laughed. “Did you see her face when she saw the marks on my dress? It’s a good thing you’d spilled too, or I reckon she’d have had me take it off there and then, and sent it away to be laundered!”
“And given you one of her flowered smocks to wear in return,” Mike finished with a wicked grin. “It would’ve suited you.”
“Well if that’s what you think, then I’ll wear one next time we go out and be done with it!” Cornelia retorted, still chuckling as she arranged her napkin in her lap.
“There’ll be a next time, then?”
She glanced up to find him gazing at her, his eyes soft, an amused smile touching his lips.
“Yes, I hope so,” she replied coyly, her cheeks scarlet as she stared back at him.
“So do I.” He was silent for a moment as he continued to hold her gaze. Then as Lucia arrived with the wine, he turned back to the menu in front of him. “So then, what are you thinking of having?” he asked in a brisk, cheery voice.
“What do you recommend?”
“Definitely the meatballs – they’re Giuseppe’s specialty. Isn’t that right, Lucia?”
“Sono squisiti!” Lucia replied with a beaming smile, as she poured their wine.
“Well in that case, I guess I’ll go with the meatballs,” Cornelia stated, grinning and shutting her menu.
“Two meatballs, please, Lucia,” Mike ordered, following suit. Then, as that lady muttered her approval and bustled off to the kitchen, he lifted his glass. “So, what shall we toast?”
Cornelia screwed her face up in thought. “How about hoping for a white Christmas. I’ve not seen one since I had to leave Austria. I’d sure love it if we had snow this year.”
“I gather you’ve never had a New England winter then?”
“You don’t need to hope for a White Christmas – it’s a certainty!”
“Oh. Well let’s toast to it anyway, just to be sure.”
Mike grinned. “Okay, why not,’ he said, chinking his glass against the side of hers. “Here’s to as much snow as we can handle over the holidays. Bing Crosby would be proud!”
"To snow and Bing Crosby," Corney replied with a chuckle, and took a sip of her wine.
The remainder of the evening passed by the in the same relaxed, enjoyable manner. Giuseppe’s meatballs proved to be every bit as delicious as his wife had promised, and the hours flew by, conversation and wine both flowing freely, as Corney and Mike talked about anything and everything and put the world to rights.
It was late by the time they finally left the restaurant, and as they stepped outside, following a protracted goodbye from the proprietors, Cornelia giggled as she pulled her coat around her tightly to keep warm.
“I thought they’d never allow us to leave!”
“It can be something of a snare,” Mike returned, grinning. “Taxi!” he called, sticking his hand out, and then cursed under his breath as it swept passed them, splashing his trousers with water. “Damn idiot! Did he get you?”
Corney shook her head. “Not at all. Maybe I should return the favour though!” and walking to the edge of the curb, she jumped into the puddle, feet together, covering her shoes and splashing her dress. “There – now we’re both covered in whiskey and have wet feet!”
Mike stared at her for a moment as if she had gone mad, and then threw his head back with a laugh. “You know what? I’m very glad I met you, Corney Flower.”
“I’m glad I met you too,” she returned, grinning up at him, any remaining shyness taken away by the wine.
As he gazed down into her shining blue eyes, she felt her stomach knot and swallowed hard. Mike opened his mouth to say something, when out of the corner of his eye, he suddenly caught sight of a taxi coming towards them, and moving away from her and into the road, he stuck out his hand, ensuring that the driver stopped this time.
“Come along, let’s get you home,” and taking hold of her elbow, he guided her into the cab.
When they arrived back at the Flowers’ Brookline home, Cornelia hopped out and Mike paid the driver before following her. She watched in amazement as the taxi, which she was expecting to wait for Mike, just drove off down the road back towards the city.
“Hey!” she called after it, waving her hand in the air. “Why didn’t he wait for you?”
“Because I told him not to,” Mike replied with a grin. “I fancy the walk home.”
“But it’s so far!”
Mike shrugged. “I need the exercise.” Then nodding towards the house, he said, “Shouldn’t you get in before you catch your death? You’ve wet feet, remember?”
“I guess I should really.” She paused for a moment, and then gazed up at him, the knot from earlier still pulling in her belly as she looked into his laughing, grey eyes. “Thank you, Mike. I’ve had a wonderful night.”
“Well, you’re very welcome, Miss Flower. I’ve had a wonderful time too.’ Reaching out, he took hold of her hand. “I have to go away to California and New York for a couple of weeks of work – I leave tomorrow. Can I see you again when I get back?”
Cornelia smiled. “Yes please, I’d like that.”
“Excellent.” Mike beamed down at her, looking thoroughly pleased with himself, “That’s excellent.” He squeezed her hand tightly, smiling again as she returned his grasp, and then let it drop back to her side. “Goodnight, Corney. Sleep tight.”
“You too! Don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
Mike laughed, and watched as she began to walk back towards the house. As she reached the front door, she turned and gave him a little wave before making her way inside, shutting it behind her. For a couple of seconds Mike stood there, staring at the house, lost deep in thought. Then, with a wide smile still plastered on his face, he turned and began his long trek home.
Ten days later, Cornelia was sitting in her father’s study, balancing the household books, when the clanging of the doorbell sounded throughout the house. Glad of the interruption – household finances were never her favourite choice of occupation – she set down her pen and made her way through to the entrance hall to answer the door. She was surprised to find a deliveryman from one of the city’s top department stores on her doorstep.
“Miss C. Flower?”
“That’s me,” Cornelia replied, curious as to why he was there. “We've not ordered anything from you though, are you…”
Before she could finish her sentence, he thrust a large, flat, white box in her direction. “If you could just sign here,” he added, holding his clipboard out to her.
“Sorry, but I think there must be a mistake, I’ve not placed any orders with you.”
“Are you not Miss C. Flower?”
“No, it's…I mean, yes, I am, but…”
“Then there’s no mistake, ma’am,” he repeated impatiently, pushing the clipboard towards her again. “If you could just sign, then I’ll be on my way.”
Still confused, Cornelia did as he asked, and when she handed the pen back to him, the man turned to leave.
“Hang on one moment!” she called after him, “Does it say who placed the order?”
He glanced back at her with a shake of his head. “Sorry, ma’am, they don’t give us that information. Just tell us that it’s paid for and the address it’s to go to.”
“Oh,” she stared at the box in her hands. “Okay, thank you,” and as he climbed back into his van and set off down the driveway, Cornelia closed the door and made her way through to the salon.
Seating herself on the corner of a chaise longue, she placed the box down on the coffee table in front of her, staring at it for a moment, and then slowly removed the lid. Carefully peeling back the protective tissue, she found herself looking at a familiar periwinkle-blue material, and she hurriedly pulled the dress out of the box and held it up in front of her. It was the exact same style and colour as the one she had worn on her date with Mike; the same dress that was now consigned to the rubbish bin after futile attempts to remove the whiskey stain from the front of it.
As she stared at it in amazement, she heard a cough as her father came into the room.
“Who was that at the door?”
“Deliveryman,” she replied mechanically, still staring at the dress, open-mouthed.
Joe noticed what she was holding up and gave her a cheery smile. “Hey, you managed to get the stain out after all!”
Cornelia shook her head. “This is a new dress. That guy just delivered it,” she replied, turning to face him as a sudden idea dawned on her. “Did you do this?”
“Did I do what?” Joe asked innocently, seating himself in an armchair opposite her.
“Send me this? The replacement dress?” she explained, as he looked at her with a puzzled expression.
Joe shook his head and grinned. “Nothing to do with me, I’m afraid.”
“Well who did then?”
“Who d'you think?”
“I’ve no idea!” Her father raised his eyebrows and she frowned back at him. “What? Oh!” Her eyes opened wide as she stared at him in disbelief. “You really think…?”
Joe chuckled at her surprise. “I reckon it’d be a pretty good guess!” Cornelia continued to stare backwards and forwards dumbly between her father and the dress, and Joe sat back in his chair, a satisfied smile on his face. “Unless I’m much mistaken, I’d say you’ve found yourself a good man there.”
A few days after she received the dress, a letter arrived in the post from Mike, saying that he had the day off work the following Tuesday, and would she like to join him for a day out in the city. Cornelia promptly replied that she would be delighted, and as the clock struck eleven on the Tuesday morning, she answered the doorbell, feeling a sense of anticipation and excitement welling up inside.
Mike was standing on the doorstep, dressed in a smart suit, a namebadge pinned to his chest and a cap perched jauntily on his head.
“What on earth…?”
“Van Alden Tours at your service, Ma’am!” he said cheerily, doffing his cap. “We do a mighty fine tour of Boston, all sights and sounds included, and lunch thrown in on the house.”
“What are you doing?” Corney replied, giggling at his clothing and manner. “What’s with this get-up?”
“Just as I say - Van Alden Tours, ready to take you out for a day on the town!” He nodded his head towards the car. “You ready to go?”
Nodding and grabbing her coat from the stand next to the door, she followed him towards the vehicle, and then burst out laughing again as she saw the homemade ‘Van Alden Tours’ sign hanging in the widow.
“You really did this wholesale, didn’t you?”
“I have to amuse myself somehow,” he returned, chuckling as she shook her head. “I can take it all down if you like?”
“Not on your life! You leave it just where it is!” Mike opened the door for her, and she climbed into the passenger seat. “So what’s this all in aid of, anyhow?”
Mike shut her door, and walked around to the driver’s side, settling himself in his seat before he replied. “I know you’ve seen something of Boston already, but I thought I’d take you on my own personal tour,” he explained, pointing to his namebadge. “I always think it’s good to see a city from the viewpoint of someone who lives there and knows it well. I’ve lived here all my life, and I just love the place, so I reckon I’m perfectly qualified to show you what’s so great about it. Sound good?”
“Sounds perfect,” she returned, a warm smile on her lips. Then as he turned to put the key in the ignition, she added, “Oh, by the way, thank you for my dress.”
Mike stopped and looked back up at her with a smile. “How d’you know it was me that sent it?”
Cornelia laughed. “I didn’t for sure, ‘til just then. You just gave yourself away royally!”
Mike paused for a second and then shook his head with a wry chuckle. “Why do I always do that?,” he asked himself despairingly. “Anyway, it was the least I could do, after I wrecked your other one like that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“Yes I did. And I wanted to see you in it again sometime, and you couldn’t have worn it as the old rag it was by the end of the night!”
Corney was silent for a second as she took this in. “It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” she said eventually, a faint blush touching her cheeks.
“Well I’ll have to spoil you more often then, won’t I?” he returned with a grin, as he started the engine. “Shall we get going?”
“Absolutely! Drive on, Jeeves!” she ordered, putting on her best British accent.
“Yes Ma’am!” and with another doff of his cap, Mike hit the accelerator and they set off down the drive.
The second date proved to be every bit as wonderful as the first. As promised, Mike began by taking Cornelia to see ‘his’ Boston: the streets around Beacon Hill, where he had grown up before his parents relocated to the coast, and the vast common where he played as a young boy. Following lunch in his favourite café, they toured the city’s historic sites, Mike explaining everything in animated detail, while she listened on enraptured. She had never been unduly interested in history before, preferring the here and now, but the vivid, imaginative way he explained things and his obvious love for the places they visited held her attention in a way that school trips had never really done. Then came her favourite part of the day – a visit to Quincy market. The hustle and bustle enthralled her and as Mike chatted away to the fisherman and stall holders, Corney made her way from stall to stall, fascinated by the array of seafood and other produce on offer, and purchasing so much to take home that she could barely carry the bags away. The date was rounded off with a visit to the drugstore that housed Mike’s favourite soda fountain, where he treated her to a soda with whipped cream. By the time she arrived back in Brookline, she had, as her father described it, the world’s biggest smile on her face.
Over the next few weeks, they saw each other several times more, fitting dates in between Mike’s trips away for work. By the time mid-December came around, and with it their sixth proper date, Cornelia was in no doubt that though officially they were still only friends, she liked this man as something so much more.
They spent the first part of the evening at the famous Union Oyster House, dining on Clam Chowder and fresh seafood, and were now due to go on to the movie theatre to see ‘Christmas in Connecticut’, a new release starring Barbara Stanwyck that they hoped would put them in true holiday spirit.
As Mike checked his watch once or twice, and tried to catch the waiter’s eye, mindful of them leaving in time to catch the film, Cornelia ate the last mouthful of her dessert, placed her spoon back on her plate, and turned to face him with a grin.
“That was scrumptious!” she stated, wiping her mouth on her napkin. “I could eat it all over again, it was so good.”
“And then end up the size of an elephant,” Mike returned, chuckling as he indicated to the waiter to bring him the bill. “I’m glad you enjoyed it though.”
“Sure did!” she replied, draining the last of her wine and looking down at her periwinkle-blue dress. “And I managed not to spill a drop! Are you impressed?”
“Very!” Mike winked at her, then quickly checking over the bill that the waiter brought him, he threw some dollar bills onto the table and got to his feet. “Now, we’d best get a shove on if we’re to catch this movie – the show begins in thirty minutes and it’s right across the other side of town. Come on,” and taking her by the elbow, he led her through the restaurant and out into the cold December night.
It was snowing hard, and as they waited for a valet to flag them down a taxi, Mike made haste to put up his umbrella as Cornelia shivered and moved closer to his side.
“On nights like this, I wonder why I don’t make more use of my father’s driver!” he said with a grimace, doing his best to cover her with the umbrella, though the wind was trying to whip it away. “Stupid thing!”
“Well we’ll make sure to use the driver next time,” Corney replied, as a taxi pulled up in front of them and the valet opened the door. “It’s too miserable to be standing out like this! Come on, let’s go,” and without further ado, she jumped into the rear of the car, leaving him to follow on behind.
Traffic was bad and slow-moving on the white, wintry night, with snow turning many roads into skating rinks, and they arrived at the theatre with just two minutes to spare. As their journey from the restaurant had progressed, Cornelia’s stomach had started cramping a little and grumbling a lot, but as they were in a hurry, she tried to put it out of her mind and followed Mike as he made for the ticket booth. They made it into their seats just as the opening titles were rolling, earning themselves a disapproving sniff and a filthy look from a rather superior-looking lady sitting in front of them. As Mike sat down in his seat, he accidentally leant his elbow on Cornelia’s hand, which was resting on the arm rest, causing her to let out a muffled ‘ow!’.
The woman turned her head with a glare. “Shhh!”
She turned back to the screen again and Mike pulled a face at Corney, causing her to giggle.
Realising that they had better stop talking, before she really lost her temper, the pair of them sat back in their seats in silence as the film began.
About fifteen minutes later, Cornelia felt a stabbing pain in her abdomen, and had to bite her tongue to stop herself crying out in pain. As she winced and clutched her stomach, Mike caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye.
“Are you okay?” he hissed, as quietly as he could.
Biting her lips, Cornelia nodded as the woman glared at them again. Then as she felt another cramp shoot through her stomach, she was powerless to prevent herself crying out.
Ignoring the lady, who was getting increasingly irate, Mike bent over his date, concerned.
“You’re not okay. What’s wrong?”
“My stomach…hurts,” she managed to gasp out, doubling over as the cramping got worse. “Feel…sick.”
“Will you be please be quiet!”
Mike rounded on the disapproving woman, his worry making him uncharacteristically short-tempered. “She’s sick, lady. Surely you can see that? Come on, Corney, let’s get you out of here,” and taking hold of her arm, he helped her to her feet.
“About time,” the woman muttered under her breath, loud enough for them both to hear.
Mike turned back and was about to say something when he was stopped by Cornelia saying his name.
“It’s okay, Corney, pay her no mind.”
“Mike…” She pulled at his elbow urgently.
“Come on, this way.”
“I don’t feel so good,” she stammered back, her hand shooting up to her mouth. “Think I’m gonna…” and before she could finish her sentence, her stomach finally got the better of her and unable to stop herself, she threw up her dinner all over the snooty woman in front.
A few of days later, once she was compus mentis again, Cornelia was mortified by what had happened that night. Amid the angry woman’s shouts and curses, Mike had ushered her quickly out of the movie theatre, his arms around her to hold her up, and as soon as they got outside, she had promptly thrown up again, all over both him and the street. With little regard for the state of his suit, Mike bundled her in the back of a cab, completely with sick bag, and spent the journey back to the Flowers’ home gently stroking her back and trying to make her feel better.
Dimly aware of what was going on, Cornelia had tried a couple of times to apologise and tell him that it was okay to leave her, but Mike would not hear of it and she was too weak to put up a fight. When they arrived back at her home, he helped her to the door and then left her in her father’s care. In turn, Joe promptly called the doctor and then hurried his daughter up to bed.
Dr. McRae’s verdict was as expected. Cornelia had a severe case of food poisoning, the cause of which the restaurant, when contacted by Mr. Flower, soon traced to some dodgy clams. For three days she ran a fever and high temperature, not helped by the fact that she was constantly having to get out of bed to pay visits to the bathroom.
By the fourth day the sickness had begun to subside, her fever lessening somewhat, and she was able to sit up for a while and even stomach a little dry bread. The doctor appeared at midday to examine her, declared her to be on the mend, and prescribed a few more days’ bed-rest just to be sure. Then with a cheery farewell, he headed off to continue his rounds. Once he was gone, Cornelia reached behind her to plump her pillows up a little more, and then carefully shifted position to make herself more comfortable, wincing slightly as she felt a stab of pain in her still-tender abdomen. She had just sorted herself out and picked up her book from the nightstand, when the bedroom door opened, and her father’s head appeared.
“The doc’s right – you sure are looking a little more human!” he said with a grin, coming into the room and perching on the side of her bed. “How’re you feeling?”
“Much better thanks,” she replied, doing her best to put on a cheery voice. “My belly’s still a little sore though, and those salts the doc gave me were the absolute limit!”
Her father grimaced at her. “Yes, well be that as it may, you had to take them. You’ve kept nothing in your stomach these past few days. And you’re taking them again later, whether you like it or not.” She pulled a face at him, and he hastened to change the subject. “Your friend telephoned this morning, by the way. He passes on his best wishes.”
“Mr. van Alden. He’s been calling every day, as it happens,” he added nonchalantly, “just to check up on you, see how you are.” Her face fell and he gave her a curious look. “He’d sure love to come and see you, once you’re feeling up to visitors.”
As memories of their last date flooded back into her mind, Cornelia stared down at her bedclothes and shook her head. “I can’t, Poppa,” she stated mournfully. “It’s so awful what I did. There’s no hope he’s going to be interested in me now – not after that.”
“If that’s true, then why has he been checking up on you?”
Cornelia gave a shrug. “Perhaps he feels sorry for me, or he’s just being a gentleman,” she muttered, sounding thoroughly downcast. “I know it won’t be anything else.”
“Oh come on, Poppa. Would you have still been interested in Momma if she’d been sick like that in public, and all over you and someone else too?”
“Yes, I would’ve, as it happens,” Joe replied, determined not to let her convince herself that she was right. “Because I’d have known she couldn’t help it, and I considered her worth overlooking a little thing such as that. It’s what you do when you want to be with someone, Corney, you make allowances. You can’t expect them to be perfect all the time.”
“But I’m not Momma, Pop,” she persisted, refusing to be swayed from her train of though. “From all that you’ve said, she was chic and sophisticated – it would have been totally out of character for her. I’m a walking disaster. It’s not as if it’s the first time I’ve done something stupid that he’s had to turn a blind eye to, and he’s only known me two months. If he’s not fed up with me now he soon will be.”
Joe shot her an exasperated look. “Mike’s a good man, Corney. Don’t you think he deserves a little more credit than that?”
But Cornelia was not really listening. She shook her head. “I can’t see him and that’s final. It’s for the best…”
“I’m not arguing Poppa,” she retorted, setting her jaw set firmly, showing that she would not be moved.
Seeing that there was no point in continuing the conversation, Joe got up from the bed, and walked towards the door. “Okay, think what you will,” he responded wearily, as he took hold of the handle, “but let me tell you now that you’re doing that young man a great disservice, and I don’t think he’ll be put off so easily. You mark my words.”
Cornelia glared at him for a moment and then turned her back on him, refusing to acknowledge his final comments, and heaving a sigh, Joe made his way out of the door, closing it behind him.
Mr. Flower was absolutely correct, Mike was not easily dissuaded. He continued to call over the next couple of days, and three days after Cornelia’s proclamation that she couldn’t ever see him again, he turned up on the doorstep just as the Flowers were finishing lunch. On hearing that Mike was there, Cornelia flatly refused to see him, and Joe found himself with no choice but to explain to the young man how his daughter felt.
As he broke the news, a look of hurt and disappointment flashed across Mike’s face, which he did his best to hide from his host. Joe winced and tried his hardest to smooth things over.
“She doesn’t mean any hurt, Mike. She’s just feeling very fragile right now, what with being sick and all, and her confidence is a little low. She’s convinced herself that she’s blown it.” He paused and took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure he should say what he was about to, but he refused to let his daughter ruin what was clearly a good thing. “She worries she’s not good enough for someone to really want to be with her.”
Mike stared at Mr. Flower as if he had gone mad. “That’s ridiculous!”
Joe gave him a wry smile. “Yes, well you know that and I know that, but with my daughter, it takes a little more convincing. Something our housekeeper in Ireland once said to her seems to have stuck with her, and she finds it hard to believe that anyone could ever be serious about her. Gee, I’d have a few words to say to that Maud woman if I ever saw her again,” he added with feeling. “Corney never worried about these things ‘til she came along. She’s usually so sure of herself.”
Mike was silent for a few moments as he took this in, a thoughtful expression on his face. Then holding out his hand to shake his host’s, he said, “Well if she’s not going to see me, I’d best be getting off.”
His voice sounded brisk and business-like, and Joe gave him a curious look. “She may change her mind, you know,” he said encouragingly. “Please don’t give up on her just yet.”
Mike simply smiled and took his leave. Mr. Flower watched him head off down the driveway, and then turned to make his way upstairs, determined to have another go at telling his stubborn daughter whatfor.
She looked up with a frown as he returned to the room. “Did he leave?”
Joe pulled her vanity stool up alongside her bed and sat down before he replied. “Yes, he’s gone.” He sounded rather cross, and Cornelia gave him a look of surprise. Joe ignored her and continued. “I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cornelia retorted, sounding thoroughly aggrieved.
“It means that by hiding in here and wallowing in self-pity, you’ve managed to hurt a perfectly charming young man who’s done nothing but treat you with kindness and respect.”
“It’s not like that, Poppa, it’s…”
“I know how it is, Corney. I’ve heard it often enough in the past few days. You think he’s not gonna want anything more to do with you, and Maud was right and you’ll end up a bitter old maid. In fact, I’m fed up to the back teeth of hearing it."
“But…I…” she stammered, shocked at her father’s angry tone.
“If you ask me,” he continued, not letting her get a word in edgewise, “Mike has proved several times over that he’s interested in you. The only person putting any spokes in the wheel is you.”
As he finished speaking, Cornelia stared at him, half-shocked, half-furious. Then setting her mouth in a straight line, she said slowly, “I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve made up my mind and that’s that.”
“You know something?” Joe responded, getting to his feet. “You may say you’re not your mother, but you’re as stubborn as she was any day of the week,” and without another word, he turned and left her alone.
As soon as he shut the door, Cornelia lay down on her side, hugging her pillow to her and feeling a little choked up. How could her father have said that? She wasn’t feeling sorry for herself. She was just being realistic. Wasn’t she?
She lay mulling this over, not even stirring when she heard the doorbell ring an hour or so later, and the more she thought about it, the more she realised that maybe she was wrong after all. Just because the two men she'd dated previously had both treated her shoddily, didn’t mean that Mike would do the same. After all, her first instinct had been that he was different, was somebody special, and so far he had done nothing to prove that instinct wrong.
As this thought ran through her mind, the bedroom door opened and her father came into the room, a huge vase of flowers clutched in his hands. Forgetting her woes, Cornelia sat bolt upright and stared at him, amazed.
“Why’ve you bought me flowers?”
“I didn’t.” Joe set the vase down on her dresser, and turned back to face her, holding a white envelope out in front of him. “Here, this is for you,” and handing the letter to her, he walked out of the room again, leaving her staring at the bouquet in shock.
Eventually, she turned her attention to the envelope in her hands. She recognised the writing on the front immediately – it was Mike’s distinctive scrawl – and slitting it open carefully, she pulled out a folded sheet of paper, flattened it, and began to read.
As her eyes moved down the page, a reluctant grin began to form on her lips, and by the time she turned it over, she was chuckling to herself quietly. On leaving the Flowers’ house, Mike, it seemed, had decided to take Joe’s advice not to give up. Returning to his Beacon Hill home, he had gone to his study, taken out his writing pad, and composed a letter to Cornelia, detailing every embarrassing date he had ever had. The list was long and varied. Over the years, he had emptied a bottle of wine into somebody’s lap, given flowers to a girl with a chronic allergy, fallen over and cut his lip, pranged his car, split his trousers when climbing over a fence, and many other things besides. His tales had the intended effect of making Cornelia laugh. Then, as she reached the final paragraph, the tone of the letter sobered, as Mike rounded things off by saying:
‘So you see, Corney, I know how it feels when you think you’ve messed up, when you think the mere mention of your name will send someone running to the hills. And that’s why I’m not going to let you push me away. I didn’t care too much about those other women, losing them was the not the end of the world, but I care about you. You can tell me to go away as many times as you like. I’m not going to give up, and one of these days, you’ll have to see me and then I’ll persuade you to give it another shot. So how about we forego all the fuss and bother, and just pick up where we left off?'
Cornelia turned back to the beginning and read the letter through twice more. Then folding it again and putting it back in the envelope, she scrambled out of bed, grabbed her dressing gown from the hook on the back of the door, and made her way downstairs. She found her father sitting in his study, poring over some papers for work. He glanced up and smiled as she entered, and then placing his pen down in front of him, he sat back his chair, folded his arms and waited for her to speak.
“They were from Mike,” she said quietly, her cheeks going faintly pink as she spoke.
Joe nodded. “Yes, I know. He delivered them himself.”
“Oh.” She stared down at hands, twisting her fingers together. “Poppa…”
“When Mike next telephones, would you tell him I’d like to see him sometime?”
Joe watched her closely, a smile touching the edge of his lips. “Come to your senses, have you?”
She nodded sheepishly, the colour deepening in her cheeks. Joe leafed through a notebook in front of him, leaving it open at a particular page. Then getting to his feet, he walked around his desk and took hold of her arm. Steering her to his seat, he gently pushed her into the chair, pulled the telephone towards him, lifted the receiver and placed it in her hand.
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?”
The following afternoon, Cornelia was dressed and seated on a chaise longue in the salon, a blanket across her legs to keep her warm. The doorbell rang and her stomach started to knot with nerves. She heard voices out in the hall, and looked up, grinning awkwardly, as the door opened and Joe ushered Mike into the room.
“Hey there, stranger,” she said, trying to sound as airy as possible, and not doing a great job.
Mike stopped and looked at her, a smile touching his lips. “And whose fault is that?” he retorted, his eyes twinkling as he observed her, taking in her appearance. She was still pale and gaunt, and a fair bit thinner than when he had last seen her. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better thanks.”
Seating himself in a big, comfy armchair, he looked her up and down. “You do realise that you’re all skin and bones? You’d better hurry up and recover so that I can take you to Guiseppe’s and have Lucia fuss over you and try to fatten you up!”
Cornelia laughed and relaxed a little. “A few portions of those meatballs ought to do the trick. Just so long as we don’t go to the Oyster House, that’s all. I’d like to give that place a wide berth for a little while.”
“Yes, that’s probably for the best!”
He gazed intently over at her as she they lapsed into an awkward silence. Then taking a deep breath, Cornelia said, “Mike I’m so sorry…”
“You’ve nothing to say sorry for, Corney,” he interrupted hurriedly, cutting her off before she could launch into a full apology. “If anyone should be saying sorry, it’s me. I’m the one who took you to the Oyster House in the first place.”
“Don’t be an ass,” she retorted, giving him an incredulous look. “ It’s not your fault at all.”
“And it’s not yours either,” he replied, smiling complacently. “If we’re gonna blame anyone, we should blame the clams. In fact,” he added, grinning mischievously, “they deserve a punishment of some kind. I’m thinking of feeding them to that woman who was sat in front of us. See how she likes it when she’s the one sick as a dog!”
At mention of the women, Cornelia grimaced. “What happened with her?”
“I cleared it all with her and with the movie theatre, don’t worry. I'm sure it’s no big shock that they were more accommodating than she was!”
“What do I owe you?”
“Nothing, Corney,” he said firmly, brushing her protest aside. “Just call it my way of trying to put things right okay?”
She hesitated for a moment, then smiled and said, “Okay.” Lifting a white envelope from the table next to her, she waved it briefly in his direction. “Thanks for your letter, Mike. It cheered me a lot.”
“Yes, well often laughing at others is the best medicine!” he chuckled. “And I’ve certainly had enough bad dates to laugh at – I could write a book about them!”
“Perhaps you should!”
“Then I could make my million and retire at thirty,” he joked, winking at her. “Now,” he added, leaning forward in his chair, his voice taking on a more serious tone, “I’m afraid I can’t stay too long. Richard and I are heading to Vermont for Christmas with our folks at their ski lodge. We’re supposed to be leaving in an hour’s time. I wanted to see you before I went though and this was the only time I had.”
Her expression fell at this bit of news, and Mike studied her face carefully. “I’ll be back in town for New Year though. Are you invited to the Winstons’ party?”
Cornelia nodded, her face brightening again. “Yes, Poppa and I are going together.”
“Excellent. In that case, will you let me escort you both?”
“We’d love you too.”
“Good.” Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out a small parcel, wrapped in brightly coloured paper. “And listen, I got you a little something for Christmas.”
“Oh you shouldn’t have…”
“Because I’ve got you nothing!”
“I don’t want anything,” he returned, standing up and passing the parcel to her. “It’s just something small. And you have to open it now.”
As he returned to his seat, she felt it through the paper trying to guess what it was. From what she could tell, it was a dish of some sort. Curious, she carefully peeled back the wrapping paper and then burst out laughing. He had given her an ashtray made out of a clam shell.
“I thought it may help you laugh and move on,” Mike explained, chuckling. “His name’s Clarence. You can stub your cigarettes out on him and get your payback!”
“Thank you,” she responded, still giggling. “I’ll treasure him fondly.”
“I had a feeling you might.” He got to his feet, brushing some imaginary dust from the front of his jumper. “ Right, I’m real sorry, but I'd best get going. No, don’t get up,” he said quickly, as she made a move to get to her feet. “You stay there and rest. The sooner you’re well, the better for both of us. Have a wonderful Christmas, Corney.”
“You too. Don’t break anything skiing!”
“I’ll try not to! See you on New Years. I’ll be in touch before about the arrangements,” and he made his way towards the door.
“Mike!” He turned back as she called him, and Cornelia smiled coyly. “I’ll look forward to it.”
He stared at her in silence for a moment, and as their eyes locked, she felt her stomach flip. Then, with a wink, he said “You better had!” and made his way out of the room.
Left alone, Cornelia stared down at the ashtray in her hands, a smile on her lips, a warm feeling spreading through her body. She had forgotten just how happy seeing him made her feel. The door to the salon opened again and her father came in, grinning as he caught the look on her face.
“What do you have there?”
“It’s my Christmas present from Mike,” she replied, holding the ashtray up. “Isn't it neat? Now I can get my own back on the clams!”
“Very apt!” Joe chortled as he sat down next to her on the chaise longue. “So, you glad you saw him then?”
She blushed scarlet as she nodded. “He’s asked to accompany us to the Winstons on New Year,” she said briskly, hoping the heat in her cheeks would calm down soon. “That okay with you?”
Feigning a look of panic, Joe brought this hands up to his face and gasped. “You mean I have a date? What’ll I wear? I’ve not had one in so long! I don’t know what to do anymore!”
Laughing, Cornelia stuck her foot out and pushed him, almost sending him tumbling onto the floor.
“Hey careful there, young lady!” Joe exclaimed, steadying himself and giving her an indignant glare. “They’re valid worries, I’ll have you know!”
Corney giggled again. “Don’t you worry, old man. I’ll take you out and make certain you’ve a pretty frock, okay?”
Mike deftly gathered up three glasses of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray, and turned to hand them over to his companions.
“I may need a hand here,” he pleaded urgently, clinging onto them for dear life. “Grabbing them was one thing, actually handing them over is another!”
Cornelia chuckled and reached out to take two of them off his hands. “Well if you will try and show off!”
“Yes, but it impressed you, didn’t it?” he retorted with a wink.
Rolling her eyes, unable to stop herself grinning, Cornelia refused to furnish him with an answer, turning instead to her father who was standing next to her. “Here you are, Poppa. Just a small one for you.”
Joe eyed the contents with disdain. “Must I drink this swill?
“Don’t grouch!” his daughter ordered sternly. “You know the rules. It’s a celebration and you have to drink one glass of this ‘swill’ at midnight before you can return to the scotch.”
Joe pulled a face at her. “How did I bring you up to be so dictatorial?”
“It’s all part of my natural charm!” Then glancing at her watch, she exclaimed eagerly, “Thirty seconds to go!”
It was now almost midnight on December 31st, 1945, and the three of them were at the Winstons’ annual party at one of the big hotels in the city. All evening, the room had been filled with an air of excitement and expectation, as, to a man, the guests willed the hours away until midnight and the beginning of 1946. It was the first New Year’s Eve in a long time without the shadow of The Depression or war looming over it, and everyone felt a sense of freedom and anticipation, as if the new year would bring with it new challenges and opportunities, making it a happier place.
As soon as the Van Alden’s driver had dropped them off in front of the hotel, and Cornelia emerged from the car holding onto Mike’s arm, people’s heads had turned with curiosity. Mike may not have had his brother’s ‘luck with the ladies’, but he was still one of Boston's most eligible bachelors. The gossips wanted to know who this stranger was accompanying him, and several young women, who previously had hardly given him a second glance, suddenly seemed to find him magnetically attractive now that he had a date. He found himself inundated with hints for dances that he was too polite to ignore, and consequently, while Cornelia hid in the corner, feeling exposed and gawped at, Mike was dragged around the dance floor by a succession of well-connected beauties. He had finally escaped their clutches ten minutes previously, determined to see midnight in with Corney and Joe.
“Three, two, one, welcome to 1946 folks and…!”
The end of the announcement was smothered as cheers rang out around the room. Guests embraced friends, family and total strangers as they finally said goodbye to the war years and welcomed in 1946 with unadulterated joy.
Placing her drink on the table next to her, Cornelia turned to her father and threw her arms around him, causing him to slop his drink down his front, as the strains of Auld Lang Syne sounded in their ears. “Happy New Year, Poppa!”
Joe laughed and returned her embrace. “Happy New Year to you too, sweetheart.” Pulling back, he looked down at his dinner jacket, and then at his now half-empty glass. “Well that’s seen to my champagne anyway!”
During this exchange, Mike stood to one side, waiting patiently, and now Joe turned to the younger man and raised his drink. “Happy New Year to you, son.”
“You too, Sir.” Mike replied, smiling. “And here’s to peace.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Cornelia replied, chinking her glass against his.
“So will I!” Joe downed the remainder of his champagne, pulling a face as he swallowed. “Thank the stars for that! Now I can have a proper drink,” and leaving his daughter and her friend to it, he stalked off in search of a much-desired scotch.
Mike chuckled as he left, and then turned back to his date, just as Auld Lang Syne finished and the band struck up their first song of the year. “So, Miss Flower, can I finally tempt you to a dance?”
Before she could answer, however, one of the girls whom Mike had danced with earlier in the evening came running over, more than a little drunk and squealing with excitement. With a yell of ‘Happy New Year’, she threw her arms around Mike’s neck and planted a huge smacker on his lips. Startled, he staggered backwards under her onslaught, and it was a couple of seconds before finally pulled himself together enough to push her away.
“Come and have the first dance of the year with me!” she yelled, unperturbed, grabbing hold of his hand and trying to drag him towards the dance floor.
Mike glanced nervously at Cornelia and wrenched his hand free from the woman’s grasp. “Sorry, Annabel, no can do. I promised this dance to Corney.”
“Oh.” Annabel scowled at Cornelia, venom in her eyes, and then turned on her heel and marched off across the room towards her friends, clearly intent on badmouthing the newcomer for all she was worth.
“Sorry about that,” Mike apologised, wincing, an anxious expression in his eyes.
Cornelia merely laughed and shook her head. “You can go dance with her if you want to, you know,” she answered, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “I shan’t be offended.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think so,” he grinned. “I only have eyes for one girl these days.” His words made her blush furiously, and chortling, Mike held out his hand. “So, shall we?”
“Let’s,” and taking hold of his hand, she let him lead her onto the floor.
They whirled enthusiastically to the music, arms and legs flailing, drawing several onlookers as they were not particularly accomplished, but frankly neither of them could have cared less. Then, as the song came to an end and the band slowed the tempo somewhat, Mike pulled her close, wrapping one arm around her waist and taking one of her hands in his own.
“I’m sure there was something we forgot to toast, you know,” he pondered, watching her closely as they began to move slowly across the floor, gliding more elegantly than they had boogied just a moment before.
Cornelia smiled up at him as she considered this. “How about our friendship?” she replied eventually.
“That’s the one.” He gazed into her bright blue eyes, his voice rich and warm as he spoke. “To our friendship. May it grow stronger and deeper and last a very, very long time.”
The intensity in his eyes as he looked at her brought a lump to her throat, and she swallowed hard. They stared at each other for several seconds before Cornelia finally found her voice. “Mike, I…”
“Happy New Year, children!”
Corney broke off her sentence as she heard Richard’s inebriated voice behind her, and felt his arm flop around her shoulders. Biting back a somewhat ungentlemanly phrase, Mike gave her a brief look of regret before turning to his brother, who was grinning at him like a buffoon, his other arm around his new girlfriend, Eliza Whitney.
“Same to you,” Mike replied through gritted teeth, as Richard shook his hand and then bent to give Cornelia a sloppy kiss on the cheek. Then, as Corney hugged Eliza, in whom she had found a new friend, Mike hissed, “Nice timing as usual, idiot!” in his brother’s ear.
“What are you talking about?” Richard looked confused for a moment, and then suddenly the penny dropped. “Oh damn it, sorry!” he said loudly, grimacing and glancing at his brother’s date. “We’ll just go, shall we?”
“It’s too late now, the moment’s gone!” He glanced around and suddenly noticed that Cornelia had disappeared. “Where did she go?”
“To see her father," Eliza put in, pointing to a table on the far side of the room. “She sounded worried.”
Following the direction of her hand, Mike whirled around to see Joe sitting in a chair at the table, his face white and looking thoroughly exhausted. His daughter was bending over him with concern, her hand on his shoulder. Excusing himself, Mike hurried across to them.
“Is everything okay here?”
Cornelia looked up in relief as she heard his voice. “Mike, would you mind if we leave now? Poppa’s come over all tired and he’s not feeling too well.”
“Corney, I’m fine!” Joe protested, but his weak, weary voice belied his words and Cornelia dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
“Please?” she pleaded, staring up at Mike, worry etched on her face.
“Yes, of course. I’ll go and round up Forest,” he said, referring to his father’s driver. “Meet me in the lobby in five minutes,” and he hurried of do to as he said.
Half an hour later, the car pulled up in the forecourt of the Flowers’ home. Cornelia jumped out to go and open the front door and telephone the doctor, and Mike helped Joe out of the car.
“You go get yourself into bed,” she ordered, as her father walked past her. “The doc’ll be here in a little while,” and she turned back to the phone, where she had been speaking to the man in question.
“Yes ma’am,” Joe replied, grinning, though in truth he sounded relieved that she had taken charge. “Thanks for all your help, Mike. See you soon, no doubt.”
“You’re welcome, Sir. I hope you feel better soon,” Mike called back, as Joe made his way slowly up the stairs, holding onto the railings as he went.
Cornlia finished her phone call, replaced the receiver in its cradle, and then took a deep breath, closing her eyes and gripping the edge of the table. Mike watched her, concerned, and reached out to grip her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
She gave him a weak smile and nodded. “I’m just a little worried about him, that’s all.” She paused for a moment, staring down at the floor and then shook her head. “I knew it would be too much for him, but he insisted on coming. He didn’t want me to spend New Years ‘stuck here with him again’. Stupid, stubborn old fool.”
She shrugged her shoulder away from his grasp. “I’m sorry to ruin your evening.”
“Don’t be a fool – you didn’t ruin anything.”
She smiled again and nodded her head in the direction of the staircase. “I should go and check on him.”
“Do you want me to stick around?”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. The doc’ll be here soon.”
“Well if you’re sure?” She nodded, and Mike turned to the door to leave. “Will I get to see you before I go on Saturday?” he asked, his hand on the handle. He was due to go away to Chicago for two months at the weekend, and he already knew how much he was going to miss her.
“Of course. I’ll telephone you tomorrow, okay?” She reached out to clasp his arm for a moment. “I really am sorry, Mike.”
Giving her a warm smile, Mike shook his head and stooped to kiss her gently on the cheek. “I’ll speak to you tomorrow. Call if you need me in the meantime,” and with that, he turned and walked out of the front door, shutting it behind him.
Closing her eyes, Cornelia reached her hand up to touch the spot on her cheek where his lips had touched her skin. It was the first time he had kissed her in any shape or form, and the jolt it had caused was a feeling she had never encountered before, not even when she had kissed her previous two beaus. She felt a slight twinge of regret that the evening had ended quite so abruptly. Then, shaking herself out of her reverie, she reminded herself that her father was the most important thing right now, and heaving a sigh, she opened her eyes again and turned to make her way up the stairs.
As luck would have it, they did not manage to fit a date in after all. Joe, it turned out, had a simple touch of flu, but with his health still precarious following his serious illness of the preceding years, Cornelia was loathe to leave him, even for a short while. Although she and Mike did manage an hour in each other’s company at the Flowers’ home, in truth, Cornelia was too pre-occupied with her father to pay much attention to anything else. Consequently, Mike left for Chicago at the end of the week with a promise to write, and their relationship remained in the same ambiguous territory.
It was another week before Joe really recovered and could be up and about again. Then a few days later, Eliza, Richard’s girlfriend, called to invite her to lunch.
“All the girls are dying to meet you. You’ve been quite the talk since New Year's. Everyone’s dying to know who you are and what you're like.”
“Why on earth?” Cornelia asked, horrified.
“Because you’re new in town. We’re all bunch of old busybodies really, and when a new girl comes into town and grabs the interest of one of our guys, we want to know all about her!”
“I’m dunno, Ela. I’m not too sure…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there to hold your hand,” Eliza interrupted, before her friend could dwell on the situation too much. “Come on, Corney, please say you will. You’ll have to meet everyone sometime – you may as well get it over with now. And it’s a chance to make some new friends. You were bellyaching only recently about not having any girlfriends in Boston. You will come, won’t you? Please?”
“Fine, I’ll come – if only to keep you quiet!”
“Super! I’m driving so I’ll be by at twelve-fifteen tomorrow to collect you. See you then!”
“Ela wait! What should I wear?”
Eliza laughed. “It’s not dress-up! Whatever you wear usually’ll be fine. Anyway, gotta go. See you tomorrow!” and she hung up, leaving a flummoxed Cornelia at the other end of the line.
The next day, when Eliza arrived promptly at twelve-fifteen, Cornelia felt almost as nervous as she had on her first date with Mike. Not only had the entire meal been organised to make her the centre of attention, but these women were Mike’s friends. It was so important to her to make a good impression, and she dreading doing something to mess it all up.
As she walked across the restaurant, she could feel eight pairs of eyes on her, scrutinising her every move, and she could categorically say that she had never felt so self-conscious in her life. Everyone seemed so smart and confident and well-connected and she felt completely out of place.
Seeing how nervous her friend was, Eliza took hold of her arm and towed her forward. “Here we are!” she announced, in her friendly, bubbly manner. “Everyone, this is Corney. Corney, these are Barbara, Lottie, Minnie, Louisa, Toria, Carol, Debbie and Annabel.”
The young women seated around the table all gave her welcoming smiles and said pleasant hellos until they reached Annabel, who looked the newcomer up and down, a supercilious sneer on her face. “Pleasure, I’m sure!” she said scornfully, and then turned her attention back to the girl on her right.
Cornelia flushed bright red and Eliza rolled her eyes and squeezed her friend’s arm. “Ignore her, she's a moke” she muttered under her breath, and pushed Corney down into her seat.
Despite her early misgivings that she did not belong, the lunch turned out to be a great success. With the exception of Annabel and her friend Debbie, they all proved to be very friendly, and not at all as aloof as she had imagined, and by the time they left the restaurant at three o’clock, she felt thoroughly welcomed and as if she had made several new friends.
“Well that was a resounding success,” Eliza exclaimed, beaming and slipping her hand through her friend’s arm as they walked down the street towards the car. “Was it as bad as you thought it would be?”
Cornelia smiled in return. “Not at all. Though I did feel like a bit of an exhibit!”
“That’ll soon wear off.”
“Everyone was real nice though.” Corney paused for a second, and then added, “Well nearly everyone. I’m not sure Annabel’s taken much of a shine to me, though I have to admit, the feeling’s mutual!”
Eliza laughed. “As I said before, just ignore her. She’s just jealous - she doesn’t like anyone who gets more attention from a man than her. Mike dated her once when we were in High School, and now she has this odd thing about him. She was the one who broke things off, and yet she hates it now that he’s with you.”
“But that’s so stupid!” Cornelia looked thoroughly perplexed. “Mike’s twenty-nine – they must have dated eons ago!”
“They did. And Mike could not be less interested in her if he tried, but she seems to have developed a strange attachment to him ever since he came back from England. She’s no real interest in dating him herself, I don't think, but she doesn’t want anyone else to either.” Cornelia must have looked worried, because Eliza squeezed her arm before she bent to unlock the car door. “Honestly, Corney, don’t let it bother you. Nobody likes her anyway. She and Debbie always just tag along to lunch and we haven’t had the heart yet to tell them to leave us alone!”
She let out a peal of laughter as she ran around to the driver’s door and climbed in, and putting this information to the back of her mind, Cornelia turned to her friend with pleading eyes. “Ela, would you mind awfully if I asked you to help me get a new look?”
Eliza turned to her in surprise. “Why on earth do you need a new look? You’re fine just as you are!”
“I just do, that’s all. Everyone here's so chic and smart except for me. And we've all gotta have a change sometimes, and I feel like I’m due for one. So will you help?”
Eliza stared at her friend as if she had gone mad. “Sure, if you want me to. I think you’re crazy though. You’re not doing it for Mike, are you?”
Cornelia shook her head. “It’s just for me.”
Eliza shrugged. “Right, well what do you want to do first?”
“My hair. It's been this way for so long, I need something differnt”
“Then we’ll need to go to Francois. He looks after all of us folk. How does Monday suit you?”
“It suits me just fine!” and Cornelia sat back in her seat, contented, and moved the conversation onto something else.
January soon turned into February, and before anyone knew it, Valentine’s Day had come around. From her bedroom window, Cornelia stared keenly down the winding road and as soon as she caught sight of the post van, she ran down the stairs and out through the front door, oblivious to the whirling snowfall, eager as she was to see what he had brought. In all of her twenty-four years, she had never once received a Valentine, but she had high hopes that this year things would be different.
The postman grinned as he caught sight of the young woman running towards him. “These are for you, I do believe,” he said, holding out a handful of mail.
As he bade her farewell and climbed back into his van, Cornelia began leafing through them, dropping a couple as she did so, oblivious to the snowflakes that were beginning to form a thin layer on top of her clothes.
“Corney, what do you think you’re doing? Come inside before you catch your death, will you?”
She looked up at the sound of her father’s voice. “Mail’s here,” she called back. “And you’ll catch your own death if you insist on hanging out of windows like that!” Then heeding Joe’s warning, she bent to pick up the letters that she had dropped and made her way back inside.
“You got how many?”
Cornelia flushed and smiled across at her two friends. “Five,” she responded, pride and trace of disappointment in her voice. “Can you believe it? I’ve never even gotten one before.”
Carol let out a long, low whistle. “Now that’s what I call impressive! That new look of yours is certainly paying off!" she exclaimed, examining her friend's new chic, fashionable clothes. "The only other person I know who’s had that many in one go is Ela here, but then she always was favourite with all the boys.”
“Oh rot!” Eliza replied, flushing red. “And anyway, I may have gotten several today, but it’s only the one from Richard that counts.” Carol pulled a face as if she was about to be sick and Eliza grinned. “Say what you will, it’s still true. Isn’t that right, Corney? Isn’t the one that Mike sent you the most important one of yours?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Cornelia mumbled in reply, staring down at her lap and twisting her fingers together.
The other two stared at her in surprise.
“What you mean you wouldn’t know?”
“Just as I say. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t receive anything from Mike.”
“But you must have!”
Corney shook her head and adjusted her glasses at the bridge of her nose. “Not one thing.
There was silence for a moment as the other two shot her sympathetic looks and wondered what on earth they could say.
“I wondered why you sounded disappointed a minute ago. Perhaps he was just a little late posting it and it’ll arrive first thing Monday morning.” Eliza offered, feeling a little like she was clutching at straws.
“I’ll bet you that’s it!” Carol added.
Cornelia gave them both a wry smile. “You really think so?” They nodded, and she shook her head. “You know what I think? I reckon he’s sent me nothing at all.” The other two opened their mouths to protest, but she held her hand up to silence them. “Let’s think about it for a minute. He’s been away almost six weeks now, and I’ve had one letter in all that time – and that was a week after he left. I’ve left a couple of messages at the hotel where he’s been staying, and he’s not bothered to call me back. You know what it looks like to me? It looks like he’s lost interest.”
“Of course he hasn’t!” Eliza protested.
“Oh come on, Ela, I’m not an idiot. No word for five whole weeks and then no Valentines? I can take a hint alright. It’s okay,” she added, seeing the distressed look on her friend’s face, “I’m not upset about it – not anymore. I’ve just faced the fact that he’s no longer interested, that’s all.”
Eliza was not convinced. “Not necessarily,” she persisted. “He’s not a great correspondent, Corney. I know Richard hasn’t heard from him either. He was saying just the other day that the only reason he knows Mike’s still alive is because their mother managed to raise him on the phone!”
Corney chuckled inspite of herself. “How like Richard to look on the gruesome side!” Then adjusting position in her seat, tucking her newly-curled bob behind her ears, she added, I still say I’m right though. I mean think about it - we’ve been going on dates since last November and he’s not asked me to go steady or even kissed me yet, save for a peck on the cheek on New Year’s. What does that tell me?”
“That he’s an idiot?” Carol put in.
Laughing, Eliza shook her head. “Perhaps he’s just a gentleman?”
“That’s what I thought, but now it just doesn’t seem to add up. I guess I just have to deal with it and move on.” Cornelia heaved a sigh, her face not looking nearly as convincing as her words sounded. “Anyhow, I have a dilemma and I need your help. I’ve been asked on a date tonight, but I’m not too sure whether or not I should go.”
“Who’ve you been asked by?” Carol queried, sitting up straight in her seat, eager to find out the gossip.
Cornelia turned bright red under her friends’ inquisitive gaze. “Edward Choate.”
“Are you having us on?”
Corney shook her head, a little surprised at their reaction. “Why would I be?”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Carol dismissed her comments with a wave of her elegant hand. “It’s just…well, you are aware that he’s the most eligible bachelor in the whole of Boston, aren’t you?”
“For real?” Corney asked, turning ever more scarlet in her shock.
Ela nodded. “He most certainly is! Annabel’s been after him for years! Say, she’ll have even more of a grudge against you now!”
“I reckon I can live with her not liking me!” Corney replied, grinning. “So, d’you think I should go?”
“Absolutely!” Carole replied definitively.
Cornelia still wasn’t sure. “You really think so?”
“Yes, I do. If Mike hasn’t had the decency to get in touch, then why should you wait around for him? And what do you have to lose? If you like Ed, then great, maybe he’s who you’re meant to be with and you’ll end up with one of these,” she grinned, pointing to the sparking diamond ring on her left hand. “And if not and you decide that you still want to hold out for Mike after all, then he’ll be none the wiser. Are you and he even together? Properly, I mean?”
Cornelia shrugged. “To be truthful, I don’t know.”
“Well there you are then. If you were, then you would know. I say go on the date and be done with it.”
“What do you reckon, Ela?” Corney asked, turning to her other friend.
Eliza frowned. “I’m not sure, Corney. I can’t help feeling there’s another reason Mike’s not been in touch. We’ve known him since we were little kids and he’s one of the nicest men I know.” She paused for a second, and then shrugged her shoulders. “But if he’s not committed to anything and neither have you, then you’re free to do as you wish, I guess.”
“You don’t think I should go, do you?”
“It’s not that, it’s just...I’m not sure you should give up on him so easily.”
“But he’s not been in touch with her, Ela,” Carol interrupted, defending Corney’s honour.
“You don’t know him as well as I do, Caro. He’s not a cad like some of the others – including his brother, I might add.”
Cornelia stared aback at her and gave a shrug. “But it’s not me that gave up on him, Ela. It’s him that’s given up on me.” Eliza had nothing to say to that, and Corney made up her mind. “I think I’ll go!” she stated firmly. “As Caro said, I’ve nothing to lose, and if it’s a disaster, well, it’s not the end of the world!” She grinned at Carol who clapped her hands in delight. “Just because I’m dating him, does not mean I’m gonna to be Mrs. Choate by tomorrow morning!”
“I know that,” Carol retorted indignantly, “but surely you can leave me to my daydreams!”
Cornelia laughed and got to her feet. “Well, in that case I’d best make a move. I have to call Ed and let him know!”
“I should go too,” Following Cornelia’s lead, Carol rose from her comfy seat. “I promised Geoff I wouldn’t be too late home,” she added, referring to her husband, an old classmate of Mike’s from school. She kissed her friends on both cheeks. “Ela, thanks for a lovely lunch. Corney, I want to hear all about it tomorrow!”
Cornelia laughed. “You will, I promise. Bye Caro.”
With a brief wave, Carol turned and left the room, and Cornelia picked up her teacup from the table beside her chair. “I’ll help you clear up before I go.”
Eliza smiled and shook her head, taking the teacup from her friend’s hand. “No need. Mrs. Bunce’ll do it later on.”
“Right, well I’d best get off then.”
“Corney?” Eliza grabbed her friend’s arm as that young lady walked past her, and as Cornelia turned to face her, Ela stared straight into her big, blue eyes. “Are you sure about this date with Ed?”
Cornelia looked at her for a second, then breaking the gaze, she stared down at her feet and shook her head. “No, not really,” she replied truthfully. “But I can’t wait for Mike forever, Ela.”
“No I guess not.”
Corney smiled. “Well, thanks again for lunch. Have a good evening with Richard and I’ll see you tomorrow,” and pecking her friend on the cheek, she turned and went on her way.
Mike grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair and as he did so, he cringed as he caught sight of the half-finished letter poking out of his writing case. He had started writing it five weeks ago, but had been so busy he had not found the time to finish it. Actually, if he was honest with himself, that wasn’t strictly true. He should have made the time and he knew it, but each night when he returned to the hotel after ful a day and evening of meeting with and entertaining clients, he was so tired that he just flopped into bed. Even his weekends had been taken up with work.
The little pile of telephone messages next to the writing case increased his feeling of guilt, and as he slipped his arms into the jacket, he realised that it was now two weeks since he had heard from Cornelia at all. Cursing his job yet again for taking him away from home quite so much, he resolved that come what may, he would finish that letter tomorrow. He had missed her terribly, and he would let her know exactly how he felt and how sorry he was that he had not been in touch. If he owned up to being a terrible correspondent, perhaps she would understand. Right now, however, he was running late.
Dashing out of his hotel suite, he ran to the lifts and pressed the button impatiently. Why was there never an elevator there when he needed one urgently? Eventually one arrived and he made his way down to the lobby, where he found Jim, his colleague from the firm's Chicago office, standing by the reception staring at his watch.
"What time do you call this?" he asked grouchily, as he saw Mike coming towards him.
"I know, I’m sorry!’ Mike panted, as he approached his friend. ‘You know timekeeping’s not my strong suit!"
"Don’t I know it! Well come on, let’s get going. I’d like to get all this stuff ironed out by lunch if that’s okay with you. I promised my wife I’d take her out for a Valentine’s treat this afternoon. You got any plans yourself?"
Mike stared at him in horror. "What did you just say?"
"I asked if you had any plans!" Jim replied, confused.
"No, before that."
"I said I was taking my wife out for a Valentine’s treat. Why?" he queried, as Mike cursed himself under his breath. "Say, you didn’t forget, did you? Have you got a sweetheart back in Boston just waiting for the post to arrive?"
"Something like that! Dammit, why am I such a fool?"
Jim let out a long, low whistle. "I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes! My wife would kill me if I forgot anything like that!"
"We’re not actually together - or not completely anyway," Mike replied, as the receptionist handed him a handful of post. Then catching sight of the card sitting on the top, he gave a groan. "Looks like she remembered though."
"Guess you’ll be buying up a few gifts this afternoon then!" Jim replied, grinning at Mike’s discomfort as they walked out of the hotel to the waiting car. "I’m guessing just a measly card won’t do!"
Making a final check of her reflection in the mirror, Cornelia pulled a face as she looked at her perfectly coifed hair. Francois had spent an hour teasing it into the place that afternoon, and yet even his expert hand could not make her feel comfortable with it. She had to be honest, Eliza had taken her at her word and she did look a great deal ‘better’, if that was the right phrase. Her clothes were chic, the very latest styles from the most fashionable designers. Her hair was waved and perfectly set, and her make-up expertly applied. Everyone had been telling her how wonderful she looked, but something just wasn’t quite right. When she stared at her reflection in the mirror, she did not feel quite like herself. Heaving a sigh, she told herself to stop moaning. It would just take some time to get used to it, that was all.
Turning back to her bed, she picked up her stole, wrapping it around her shoulders, and then took her bag from the bedstead and made her way downstairs. It was funny, this was her first date with a man that she had to admit was incredibly attractive, and yet there was no hint of the nerves and anticipation that she had on that first date with Mike.
She found her father sitting in the salon reading a book and listening to jazz on the radio. He looked up with a grin as she came into the room.
"You heading out now?"
She nodded and returned his smile. "Ed’ll be here any minute." Then after a brief pause, she asked, "Do you think I’m crazy, Poppa?"
”In general, or for going on this date?" he quipped back, a twinkle in his eye.
"Ha, ha!" his daughter replied, pulling a face.
Joe laid his book on the end-table next to him and sat back in his seat. "For what it’s worth, no I don’t. You’re going to dinner with a nice young man who happens to have asked you out, that’s all. I know he’s not Mike, but you never know, you could have a lot of fun."
Cornelia gave a wry chuckle. "You’re right, I probably will. And if Mike can’t be bothered to get in touch, then why shouldn’t I enjoy myself with someone else?"
"My point exactly." The doorbell rang at that moment, and Joe smiled up at her as she bent to peck him on the cheek. "You have a good night, sweetheart. Try and enjoy yourself."
"I will, Poppa, don’t worry. You have a good evening too. I’ve left the name and number of the restaurant next to the telephone in case you need me."
‘Which I will not be using!" Joe retorted. "I intend to enjoy the peace and quiet, let me tell you!"
Deciding not to dignify his teasing with an answer, she turned and headed towards the door. "I’ll see you later. Don’t wait up!" and without waiting for his reply, she made her way into the hall.
As Ed excused himself and left the table to go to the toilet, Cornelia wiped her mouth on her napkin and stared around the restaurant, reflecting on the evening so far. Edward Choate was sweet, charming, funny and a very attractive young man. There was no denying it and yet, try as she might, Cornelia was just not interested – at least, not in that way. They were getting along on famously, but something was missing - that spark, that extra something that made someone special. That something that she felt around Mike. Heaving a sigh, she looked down at her watch. Nine o’clock. Only an hour or so to go, and then she could politely say goodbye and make her way home.
Ed paused at the cloakroom door, watching her for a moment as she stared aimlessly around her. Then he walked back over to join her, sat down purposefully in his seat and gave her a smile.
"Yes thanks." She returned his smile and took a sip of her wine. "I’m having a good time."
"Yes, so am I." He paused for a moment and sat back in his chair. "Your heart’s not really in it though, is it?"
Cornelia was taken aback by his direct question and didn’t quite know what to say. "I…No, Ed, honestly. I…"
"Corney, it’s okay. I won’t be offended."
She stared into her drink for a moment and then shot him a guilty expression. "Sorry."
"Don’t be. I can’t pretend I’m not a disappointed, but there’s no point in keeping up the charade, is there?" he replied cheerily.
"No, I guess not."
"I’ve actually had a very good night and it’s been a lot of fun spending time with you, so it’s not all bad news by any means. I just wanted to bring it out in the open, clear that cloud that’s hanging over your head. So what d’you say we agree to be friends for the rest of the night. No looking at romance or taking anything further, just two friends having dinner."
Feeling like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Cornelia gave him a beaming smile and nodded her head. "I’d say that sounds grand."
"Excellent. And I’ll try to pretend you’ve not left my heart lonely and bereft," he added with a cheeky wink.
Cornelia laughed. "You do that. I’m sure you’ll find someone else soon enough. What about Annabel Peabody? I hear she’s rather fond of you."
Ed pulled a strangled face. "Thanks, but I’ll pass if it’s all the same to you! I value my sanity a little too much! Now, how about dessert?"
"Of course! What do you think I am?" and as Ed signalled the waiter to bring over the desert menus, she sat back and took another mouthful of wine, feeling relaxed for the first time that night.
Once they had cleared the air, the rest of the date was far more enjoyable, and when they finally left the restaurant at gone eleven-thirty, Cornelia found her sides ached from laughing. She pulled her coat tightly around her as Ed held out his arm to hail a cab. The evening had been a great deal of fun, and even more pleasing to her was the fact that she had finally got one thing straight in her mind. Whatever Mike’s excuse was for not getting in touch, unless he had met someone else she would forgive him. Not let him off scott free, of course – she’d let him know what she thought of what he had done – but she would forgive him none the less.
"Your chariot awaits, Miss Flower!"
Coming back down to earth, Cornelia looked at the cab in front of her, and then smiled up at her date.
"Thanks for a lovely evening, Ed. I’ve had a really swell time."
"That makes two of us, even though it’s not quite gone the way I would have liked!"
He pulled an injured face, and laughing, she patted him on the arm. "There, there," she soothed in a patronising voice, "you take yourself home and nurse those wounds."
Ed chuckled and opened the taxi door for her, before bending to peck her on the cheek. "Goodnight, Corney. I’ll see you soon."
"’Night, Ed. Thanks again," and as he closed the door and the cab pulled away from the kerb, she sat back with a smile and reflected on the evening that had just passed.
Richard van Alden was strolling down Harvard Street on the way back to his dorms. He had spent the evening in the company of his girlfriend, Eliza, and was busy ruminating on whether or not the relationship had run its course.
As he turned the corner onto Prospect Street, he glanced up idly and noticed his brother’s friend, Ed Choate, standing outside ‘The Barnhouse’ restaurant, chatting to a woman who was clearly his Valentine’s date. He watched as Ed bent to kiss the lady goodnight, and then as she stepped into the cab, he caught a clear view of her face.
The sight stopped him in his tracks, all thoughts of Eliza driven from his mind. It was Cornelia, the girl his brother had fallen for, who Richard knew full well that he adored. He could not believe that she would do this to Mike. She had always seemed so straight and kind. Then another thought occurred to him. She was friends with Eliza, wasn’t she? His girlfriend must have known all about it and she hadn’t even told him. As the cab drew level with him, he glared through the window but Cornelia was sitting back against the seat, deep in thought, and he knew she had not seen him.
He watched as the car continued on its way, its rear lights getting smaller as it disappeared into the distance. He waited until he could no longer see it, then turned and continued on his way to his dorms, his face set like stone.
Jiggling her legs up and down nervously, Cornelia glanced at the clock on the mantle for the umpteenth time. Her father was out with one of his business associates, and she was sitting alone in the salon, waiting anxiously for Mike to come and take her out for lunch. Her stomach was churning with the same mixture of nerves and excitement she had had on their first date, the feelings that had been missing with Ed. Unable to sit still any longer, she got to her feet, walked towards the window, and stood staring out at the cold, crisp winter’s day.
She had arrived home on Valentine’s Day to find a telephone message from Mike wishing her Happy Valentine’s. Then, on the Monday, the biggest bunch of flowers she had ever seen were delivered by a local florist, and were followed a couple of days later by a Valentine’s card containing the long-awaited letter. In it, Mike had apologised profusely for not being in touch and for forgetting Valentine’s Day, and then gone on to pour his heart out, telling her how much he had missed her and how he was looking forward to seeing her again.
She was so glad to hear from him, so relieved to know that he was still interested in her, that she forgot all about being angry or reproachful, and instead turned her attentions to looking forward to him coming home. He had kept his word, calling her as soon as he had arrived back in Boston that morning, and they had arranged to meet for lunch. Heaving a sigh, she turned back from the window and stared at the clock again. It was exactly one minute since she had last looked.
Mike turned his car into the Flowers' driveway, and pulled up in the forecourt of their house. Switching off the engine, he took the keys from the ignition and sat back in his seat, staring straight ahead of him. Running round and round in his mind was the conversation he had had with Richard just before leaving home…
Helping himself to a second cup of coffee, Richard sat back down at the large pine table and stared at his brother as if he had gone mad.
"Are you serious?"
"Completely serious. All I’ve done since I returned from Europe is travel from pillar to post, and now I’ve met Corney, I’m fed up to the back teeth of it all. I’ll be talking to the boss first thing tomorrow morning, and if they can’t accommodate my needs, then I’ll start looking elsewhere. I’ve been approached a couple of times recently, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something else."
"And you’re doing all this for Corney?"
Mike shook his head. "No, I’m doing it for me because I want to be near her. Why does it matter, anyway?"
"No reason." Richard took a sip of his coffee. "It’s just a big step, considering you’re not even together, that’s all. I mean, you’ve only known her a few months."
"I know her enough to realise that I want to be near her. Then I get to know her more. I can hardly do that when I’m gallivanting from state to state, can I?"
Richard shrugged. "Well, it’s your life, I guess."
"Yes, it’s my life." Mike gave his brother a quizzical look. "What’s got into you anyway? I thought you liked her?"
‘So did I."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Have you spoken to her since you got back this morning?"
"Of course I have! How else do you think we arranged to have lunch together? And speaking of which, I should really make a move," he added, checking his watch. Richard scowled back at him, and Mike set his cup down on the table and looked his brother square in the face. "Look, are you gonna tell me what’s wrong, or do I have to drag it out of you?" Richard remained silent, and shaking his head, Mike got to his feet. "Fine, then I’m off. I’ll see you later," and he walked towards the kitchen door.
Mike stopped, turning back to face his brother, and Richard swallowed hard.
"I saw her on a date on Valentine’s Day. With Ed Choate."
Dumbfounded, Mike stared back him with wide eyes, and it was a few seconds before he pulled himself together enough to speak.
"I don’t believe you," he said eventually, his voice very quiet.
"It’s true! They were outside ‘The Barnhouse’."
"Why are you saying this?"
"Ask her yourself if you don’t believe me."
"Well maybe it wasn’t a date? Maybe it was something perfectly innocent?"
"The goodnight kiss didn’t look so innocent from where I was standing!"
Mike could tell from Richard’s voice that his brother was being sincere, and he felt his stomach churn and a feeling of nausea wash over him. The bottom was rapidly falling out of his world, and he grabbed the chair in front of him to steady himself.
Richard could see the hurt on his brother’s face, and he felt a surge of hatred towards Cornelia. "Look, perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it was nothing. It may have not even been her."
Mike knew full well that Richard was just trying to make him feel better. "Thanks, but it was her, wasn’t it?"
Richard nodded slowly. "Mike, I’m so sorry. I wish I hadn’t seen them, I really do."
There was silence for a moment, as Mike continued to stare at his brother, his head pounding. Then with a brief nod, he turned and slowly left the room.
As he finished replaying the conversation in his head for the hundredth time, Mike looked up at the Flowers' home, his stomach churning again. He knew he had to ask her, to find out if it was true. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, he climbed out of the car and made his way towards the front door.
As the doorbell sounded throughout the house, Cornelia almost ran out of the salon and across the entrance hall to answer it. Then remembering herself just in time, she quickly checked her appearance in the mirror and smoothed down her skirt, before opening the door, a wide smile on her face.
Mike stared at her in shock, and Cornelia suddenly realised what was wrong.
"Don’t you recognise me?" she asked cheerily, and Mike shook his head.
"Sorry, you…you just look different, that’s all."
Cornelia glanced down at herself, and then grinned. "Don’t I know it – I get a shock every time I look in the mirror! I’m still not sure about it, to be honest, but it’s been fun getting lots of attention!"
There was no reply, he just stared at her with a blank expression, and she gave him a puzzled look.
"Shall we go then? I’m famished!"
Mike looked at ground and pulled himself together. "Would you mind if we had a quick chat first?"
Raising her eyebrows in surprise, Cornelia stepped back from the door. "Er, yes, okay. Come on in."
She followed him through to the salon, and watched as he seated himself in an armchair near the door. His demeanour was making her nervous, though she was not sure why, and she was wracking her brain trying to think why he would be acting this way. Sitting down on the sofa opposite him, she gave him a smile.
"It’s good to see you, Mike. I’ve missed you." He nodded, but said nothing, and she tried another tack. "Thanks for your letter. It meant a lot."
His voice was stony, and fed up of the stilted conversation, Corney decided to come straight to the point. "Mike what’s wrong?"
He swallowed hard before he spoke. "Did you have fun on Valentines Day?"
Surprised at his question, she stammered, "I…er…yes I did. Why?"
"How was ‘The Barnhouse’? Did Ed treat you well?"
One look at her face told him that Richard was telling the truth.
"H…how do you know about that?"
"Does that matter?"
"Well no, I…"
"Were you going to tell me?"
"There’s nothing to tell!"
"You think so? You went on a date with another man – one of my friends at that – and you don’t think there’s anything to tell?"
"Mike, it wasn’t like that, I…"
"You kissed him!"
"He kissed me - on the cheek!"
Bu Mike wasn’t listening. "Why did you do it, Corney? I thought we had an understanding?"
His tone of voice was beginning to put her back up, and at this, her temper finally flared. "Did we? I hadn’t heard from you in five weeks! I got nothing on Valentines Day. What kind of understanding is that part of?"
"I’ve explained about that!"
"Yes I know, you were too busy! What kind of excuse d’you think that is?"
"Not a good one, I admit, but I didn’t exactly expect you to be dating someone else."
"Why not?" She was almost shouting now, as her indignation reached fever pitch. "Why shouldn’t I have another date? I thought you’d lost interest, Mike. Can you blame me?"
"Of course I’m still interested. You know that."
"Do I? You’ve never even kissed me…"
"You need me to kiss you to show how much I like you?"
He sounded incredulous, and his words brought Corney back to her senses. " No of course not, it’s just…"
"I don’t believe this! Just because I hadn’t kissed you, you think I don’t care…"
"That’s not what I said…"
"So, I’m a terrible correspondent, and I’m sorry, but I would have hoped you’d try to find out what was going on before dating other men!"
"I tried to – you didn’t return my calls remember!"
The room fell silent as he stared at her, both of them shaking. When Mike finally spoke again, his voice was very calm, quiet and full of hurt.
"So you thought I’d given up on you? I would never have done that, Corney. It’s a shame you couldn’t afford me same courtesy."
"I think I should go."
Cornelia glared at him. "Yes, maybe you should."
Getting up from his seat, he made his way slowly towards the door. As he reached it, he put his hand on the handle, and turned to face her once more.
"You know something? I was ready to change jobs, change my life, so that I could be here with you. But Richard’s right – I don’t know you at all. I can't believe I was such a fool!"
He walked out of the door, leaving it wide open behind him. Cornelia stared blankly after him, watching the front door close as he left the house. Hearing his car engine start and the scrunch of gravel as he drove away, her features began to crumple. Lying down on her side, she buried her face in a cushion and began to cry.
As her sobs finally began to die away, Cornelia sat up and dried her eyes on her sleeve. Her shoulders were still heaving from the force of her outburst. Tears were foreign to her – she could count on one hand the number of times she had cried in the past few years – and she found herself shaking as much from that, as from her sobs themselves. Glancing down at her sleeve, she noticed the make-up stains on the cuffs where she had scrubbed her eyes. She knew it was ruined, that the marks would never come out of the fine material, but she could not have cared less.
Getting to her feet, she made her way across to the mirror above the mantle and stood looking at her reflection, shaking her head at the person staring back. The hair, the clothes, the flawless make-up - it just wasn’t her, and the more she saw it, the more she disliked it all. It didn’t help that ever since she had decided to change her image, things had begun to go wrong with Mike. Deep down, she knew that it was pure coincidence, but in her fragile state, she could not help drawing the comparison. Torn between anger at herself for going on the date, and resentment towards Mike for refusing to listen, she felt tears welling up in her eyes once again. How could she have been so stupid? Why did he have to be so stubborn? How had something that had felt so right gone so horribly wrong?
The clanging of the doorbell cut through her thoughts, bringing her back to her senses, and she turned away from the mirror, making her way back to the sofa. Whoever it was at the door, she would ignore them and hope that they went away. She was not in the mood to face anybody just yet. As it rang again, she leant back and stared up at the ceiling, tears filling her eyes once more. The sudden realisation of the true strength of her feelings towards Mike had taken her caught her off-guard. She liked this man so very, very much, and now it was all ruined.
The doorbell rang for a third time, and this time it didn’t stop. Whoever was there was refusing to give up, and was clearly going to keep ringing until somebody answered. Heaving a sigh that caught in her throat, she got to her feet, wiping her eyes on her sleeve again in a desperate bid to prevent her tears from brimming over, and made her way to the front door. Then, doing her best to compose herself, she pulled it open, ready to speak. The sight of the person standing on the doorstep caused the words to freeze on her tongue.
Mike gazed down into her wide, blue eyes as she stared mutely up at him, noting the brimming tears that threatened to spill at any moment, giving away how upset she was, how deep her feelings ran. He hesitated, unsure what do do next, trying to fight his natural instinct to take her in his arms. Eventually that instinct won over, and slowly lifting a hand to her face, he lowered his lips to meet hers.
For a split-second after he pulled back, Cornelia stared at him, lost for words, shocked both at his actions, and the sensations the unexpected kiss had awoken within her. Then throwing caution to the wind, she flung her arms around his neck, melding her body into his, and kissed him passionately back.
When they finally broke apart again, Mike tightened his arms around her, holding her as closely as he possibly could and muttering, “I’m so sorry,” into her hair, as she buried her face in his shoulder.
Cornelia clung to him as if her life depended on it, reluctant to let him go. Slowly pulling her head back, she gazed up at him once more. Her cheeks were flushed and smeared with make-up, and releasing her, Mike lifted his hand to her face, gently wiping away the dark smudges with his thumb as he reiterated his words.
“I’m so, so sorry, Corney.”
“So’m I.” Her voice caught as she spoke, and she impatiently dashed away a couple more tears with the back of her hand. “Look at me, I’m like a waterspout! I never cry!”
Mike chuckled, and pulled his handkerchief from his pocket. “Here, try this,” and as he handed it over to her, he stooped to kiss her once more.
They both jumped, startled at the sudden voice, and turned to see the Flowers’ next-door-neighbour brandishing his secateurs and frowning at them over the privet hedge.
Cornelia lifted her hand and gave him a little wave. “Hi, Mr. Norton.”
“How are you, Sir?” Mike asked, his face the picture of innocence as he stared nervously at the secateurs.
Mr. Norton glared at the pair of them, and then with a harrumph, he returned to clipping his hedge. They stared at each other for a second, trying desperately not to laugh.
“You’d best come in,” Corney scrubbed her eyes on Mike’s handkerchief as she stepped back to let him through.
"You read my mind - those giant scissors are making me a little nervous!" She giggled as he crossed the threshold, and shutting the door behind him, Mike turned to her and ran a hand down her arm. “Can we talk?”
Cornelia smiled and nodded. “Sure. Go on through. I just have to take care of something first,” and leaving him to do as she said, she ran off up the stairs.
Mike watched her go, waiting until he could no longer see her, before making his way through to salon, and settling himself comfortably on the large sofa opposite the door. Corney returned two minutes later, her face washed and her outfit changed. He glanced up as she entered the room, and seeing her dressed in her old familiar clothes, his face broke into a wide smile.
“Oh, thank heavens you’ve changed!”
Cornelia stopped dead and stared at him for a second, and then started to laugh. “I know! I couldn’t stand that stupid get up any more. It’s not me at all!”
“You’re right about that, it wasn’t,” he returned with a grin. Reaching his hand out to take hers, he pulled her down next to him on the sofa. “I do like the frames though,” he added, examining her glasses, “and the hair.”
“I do too, I think I’ll keep them.”
They lapsed into silence, their fingers entwining together as they both stared down at their hands and turned the afternoon’s events over in their minds. After a few moments of thought, Cornelia lifted her enormous blue eyes to his face.
“What made you come back?”
“I got halfway home and realised how stupid this all was.” Mike smiled, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear and then taking hold of her other hand. “I want to be with you, Corney. I don’t care about some idiotic date or who said and did what. I just want to be with you. I’ve missed you so much.”
Cornelia felt tears pricking the back of her eyes once more, this time through happiness, and she blinked hard to keep them at bay. “I’ve missed you too,” she replied, quietly. “I’m sorry I went on that date, Mike. Nothing happened. I didn’t…”
“Shhh!” Releasing her right hand, he lifted his fingers to her lips to silence her. “It doesn’t matter, Corney, honestly, you don't need to explain. It’s my fault anyhow. I’m the ass who was too stupid to stay in touch with you, and it serves me right! I'm only glad I've not lost you.”
"I promise you've not lost me," she returned, a tender smile touching her lips. “You were rather an ass, though!”
Grinning at his indignation, she reached across to kiss him. “But I forgive you.”
“Glad to hear it!” Then, grasping her fingers tightly, he asked in a more sober voice, “So what do you say? Shall we give things a go? Will you properly, officially be my girl?”
Her eyes sparkled with delight, and her smile was as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s. “Yes please!”
“Excellent!" His voice radiated happiness, his expressive grey eyes twinkling as he spoke. "So have I finally managed to convince you how much I like you?”
She nodded sheepishly, and then gave him a wicked grin. “You may just have to prove it a little more though.”
“Will I now? Well in that case…” and placing a hand on the back of her neck, he bent to kiss her deeply again.
They were so engrossed in one another, that they failed to hear the front door slam, and had to break apart hurriedly as Joe opened the salon door and burst into the room.
“Corney, I…oh, say, I’m sorry!” and flustered, he hurriedly backed out again.
Cornelia jumped to her feet to stop him. “Poppa, come back! It’s okay, we were just chatting.”
Joe raised his eyebrows, a smile touching his lips as he re-entered the room. “Yes, so I could see!” His daughter blushed to the roots of her fair hair, and seeing that she had nothing else to say, he turned to Mike. “Welcome back, Mike, it’s good to see you again. I hope you’ll be sticking around a little longer this time?”
“Yes, I hope to, Sir.”
He shot a meaningful glance at Cornelia, who blushed again and smiled back. Joe caught the look that flashed between them.
“That's good to know. Anyhow, I have work to be getting along with, so I’ll leave you two to it. Will you be joining us for dinner?
“Thank you, I’d love to, if you’re sure it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all. We can always squeeze an extra one in, can’t we, Corney?”
“Excellent. Well, I’ll catch you two kids later,” and with an affectionate glance at his daughter's glowing face, he turned and headed off to his study.
Mike winced, as Cornelia sat down next to him again. “I can’t believe he caught us like that!”
“I don’t think he’s too upset,” she grinned. “He likes you. You’re approved of.”
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“Because you’re funny and kind and smart and you treat me real well.”
“So in other words, I’m really quite perfect?” Mike joked. Then catching her raised eyebrow, “Okay, dangerous territory.”
She giggled and shook her head. “It is rather. Say Mike, did you mean what you said before about changing jobs to be near me?”
Gazing down at her tenderly, Mike nodded and lifted his hand to cup the side of her face. “I meant every word. I’ll be speaking to my boss on Monday.”
Blushing again, Corney gave him a shy smile. “I’m really glad.”
“Pleased to hear it.” He ran his hand down her cheek, tracing her cheekbone with his finger, and then let it drop into his lap. “Now, Miss Flower, where were we?”
She grinned and lifted her arms to wrap them around his neck, her face close to his. “Somewhere about here, I believe,” and as he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her close, she pressed her lips to his once more.
"This pot roast is really quite outstanding! We should have one more often!"
As she watched her husband heap another spoonful of creamed potatoes onto his plate, Martha van Alden tutted loudly and shook her head.
"Really, William, must you be such a gourmand? With you setting that kind of example, it’s no wonder that Richard’s turned out the way he has!"
"Gee, thanks Ma!" Richard’s voice dripped with sarcasm, and his mother turned to look him up and down.
"Well look at you. No manners, no finesse, no wife…"
"What’s that got to do with Pop stuffing his face every lunchtime?"
"I don’t ‘stuff my face’!" William replied, not sounding unduly perturbed. "I just have a healthy appetite, that’s all."
"Pop’s right, Mom, the roast really is good, you know," Mike put in, in an effort to smooth things over.
"Yes, well with the amount of time and effort it takes to cook, I should hope it would be…"
"What do you care? You don’t cook it!" Richard replied lazily, shovelling another forkful of beef and carrots into his mouth. "And why are you worrying about me having a wife anyhow? I’m twenty-five and still studying. Mike’s twenty-nine and has a proper job, and he’s not married yet – why don’t you pick on him for once?"
"Michael will be married soon enough."
Mike glanced up in surprise, his glass halfway to his mouth. "Will I?"
"Of course you will, don’t be silly. Now you’ve met this new girl, I’m sure you’ll be on the way down the aisle before too long."
Mike stared at her in disbelief, as she speared a tiny morsel of beef with her fork and put it in her mouth. "I’ve been going steady with her for a week – I’m not about to ask her to marry me tomorrow! And even if I did, I doubt she’d say yes."
"I’m simply saying it won’t be too long, that’s all," Martha returned complacently. "You can’t leave it forever, you know. I hear she’s dated Edward Choate already."
Mike snapped his head round to glare at Richard, who held his hands up in surrender. "Hey, don’t look at me! I didn’t tell her!"
"I heard from Mimi Saltonstall, who’d heard from Victoria Lowell," his mother informed him, pushing her food to one side of her plate, and laying down her knife and fork. "And speaking of which, when do your father and I get to meet her? It’s really quite embarrassing finding out details of our son’s life from our friends."
"Our friends should mind their own business," William muttered, and earned himself an icy glare from his wife.
"So when are we going to meet her?"
"When I’m ready to introduce her to you."
Martha pulled an injured face, and decided not to dignify him with an answer.
"Her surname’s Flower, isn’t it?" William asked, his brow furrowed in thought. Mike nodded. "Do I know her father? Have I played golf with him?"
"I don’t think so, Pop," Mike replied, as Richard rolled his eyes. "Mr. Flower’s not been too well since they’ve been here."
"Ah, well, sorry to hear that. Just thought I knew the name, that’s all."
"Where do they hail from, anyway?" Martha asked, unable to stay quiet for long. "They can’t be local, or I’d know them."
"From Vermont, originally."
"Vermont? Really? I must ask Cici Bellows if she’s ever heard of them."
"Why must you?" her husband asked. "Who cares if Cici Bellows has heard of them or not!"
"I doubt she has, Mom," Mike interjected quickly. "Corney said they spent most of her childhood in Europe."
"Europe? Whereabouts? Paris? London?"
"Ah, Vienna. Fine city before Hitler got his hands on it." William declared loudly. Then as his wife continued questioning Mike on his new friend, he turned to Richard and asked, "How’s Eliza these days? I bumped into her father in the club last week. They’ve just bought some little pad down in Newport, Martha. He invited us down sometime," he added, beaming across at his wife.
But Martha wasn’t listening. "He wouldn’t know how she is, because she ended things with him!" she snapped, sounding thoroughly cross with her son.
"How do you know that?" Richard returned indignantly. "No, don’t tell me…Mimi told Cici who told Victoria who told Charlotte who told Mickey Mouse!"
"There’s no need for sarcasm!" Martha sniffed, and rising imperiously from her seat, she turned on her expensive heels and stalked out of the room.
William heaved a sigh and got to his feet. "You really shouldn’t talk to her like that you know, she is your mother. And you know it makes her worse!"
"You’re just complaining because you have to deal with her when we’re gone!"
William grimaced as he walked to the door. "Well wouldn’t you?"
Richard waited until his father had left the room and was out of earshot, and then pulled a face in his brother’s direction. "I told you that would happen. Why d’you always drag me down here?"
"Because they’re our parents, that’s why, and however much they drive us crazy, we still have to have Sunday lunch with them every once in a while! Anyway, Pop’s alright, and Mom doesn’t really mean it! It’s just the way she is."
"That’s alright for you to say, you’re the apple of her eye, whereas I am the scourge of the devil!"
"Oh tosh! Stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Now what’s this about Ela finishing things with you? I thought you broke it off with her?" Richard turned scarlet and stared at the floor, and Mike threw his head back and laughed. "It’s true isn’t it? Someone finally rejected the mighty Rich van Alden! What happened?"
"I confronted her about Corney going on the date with Ed," Richard replied, looking thoroughly downcast. "I was sure she knew about it and I wasn’t too pleased."
"She told me I was ridiculous and immature and she needed a proper man, not someone who behaved as if he were still in high school," he mumbled defensively. "I was only looking out for you!"
"Aww, you poor old man!" Mike patted him patronisingly on the shoulder. "You’ve had something of a week of it haven’t you? What with Corney chewing you out and all."
Richard glared at him. "No need to rub it in."
At that moment, the door opened and their parents returned to the room, Martha looking somewhat mollified, thanks to whatever it was William had said to calm her down. Taking her seat again, she turned to Mike.
"We’d like to invite Cornelia to join us for lunch in two weeks time. Is that alright with you?"
Mike hesitated for a second, wondering whether Corney was ready to face his parents just yet. Catching the pleading look in his father’s eye, he acquiesced.
"I’m sure that’ll be fine, Mom. I’ll ask when I see her tomorrow."
"Well let me know either way. Now, who’d like dessert?"
"That sounds good, thanks."
"That would be lovely, dear."
Mike stood heavily on Richard’s foot, eliciting a strangled, "Yes please!" and happy once more, Martha got to her feet to ring the maid’s bell.
Pulling his car up in the forecourt of his parents’ home, Mike switched off the engine and turned round in his seat. It was now two weeks since his mother had invited Cornelia to dinner, and she was about to meet his parents for the very first time. If anything, he was more nervous than she was.
"Okay, I have to tell you something before we go in. My mother’s a bit of a handful, but she doesn’t really mean what she says, I promise."
Cornelia grimaced back at him. "I know, you’ve told me that exact same thing about fifty times in the past two weeks! It’s not exactly giving me the best impression of her, or making me more confident!"
"And stop apologising for heaven’s sake!"
"Right that’s it. Look at me!" Reaching out, she took hold of his hands and stared into his soft, grey eyes. "I will be polite, and friendly, and well-behaved and won’t spill anything. I promise to be the model girl, okay?"
"It’s not you I’m worried about!"
Corney chuckled and shook her head. "Mike, will you just relax, it’ll be fine. You never know, we may get on great and all this worry’ll be for nothing!"
Mike stared back at her for a moment, a little unsure, and then his face broke into its familiar grin. "You’re right." Leaning forward, he pecked her on the lips, and then turned to open his door. "Come on, let’s get going before my mother comes barging out to see why we’re sitting in the drive!"
Laughing, Cornelia climbed out of the car. "Well, it must look a little strange."
"True." He rang the doorbell, and then turned back to face her with a smile. "And anyway the sooner we get in there, the sooner we get to leave again!"
"Mike, stop it!"
He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of someone fiddling with the lock, and he turned his head just as his father opened the door. The relief on Mike’s face was obvious, and William gave a deep chuckle.
"Don’t worry, your mother’s busy berating your brother."
"Why, what’s he done now?"
"Oh, just been himself," William replied with a grin. Then turning to face Corney, he smiled and held out his hand. "You must be Cornelia? Welcome to our humble abode."
Cornelia could see instantly where Mike got his looks from. With the exception of William’s brown eyes, he was the spitting image of his son, just thirty-odd years older. Smiling, she held out her hand to shake his. "Nice to meet you, Sir. Thanks for inviting me."
"It’s a pleasure to have you. And please, call me William."
"And please call me, Corney."
"You have a deal!" William laughed and stepped back to usher them into the house. "Come on in, make yourself at home." Then, as Mike took her coat for her, his father closed the front door. "Can I get you a drink, Corney? Scotch okay?"
"Yes please, that would be great." She gave William a friendly smile and then turned to Mike. "Is there a bathroom where I can freshen up after the drive?"
"Down the hall on your right."
"Thanks. I won’t be a moment," and she made her way along the hall, opening a couple of other doors before she finally found the right one.
Watching her go, William took the coats from Mike and nodded after her, a wide grin on his face. "Scotch, eh? Girl after my own heart. I might even break open the good stuff," he said with a conspiratorial wink.
Mike laughed and felt himself relax a little. "Thanks, Pop. You’ll like her, I know you will."
"I already do."
"Michael? Is that you?"
Hitching the coats up in his arms, William mouthed ‘good luck’ and escaped towards the cloakroom, as his wife appeared from a door to the left of the hall.
"I thought I could hear your voice!" Seeing her son standing on his own, she stopped dead and looked around her. "So, where is she?"
"Hello to you too, Mom."
"Oh yes, hello dear. How are you?" She reached up to peck him on the cheek, before glancing around again. "So what have you done with her?"
Mike was just about to reply, when the door to the bathroom opened, and Corney appeared. Spying her guest, Martha turned to greet her.
"You must be Cornelia? Charmed to meet you at long last," she gushed, taking hold of Corney’s shoulders and looking her up and down critically.
Startled, Cornelia glanced at Mike, who grimaced and mouthed ‘sorry’ in return. "Ni…er…nice to meet you, Mrs. Van Alden."
"Yes." Martha released her, a flash of disappointment crossing her face before she broke into a half-hearted smile. "Indeed. Well, do come on through, won’t you?" and turning on her heel, she marched into the salon, leaving Mike and Corney to follow on behind.
"You sit there, Cornelia," she directed, indicating an uncomfortable-looking armchair, as Mike shut the door behind them. Corney did as she was told, and Martha sat down in front of her, and looked her up and down again. "Dinner will be pumpkin soup followed by chicken pot pie and vegetables. I do hope that’s okay with you?"
"It sounds lovely, thank you." Cornelia replied, trying hard to keep her voice steady. Martha’s critical eye was making her feel very nervous, and she was glad she had chosen to wear the same blue dress that she had worn on her first date with Mike. At least she knew it suited her.
Nodding her approval, Martha sat back and folded her arms across her chest, eyeing Cornelia in a way that made her feel like she was being interviewed.
"So tell me, how did you meet my son?"
"At the Sherwood Benefit Dinner, Mom," Mike put in, before Cornelia could reply. "I’ve told you that already. Richard introduced us."
"Oh that’s right, so you did."
Cornelia gave her hostess a warm smile. "Richard was so kind to me back then. I scarcely knew anyone, as Poppa and me had only been here a couple of months. Richard introduced me to so many people. Including Mike, of course," she added, glancing across at her beau.
Martha raised her eyebrows. "Yes, I’m sure he did."
Her off-hand manner silenced Cornelia, and seeing her discomfort, Mike turned to his mother. "Where is Rich anyway, Mom? Pop said he was here."
"He’s in your father's study sulking. We had words," his mother replied, shortly.
"So, Corney," William interrupted, before his wife could begin a rant about their youngest son, "Mike tells us you spent a lot of time in Austria as a child?"
Thankful for the change of subject, Cornelia grinned. "From when I was fourteen, yes. Pop did a lot of his business in Europe, so he found me a school out there. It was in a beautiful place in the mountains, by a lake called the Tiernsee. Have you ever heard of it?"
"Can’t say I have. Where’s it’s close to?"
"I guess Innsbruck is the nearest big place."
"Ah, well, that’s a beautiful town."
Cornelia smiled. "Yes, it is."
"So what is it that your father does for a living?" Martha put in, in an interrogatory manner.
"He has his own firm, and invests in all kinds of business. I moved all over the world with him until I went to school. He’s not so involved as he was though, he takes more of a back seat these days. That’s why we’ve finally found somewhere to settle down."
"So you were from Vermont originally?"
"My parents were, yes. We’ve not been back since Poppa and I left when I was a baby."
"You and your father? What about…?"
"Whereabouts in Vermont, Corney?" William asked hastily, seeing where his wife’s questions were leading, and not wanting her to embarrass their guest.
"Burlington, near Lake Champlain. I’ve never been though. Pop and I are hoping to get up there later in the year, as he’s dying to show me where I’m from. He says he loves how friendly people are and how simple it all is."
Martha smiled. "Yes, it is…er…simple."
Her tone was pleasant enough, but her words made Cornelia flush. Seeing this, Mike was quick to change the conversation onto his search for a new job, and as his mother quizzed him on how it was going, they all began to relax a little. Even Martha toned down the questions, opting to complain about Richard instead.
After an hour, she announced that lunch would soon be ready, and Cornelia excused herself for a quick bathroom break before it was served. Standing in front of the mirror, she wiped away a tiny smudge of make-up from under her eye and took a deep breath. Okay, so Martha was a little difficult, but Mike had warned her about that. And William was lovely, she was fond of him already. Admittedly, it was not the most comfortable day of her life, but so far she had not embarrassed herself, and she knew how much it all meant to Mike. She regarded her reflection once more, and smiled. She could do this. If she just got through meeting them this first time, it would all be alright.
Opening the bathroom door, she turned to make her way back to the salon. She was brought up short by Mike’s raised voice coming from the room, clear as day.
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what I say," she heard Martha reply, in her high, clipped tones. "She’s a nobody for goodness sake, her father made his own money!"
"So what?" William put in. "So did my great-great-grandfather, and so did one of your ancestors, if I remember rightly!"
"And what’s this about her and her father?" Martha asked, clearly not listening to her husband. "Don’t tell me he walked out on her mother?"
"Her mother died, Mom. When she was a baby. That’s why they left Vermont."
"Oh." There was silence for a moment, as Martha clearly gathered herself again. "Well anyway…"
"Personally I like her," William interrupted firmly. "She’s charming and polite, and she’s handled your interrogation beautifully, which is more than I can say for most of the over-bred fillies Richard’s brought home in his time!"
"That’s beside the point. She is nice, I grant you, but hardly Michael’s type!"
"She’s exactly my type," Mike shot back.
"Oh please. You can do a lot better than her."
"No, Mom, I can’t."
"Stop putting yourself down! There are plenty of lovely women far more already in your circle that you could date."
"I don’t want to…"
"Let me see what I can do, I’ll soon get you over this folly!"
As the argument continued, Cornelia suddenly regained her senses and realised she was rooted to the spot, effectively eavesdropping. Looking around her, panicking slightly, she saw that she had no choice but to go back to the salon. They would come looking for her otherwise and she did not want to do that to Mike. Steeling herself, she was about to open the door when she caught a sudden movement from the corner of her eye. Whipping her head around, she saw Richard standing further down the corridor, watching her with some concern. It was clear that he had heard everything as well, and Cornelia flushed bright red under his gaze. Before he could speak, she set her shoulders firmly, and made her way back into the room.
As the door opened, Martha spun round, forcing an ingratiating smile on her face. "Ah, here she is. Did you find the bathroom okay?"
Cornelia hesitated for a second, and then nodded politely. "Yes, thanks. You have a lovely house, by the way," she replied, as pleasantly as she could.
Martha flushed slightly, as she felt Mike glaring at her. "Thank you."
William shot his wife a disgusted glance, and then turned to their guest with a warm smile. "Would you like a proper tour round once we’ve eaten?"
"Yes please. That would be lovely."
"Excellent. Now then, I believe lunch is ready," and before his wife could say anything else, he ushered them all from the room.
Lunch went quite smoothly, thanks in the main to Richard, who was quick to interrupt his mother’s questions at every turn. Once it was over, William bore Cornelia off on the promised tour, and Martha was called to the phone, leaving the two brothers alone in the salon.
From his vantage point in one of the fashionable-but-uncomfortable armchairs, Richard watched his brother closely, as Mike read the sports pages of the Boston Herald.
"That girl deserves a medal."
Mike lifted his head with a smile. "Yes, it’s gone okay, hasn’t it? Pop likes her already, and even Mom’s not been too bad."
"That’s not quite what I meant. She heard, Mike."
"Heard what?" Mike asked, looking thoroughly confused.
"What Mom was saying about her when she went to the bathroom."
His brother cringed. "How? How do you know?"
"Because I saw her, in the hallway. You could have heard Mom from the next town, she was shrieking so loud."
"Oh God." Mike leant forward and put his head in his hands. "She never let on…"
"That’s what I mean. She heard every word Mom said, and then she walked back in this room and was sweet and charming and didn’t give it away for a second, because she knew how nervous you were about today and what it meant to you. She deserves more than a medal."
He paused for a moment, and Mike took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling, feeling thoroughly distressed.
"Do her a favour," Richard said eventually. "Get her out of here as soon as Pop’s through with his tour."
As he finished speaking, the door opened and Martha flounced back into the room. "Well, that’s just great. The man Mimi booked to do the flowers for your father’s birthday has only gone and broken his leg, and now we’ve only two weeks to find someone else! What am I supposed to do? And then there’s the guestlist to finalise as well." She stared from one of her sons to the other. "It wouldn’t hurt you two to help a little, you know."
Richard rolled his eyes at Mike, and then without a word, got to his feet and walked out of the room.
"Well really!" Martha blustered as she watched him go. "I suppose assistance from him was too much to expect. Michael, have you sorted out your father’s present?"
Mike was still angry at her earlier comments, even more so now that he knew Cornelia had heard them, and his eyes were hard and cold as he replied.
"Yes, Mom, it’s all done. I told you that last week. And whilst we’re on the subject, I’ll be bringing Corney, so please make sure she’s on the list."
"Well I don’t think…"
"She will be my date, Mom. End of discussion."
Martha opened her mouth to argue back, but whatever she might have said was never known, as the door opened and William and Cornelia came into the salon.
"Nice tour?" Mike asked, as Martha did her best to put on another friendly smile.
"Yes thanks." Cornelia grinned up at him. "I had no idea this place had so much history, and your father’s very informative!"
Mike chuckled. "I gather Pop showed you the wine cellar then?"
Cornelia laughed and nodded. "He sure did."
"And she was very impressed, I might add!" William boomed, giving his guest a glance of approval. "She knows a great deal about wine, this young lady."
"Poppa’s something of a collector, so he’s made sure I know all about it."
"Well perhaps he and I should get together and compare bottles some time."
"I reckon he’d enjoy that."
"So do I. Thanks Pop." Mike placed a hand on his girlfriend’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Anyway, we should get going, we’ve somewhere else to be."
Cornelia shot him a grateful glance, and then turned back to her hosts with a charming smile. "Thank you so much for having me to lunch. It was delicious and it’s been wonderful to meet you both."
"Yes, you too, dear." Martha stepped forward and kissed her on both cheeks in the continental style. "Perhaps we’ll see you again soon."
"You’ll see her at Pop’s party," Mike put in, his voice firm as he glared at his mother.
"Oh you’re coming, wonderful!" William shook Cornelia’s hand warmly and gave her a beaming grin. "We’ll look forward to seeing you then."
"Yes, we’ll see you then," Martha added, with a strained smile.
"Come on, Corney, let’s go. Tell Rich I’ll speak to him tomorrow, will you, Pop?" Mike asked William, and then placing his hand on Cornelia’s back, he steered her out of the door.
"Well that wasn’t so bad," she said cheerfully, as Mike started the car and they set off out of the drive. "It was terrific to meet them both at last, and lunch was scrumptious."
Mike didn’t reply. Instead, as soon as the house was out of sight, he pulled the car over to the side of the road and turned off the engine.
"What are you doing?" Cornelia asked, looking confused. "Did you forget something?"
He stared at her for a moment, and then reaching out, he placed a hand behind her head, pulled her towards him and kissed her firmly on the lips.
"What was that for?" she asked, a little stunned. "Not that I’m complaining."
"For being you," came the simple reply.
"What does that…?"
"I know you heard what she said. Richard told me."
Her face clouded over and she stared down at her lap. Mike put his hand under her chin, and lifted it so that he could look into her deep, blue eyes.
"Thank you for doing that for me."
Cornelia’s cheeks flushed red. "Well thanks for sticking up for me."
"You’re welcome. I’m so sorry about her, Corney."
She smiled and shook her head. "It’s okay. I like your Dad a lot."
"Yes, he’s a good man. A little crazy, perhaps, but good. And he likes you a lot too." Corney grinned and Mike ran his fingers through her hair. "Take no notice of Mom. She really does have a good heart, I promise. She’ll get over the other stuff."
"Mike, it’s really okay. I’m not upset - or not much anyhow. I want to be with you, so I can handle your parents!"
Mike laughed and pecked her on the cheek. "Come on, let’s go."
"There’s one other person I want you to meet."
"I know, terrific name isn’t it?" he chuckled, as he started the engine once again. "She's mine and Richard’s old nanny, and one of the most wonderful people in the world – the perfect antidote to my mother! I’ve been meaning to introduce you two for weeks, so I just hope she’s in!" Cornelia looked doubtful, and he squeezed her hand before continuing up the drive. "Don’t worry, you’ll like her, I promise. And unless I miss my guess, she’s gonna just love you to bits!"
As Mike stepped out of the car onto the pavement of East Broadway, Cornelia surveyed the South Boston street with rampant curiosity. The area was traditionally an immigrant neighbourhood, populated in particular by those people with strong connections to the Emerald Isle.
"Is Mrs. Ruggles Irish then?"
Mike locked the car and looked up with a grin. "She’s not, but her husband was. He grew up in this neighbourhood and they lived on the next street after they got married."
"Her husband was?"
"He died of pneumonia within a year of them getting married."
A look of distress crossed Cornelia’s face. "Oh, poor Ms. Ruggles! That’s awful!"
Walking around the vehicle to stand next to her, Mike smiled and squeezed her elbow. "I know, but she’s a tough old thing, she got by. She always says it’s how she came to work for Mom & Pop. She wouldn’t have any children of her own, as she had no intention of remarrying, so she decided that looking after other people’s would be the next best thing. She moved back here after she finished working for us - said she’d missed the colour and vibrancy of the place over the years." Keeping hold of her arm, he led her towards a battered-looking, three-storey building a little further down the street. "Here we are. Come on, let’s go see if she’s in."
They made their way inside and up to the second floor, where Mike knocked on a smartly-painted, blue door adorned with a shiny brass number ‘3’.
"Who’s there?" came the faint reply from within.
"It’s me, Mrs. Ruggles. I’ve brought a friend along to meet you."
"Michael! My dear boy, come on in, the door’s open!" Mike turned the handle and stood back to usher Cornelia into the hallway. "Go on through to the salon!" the voice called cheerily. "I’ll be with you in a moment. Would you both like tea?"
Mike looked at Cornelia, who nodded in return. As he turned back to the doorway to answer, she entered the salon and glaced around at the room. It was furnished with an eclectic mishmash of furniture, from a couple of expensive antique chairs, to a handmade, lopsided coffee table that obviously had more sentimental value rather than anything else. Silk throws adorned the backs of the seats, the floor was strewn with Turkish rugs, an old wire birdcage, no longer containing a bird, hung from a stand in one corner and a half-knitted jumper was thrown over one arm of a chair. On the mantle, candlesticks and glass ornaments mingled with letters and photographs, and in the middle stood a beautiful, ornate art deco clock. The whole room was tidy, but cluttered, and was filled with the warm aroma of vegetable soup and freshly baked bread. It all made Cornelia feel instantly at home.
The sound of tinkling china brought her back to her senses, and she turned to face the door, just as a the owner of the apartment entered the room carrying a fully-laden tray. She was a tall, slim, striking woman in her late-fifties, and had obviously been quite a beauty in her day. Despite her imposing stature, the warm hazel eyes, that shone behind her pince-nez, and the friendly, welcoming smile obliterated any sense of intimidation, though Cornelia had no doubt she could be a very daunting figure if she chose.
Placing the tray down on the table, the lady caught Mike in a huge, motherly hug as she berated him for not visiting her for at least a month. Releasing him, she turned to Cornelia with a beaming smile.
"So, whom do we have here then?"
Mike came forward to make the introduction. "Mrs. Ruggles, this is my friend Cornelia. Corney, this is Mrs. Ruggles, my old nanny and one of my most favourite people in the entire world!"
Mrs. Ruggles noted the adoring glance that he gave Cornelia as he introduced her, but choosing not to say anything just yet, she held out her hand to grasp that of her guest.
"Wonderful to meet you, my dear. Any friend of Michael’s is a friend of mine."
Cornelia returned her smile. "Nice to meet you too, Mrs. Ruggles."
"Oh, please, call me Velma," came the laughing reply. "Just because Michael refuses to call me by anything but my formal name, doesn’t mean that you should too!"
"I can’t call you Velma, it’s just not right!" Mike put in calmly, as Cornelia chuckled.
Their host looked at Mike with a roll of her eyes. "Yes, Michael, I know. You’ve told me that a hundred times. Now," she said, making her way back towards the tray, "who’d like a cup of tea?"
"Mrs. Ruggles likes her tea!" Mike explained, as he passed a cup across to Cornelia and then sat down next to her with his own. "She drinks it by the bucket load!"
Ignoring his teasing, Mrs. Ruggles smiled. "I visited England many moons ago and fell in love with it there. I’ve drunk nothing else since. Well, almost nothing," she added, with a conspiratorial grin at the bottle of gin standing on her dresser. Tipping her sleeping cat off a large armchair, she sat down and turned to Mike. "Now, young Michael, what’s been so important that it’s kept you from visiting a frail, old lady," she asked, with a wink at Cornelia.
Corney grinned back. She could not imagine a less-fitting description of the vibrant woman before her. As she listened to Mike trying to talk his way out of it, she sat back, relaxed and took a sip of her tea. Martha’s words had stung more than she had cared to admit to Mike, but Mrs. Ruggles’ warm, friendly, welcoming manner was helping to alleviate some of that hurt. Cornelia had taken to her instantly, enthralled by her open, friendly manner, and a couple of hours later, by which time the third pot of tea had finally run dry, she felt as if she had made a new friend for life.
Laughing at yet another embarrassing tale from Mike’s childhood, she leant forward and without thinking, placed her half-full cup on the wonky coffee table in front of her and sat back in her seat. The next moment she shrieked as it slid to the floor, emptying the contents onto her legs and the patterned rug.
"Oh damn…I mean gosh, Velma, I’m so sorry!" she cried, her face scarlet as she bent down to retrieve the cup.
Mrs. Ruggles simply laughed. "No matter, dear, I’m sure much worse has been spilled on that rug over the years."
She got to her feet to go and fetch a cloth, but Cornelia beat her to it.
"Let me go, please. I spilt it after all."
"Don’t be silly now," her host replied kindly. "You fetch me a cloth from under the sink, and then see to washing your stockings and shoes down. They’ve received far more damage than my battered, old rug!"
Realising it would be fruitless to protest, Cornelia fetched the required cloth and some soapy water, and then departed for the kitchen again to sponge down her stockings and shoes. Mrs. Ruggles dropped to her knees and gave the carpet a quick scrub, as Mike helped move the table. Then throwing the cloth into the water bowl, she brushed down her skirt and returned to her seat.
"There we are, no damage done."
Mike grinned back at her. "Efficient with a cloth as ever," he teased. "Must be all that practice that Richard and I gave you over the years!"
"You watch it, young man. You’re not too old to be given a good dressing down, let me tell you!"
Chuckling, Mike drained his teacup. He placed it beside him, his face taking on a more serious expression. "So, what do you think?" he asked anxiously.
Mrs. Ruggles observed him with amusement. "Just a friend, is she?" Mike's cheeks turned scarlet, and she gave a delightful laugh before deciding to spare him his blushes. "I like her very much."
"I knew you would!" he replied, his relief evident in his voice, as his face slowly resumed its normal colour. As his old nanny regarded him quizzically, he explained, "We had lunch with Mom and Pop today. Pop adored her, but Mom didn’t seem quite so keen."
Velma Ruggles sat back in her seat, her face mouth drawn into a straight line. "Why am I not surprised?"
"She doesn’t mean any harm, you know that."
Heaving a sigh, Mrs. Ruggles shook her head. "I know she’s your mother, Michael, but sometimes you give her too much benefit of the doubt. I know she’s like she is because she’s never known any different, but that’s no excuse for the way she treats people." Mike stared at his lap and said nothing, and his host regarded him with sympathetic eyes before she continued. "Something tells me that if Martha only bothered to take the time to get to know Corney before judging her, then she’d soon discover that where you come from or who you know does not matter one jot."
Mike glanced up at her with a smile. "You really do like her, don’t you?"
"Yes, I do. She’s warm, friendly, funny, caring, and she clearly adores you. She’s also clumsy and quirky and imperfect, and unapologetic for any of it." Mike looked mildly alarmed, puzzled at how this was meant to be a complement. Mrs. Ruggles grinned. "In other words she’s real, she’s doesn’t put on any airs and graces. Exactly as any girl of yours should be."
At that moment, the door opened and Cornelia returned to the room. Mrs. Ruggles looked up with a smile.
"Ah, here she is. We were just talking about you."
Cornelia glanced nervously at Mike. "Were you?"
Mrs. Ruggles laughed. "Don’t look so scared, my dear, I won’t bite," she said, her hazel eyes twinkling as she spoke. "At least, not unless I’m provoked! I was saying how glad I am to have met you."
"Thank you," Cornelia replied, a little taken aback. "I’m glad to have met you too."
Mrs. Ruggles gave her a warm smile. "Well in that case, how would you feel about joining me for a spot of lunch on Friday? We can go somewhere fancy and make a proper outing of it. It’s been a while since I’ve done anything of that kind, and then we can get to know each other properly, without Michael hanging around," she added, with an affectionate wink in Mike’s direction.
"That sounds swell, I’d love to." Corney replied, a warm glow coming over her, as she realised she had made a good impression on someone so important to her beau.
At the mention of food, Mike glanced at his watch and quickly jumped to his feet. "Say, Corney, we’d best get going, we’re meeting your Pops in a half hour. We’re off to dinner and then on see a play," he added, by way of explanation to their host.
Cornelia groaned at his words. "I’m not sure I can eat any more ever again after that lunch your parents gave us!"
Mrs. Ruggles smiled. "Order the seafood, my dear, that always slips down easily." At this, Mike and Corney caught each other’s eye and both burst out laughing. "What’s so funny about that?"
"Let’s just say Corney and seafood don’t quite get on," Mike replied, still chuckling. "But that’s a story for another time."
"Or a story for never!" Cornelia added, giving him a stern look. Then turning to her host, she held out her hand. "It really has been grand to meet you, Velma."
"Let’s forget all that formal nonsense," Velma responded, brushing her guest’s hand away and kissing her on the cheek instead. "It’s been an absolute pleasure to meet you too. I’ll get your number from Michael and be in touch about Friday, okay?" Before Corney had time to reply, she turned to Mike. "Michael, you make sure you come back and see me soon, or you’ll be persona non grata in these parts, do you hear me? "
"Loud and clear!" Mike replied, grinning.
They said their final goodbyes, and waved to their host as she watched them walk down the stairs. As they descended the final flight to the front door, Mike took Cornelia’s hand in his own.
"So? What did you think of her?"
"She’s such a dear!" Corney replied, a wide smile on her face. "No wonder you adore her so."
"Well you’ll be glad to know that she adores you right back! It’s lucky really, because I can be with a girl my mother doesn’t approve of, but not one that Mrs. Ruggles doesn’t like!" he retorted, tongue in cheek. Cornelia’s eyes shone as he spoke. Stopping her at the bottom of the stairs, Mike scanned her smiling face and then put a hand on her waist, pulling her towards him. "Come here, you," he said, lowering his lips towards hers.
"Mike! Someone might see!" she cried, stepping back.
"Who?" Mike replied, glancing around the empty hallway. "And anyhow, who cares?" and pulling her forward again, he kissed her full on the lips.
Cornelia returned his embrace, and then pulled out of his arms, her face alight with laughter. "Come on, we have to go meet Poppa."
"Are you trying to get away from me?" he asked with mock-suspicion, eyebrow raised.
"Perhaps!" came the cagey reply.
"Really? Well we’ll see about that!" and grabbing her waist again, he began to tickle her.
"Owww! Mike, stop it! Get off of me!" she laughed, gasping for breath. Pulling free, she stuck her tongue out at him and ran out of the front door, leaving him to follow in hot pursuit.
Richard smiled down at the blonde, fairy-like woman hanging onto his left arm, and groaned inwardly as he saw her gazing back up at him with simpering adoration. How on earth had he got himself into this one? Glancing around the room in desperation, he saw his brother and Cornelia watching him from a table on the far side of the room. Seeing him look over, they both raised their glasses in his direction and laughed. Grimacing, Richard turned back to his date, as a sudden idea struck him.
"Oh look, Mike’s waving me over!" he said, doing his best to sound disappointed. "I’d best go see what he wants."
"I’ll come with you!" came the high-pitched, squeaky reply, as the girl clung tightly to his arm.
That wasn’t in Richard’s plan at all. "No, no, it’s okay, really. It’ll probably be desperately dull, to…to do with Pop’s present or something," he replied quickly. "You wait here, I won’t be long." Then, spotting Annabel in conversation with his mother and another woman, "Look, your sister’s just over there. Why don’t you go speak to her?" and before his date could answer, he set off across the room, leaving her standing in his wake.
It was now two weeks on from Cornelia’s awkward first meeting with Mike’s parents, and tonight was William’s sixtieth birthday. Martha had hired out the ballroom of a large hotel in the city, and everyone who was anyone in Boston was there. If they were perfectly honest, all the hob-nobbing and gossiping was Mike and Cornelia’s idea of a nightmare, and after the initial niceties, they had spent the first hour huddled together at a table in the corner, just chatting amongst themselves.
Now, as they watched Richard walk towards them, Mike looked up with a grin and raised his glass.
"Hello there, little brother. How’s the lovely Heavenly tonight?"
Richard glanced back at his girlfriend, who was talking to her sister and throwing him mawkish looks across the room. "She’s a complete and utter horror, thanks all the same," he replied despondently.
"Why don’t you tell her it’s over then?"
"I’ve tried! She won’t take no for an answer!"
"Won’t take it for an answer, or doesn’t understand what you’re saying?"
Richard pulled a face. It was no great secret that Heavenly Peabody was none too bright. "You think that’s funny? I’d like to see you trying to get rid of her!"
"Ah," Mike replied superciliously, "but you see, I wouldn’t have been idiot enough to get involved with her in the first place!"
Richard was about to reply, when a shrill cry of "Michael!" cut through their conversation, and the three of them looked up to see a very glamorous-looking Martha bearing down on them. As she reached the table, smothering them with a cloud of expensive scent, she gave her youngest son a glare.
"Well I see you’ve made it at last."
"I’ve been here for almost an hour!" Richard replied indignantly.
Martha ignored his response. "What on earth is that jacket you’re wearing?" she asked, tugging critically at his dinner jacket lapel.
"What’s wrong with it?"
"You could at least have dressed up for the occasion. It’s your father’s night, after all! I suppose it’ll have to do now you’re here, won’t it?" Richard scowled, biting back the retort that was on the tip of his tongue, and Martha turned to look Cornelia up and down, an insincere smile touching her lips. "Cornelia, dear, I do hope you’re enjoying yourself."
"Michael, come with me," she continued on, talking over Cornelia and grabbing Mike’s arm. "I want you to meet Cece’s daughter, Esther. She’s just wonderful! Oh, and Annabel Peabody’s here. Did you know? Such a shame you two never made a go of things, you would make such a dashing couple," she added pointedly, shooting Cornelia a look out of the corner of her eye. "Come on, dear, hurry up."
Heaving a sigh, Mike reluctantly got to his feet, making a point of kissing Cornelia on the cheek before following his mother across the room. Corney watched them go, a frown clouding her face, and Richard slipped into his brother’s seat, shooting her a concerned look.
"Just ignore her, Corney."
Tearing her eyes from Mike, Cornelia turned and gave him a smile. "I will. So anyway, how is Heavenly?"
Richard grimaced. "Don’t you start! What was I thinking there?"
"You tell me!"
Richard stared at her for a moment and then began to laugh. "I only wish I could!" He grabbed two drinks from the tray of a passing waiter and handed one across to her. "Here, this may help! Here’s to us surviving this godforsaken night!" and chinking his glass against hers, he took a slug, swallowed, and heaved a satisfied sigh. "Phew, that’s better."
Cornelia laughed. "Oh quit being a mope! It’s not that bad!"
"Really?" Richard raised an eyebrow and nodded his head in the direction of Mike, who was pretending to listen to the conversation of a strikingly beautiful brunette, whilst all the while throwing glances in Cornelia’s direction. "Look around you. Mike’s being introduced to other women by our blue-blood snob of a mother, I can’t get rid of Heavenly for love nor money, Pop is well on the way to getting drunk as a skunk, and…oh that’s just swell." Cornelia looked up in surprise as his voice hardened. "Now Ela’s here."
Ever since the whole Valentine’s Day debacle and their subsequent break-up, things had been decidedly frosty between Eliza and Richard. Not as quick as Cornelia to forgive him for his assumptions about her friend, Eliza had made certain to give him a wide berth. For his part, Richard was used to remaining on jovial terms with his ex-girlfriends, and her attitude had rather shaken him. Now, as he stared at her, he realised that she was not alone.
"Who’s that with her?" he asked, trying to get a better look. "Hey, isn’t that Ed?"
Cornelia grinned at the note of jealousy in Richard’s voice, as she saw that her friend was indeed with Edward Choate. "So what if it is? They’re old friends, aren’t they?"
At that moment, Ed caught sight of Mike, and bending to mutter something in Eliza’s ear, he kissed her on the cheek and set off towards his friend.
"They sure look more than friends to me!" Richard muttered bitterly.
Eliza gazed around the roo, and spotted them sitting at the table. Cornelia gave her a wave, and Eliza smiled and made her way over.
"What did you do that for?" Richard asked.
"Because she’s my friend, why d’you think? Anyway, isn’t it about time you two buried the hatchet?"
Richard muttered something under his breath as Eliza approached them. She bent to give Cornelia a hug, and then turned to Richard with a conciliatory smile.
Richard mumbled "Hello" in return, Undeterred, Eliza tried again.
"It’s a good party, isn’t it?"
Setting his mouth in a straight line, Richard glared up at her. "I’ve had better evenings," he replied frostily.
Eliza frowned. "Listen, I know we’ve not exactly been on the best of terms recently," she began haltingly.
"You don’t say?"
She flushed red at his tone of voice, but she persevered. "I’d like it if we could call a truce? Be friends, perhaps?" she asked, as if she had read Cornelia’s mind.
Richard was about to retort that he wasn’t interested, when he felt a sharp kick to his shin. Suppressing a cry of pain, he glowered at Cornelia, who raised her eyebrows in return.
"I suppose," he said slowly, turning back to Eliza. "I mean," he added hastily, as he felt another kick, "yes, that’d be good." There was an awkward pause for a moment, and then he got to his feet. "I’d best go see Heavenly, I’ve been rather neglecting her. I’ll see you both later," and with that, he stalked off without a backward glance.
Eliza looked a little downcast as she sat down in his seat, and Cornelia reached over to squeeze her arm. "He’ll come round, Ela, you know he will. I reckon he’s more fed up about being stuck with Heavenly to be honest," she added with a slight grin. "You’ve caught him in a black old mood."
"Yes, I suppose so." Eliza’s eyes followed him across the room, and a smile touched the edge of her lips. "What in the world does he see in her?"
"That’s just it – he doesn’t! He blundered in there after things ended with you, and now he just can’t get rid of her – you know how dumb she is! Taking a hint is not exactly in her line!"
Eliza laughed. "She always has been four cents short of a nickel."
"Well she still is!" Cornelia chuckled. "It’s not that for me, though – it’s her name I can’t get over. Honestly, what were they thinking of, calling her Heavenly? I can’t bring myself to say it – I just call her ‘you’!"
"You forget," Ela replied with a grin, "these are the same parents who bred Annabel!"
Corney grimaced. "Good point. At least she’s not as bad as her sister, I guess." She sat back in her chair and regarded her friend with curiosity. "Anyhow, enough of that. How’s Ed?"
To her friend’s delight, Eliza flushed bright red. "He’s just over there with Mike. Why don’t you ask him yourself?" she said, trying to sound nonchalant.
"’Cause I don’t want to ask him," Corney replied with a wicked grin. "I want to ask you." Eliza flushed again, and Cornelia squealed with delight and cried in her clarion tones, "I’m right, aren’t I? You’re dating him!"
"Shhh!" Ela replied hurriedly. "We don’t want the world to know just yet!"
"Sorry!" Cornelia lowered her voice, sounding no less excited. "So how long?"
"Only since Thursday." Eliza’s cheeks were still burning red, and she took a sip of her drink and fanned herself with her hand. "He asked me out on a date, and suddenly I saw him in a whole different light! I’ve known him forever, Corney, it’s so strange! In a good way though," she hastened to add. Then regarding her friend anxiously, "You don’t mind do you?"
"Why one earth would I mind?"
"Well you did date him once."
"Hardly! We picked at our meals awkwardly until he made me admit I wasn’t interested. Not exactly date of the century!"
Eliza laughed and shook her head. "I guess you’re right."Lowering her voice further, she almost whispered, "I know it’s early days, but I think he may be the one for me! I’ve never felt like this before with anyone! I tell you, if he proposed tomorrow, I’d say yes!"
"Shhh! You know you’ve a voice like a foghorn?"
"Sorry!" Cornelia dropped her voice again, utterly unperturbed. "But that’s so exciting! All this time and he’s been right under your nose!"
"I know! I’ve been so dumb I’m almost rivalling Heavenly!"
Cornelia laughed. "Well I’m mighty pleased. I couldn’t think of anyone nicer for you than Ed – except Mike, of course, but you can’t have him ‘cause he’s mine!" Then, catching sight of Mike's father barrelling towards them, a little unsteady, she put a finger to her lips. "Hello William," she grinned up at him. "You having a good night?"
"Absolutely top dollar!" the birthday boy boomed at the top of his voice. "I’ll take my hat off to my wife, she sure knows how to throw a party!" He plonked himself down in a chair, and leaning forward, said in a conspiratorial stage-whisper, "Don’t tell Martha, but I’ve been dancing with lots of rather lovely young fillies. Makes me feel twenty-one all over again," he added with a wink.
Eliza snorted into her glass of champagne, and trying her hardest not to giggle, Cornelia grinned back at him. "I promise I won’t let on."
"That’s my girl," William chuckled. "How about you? What have you done with my reprobate son?"
"Not Richard. I saw him a moment ago with that awful, fluffy-headed idiot chasing him around. I was talking about Mike. Where is he?"
Cornelia pointed to where Mike was standing, still being talked at by the stunning brunette. His mother was holding onto his arm to stop him getting away and Ed was hovering around for moral support. William sat up straight.
"Oh for the love of Peter," he blustered, looking thoroughly cross. "I told her to keep her nose out, but she just couldn’t help herself, could she?" He turned back to Corney and squeezed her arm. "Don’t you worry, my dear, I’ll go and free him," and good as his word, he got unsteadily to his feet and marched off across the room.
Eliza and Corney watched, half-nervous, half-amused, as William accosted his wife, exchanged a few words with her, and then dragged her off to the dancefloor, clearly against her will. Mike instantly took advantage of the diversion and making his excuses, he indicated to Ed to follow him and made good his escape. They were halfway to the table when suddenly Annabel appeared from nowhere.
"Mike, there you are! You haven’t asked me to dance yet, you naughty boy!" she cried suggestively, following it up with what she obviously thought was a seductive laugh.
Mike shot a horrified glance at Ed and then answered her through gritted teeth. "Hello Annabel. How are you?"
"You used to call me Bella," she simpered, fluttering her eyelashes and placing a hand on his chest.
"Yes, well that was a very long time ago." He removed her hand calmly, letting it drop back to her side. "I do hope you’re having a good time. Please excuse me, won’t you? I promised Corney a dance," and pushing past her, he carried on towards Cornelia, ignoring the malevolent glare she threw at his back.
"What did she want?" Corney asked him, as he pulled out a chair and placed an arm along the back of hers as he sat down.
"She wanted Mike, I think," Ed put in with a laugh, seating himself on the far side of Eliza. "Your man’s just irresistible, Corney. Aren’t you my dear?" he added, with a coy wink at Mike.
Mike fluttered his eyelashes back at his friend. "You know you only had to ask, Edward!" He laughed as Corney hit him playfully in the chest, and then his mouth fell open as he saw Ed take hold of Eliza’s hand. "Well, well, what’s all this?"
Eliza turned scarlet for the umpteenth time that night, and Ed grinned back at his friend, utterly unabashed. "You don’t have the monopoly on good taste, you know!"
Mike laughed and extended his arm to shake his friend’s hand. "And a good thing too. I know he's my brother, but I always thought you were rather wasted on Richard, Ela." He beamed from one to the other. "I’m very glad."
Before Eliza could reply, a loud screech of feedback echoed throughout the hall, and the next second, William’s voice could be heard bellowing, "Testing…testing…"
"We can hear you!"
There was a ripple of laughter around the room, and taking a huge slug of scotch, William began his speech.
"Thank you all very much for being here," he slurred, one hand resting on the shoulder of the band’s saxophonist. "I’d no idea I had so many friends. In fact, I’m not even sure I know who you all are!"
Mike sank into his seat as another chuckle rang around the room. "Who gave him the microphone with him in that state?"
"He’s not that bad!" Corney hissed.
"…I hope you’re all enjoying yourselves and dancing along to this magnificent band. I know I have been!" he added with a wink in Cornelia's direction. "Now, I won’t keep you for long. I just need to say thank you to my two marvellous sons. I’m very proud of you both, and Michael, perhaps that lovely young lady of yours will be part of the family one day too, eh?"
It was Cornelia’s turn to sink down into her seat, as everyone turned to stare at her. Mike looked down at her with a grin. "You were saying?"
"And lastly, I need to thank my wife. Martha, where are you?" Staring around the room, he finally located her directly in front of him. "Come on, up you come." He held out his hand and helped her up onto the low stage. "Thank you for my party, my dear. I’ve had an absolute ball!" and tipping her backwards, ignoring her shrieks of protest, he planted a great, sloppy kiss on her lips. As the guests roared with laughter and applauded, he stood up straight again and released her. Ignoring her muttering as she straightened her dress and smoothed down her hair, he raised his glass to his audience. "Drink and be merry folks!" and taking hold of Martha’s hand, he led her down onto the dancefloor, tripping over the microphone stand on the way.
Cornelia watched on, chuckling, as William placed his drink on the corner of the stage, and began to twirl his wife around expertly as the band struck up the next song. Martha even looked as if she were enjoying herself. Grinning up at Mike, she said, "I do like your Pops!"
Mike laughed. "My Pop is one hundred percent, certified crazy! And you know what?"
"I quite like him too!" He winked at her and got to his feet. "May I have this dance, Miss Flower?"
Placing her hand in his, Cornelia let him pull her to her feet. "You certainly may, Mr. Van Alden!" and laughing as Mike pecked her on the cheek, she slipped her hand threw his arm and they made their way onto the floor to dance the rest of the night away.
Richard absently fingered the expertly-carved table leg that lay on Mike’s workbench, a look of frustration wrinkling his brow. It was now two weeks since William’s party, and he still had not managed to explain to Heavenly that he no longer wanted to be dating her. Despairing of ever managing to do so, he had come to ask Mike for some help.
"…she was only meant to be a prop girl, it’s gotten ridiculous now. I know she’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I didn’t realise she was quite so dumb! Take yesterday for example. I sat her down and explained slowly and carefully for the five hundredth time that I didn’t think things were working out and that we should just go our separate ways, and then when I’d finished, I asked her if she understood and d’you know what she did? She nodded her head and then asked me where we were going for dinner that night, as she had to choose what to wear! Can you credit it?" He placed the wooden leg back down on the bench and turned around to face his brother. "I’ve no idea what else to do! Don’t suppose you’ve any ideas, have you?"
Mike did not react. He simply stared down at the piece of wood that he was supposed to be sanding.
"Do you think Mom will ever get used to me being with Corney?" Mike asked, as he slowly turned around, a frown creasing his brow.
Richard stared at him with indignation. "I don’t know! I asked you a question first, anyway!"
Mike shook his head, as if trying to bring himself back down to earth, and gave his brother a remorseful smile. "Sorry, Rich, I was miles away. What did you ask?"
Richard watched him for a few seconds, taking in the look of worry on his face. "You know what?" he said at last. "It doesn’t matter." Reaching behind him, he pulled up one of the high stools that Mike rested on when working, and sat himself down. "Why are you getting all het up over Mom?"
"I’m not it’s just…" The frown returned to Mike’s face. "Well, do you think she’ll ever accept Corney as part of my life?"
Richard shrugged. "I don’t know, if I’m honest. Probably not, you know Mom. Why do you care anyhow? It doesn’t matter what she thinks."
"Yes, it does. To me, at least." Mike replied, looking a little downcast.
"Why?" Richard asked again, regarding his brother as if he had lost his mind. "You and she are happy and having fun, Pop and I both love her to pieces, Mrs. Ruggles absolutely adores her. Who cares about Mom?"
Leaning back against the workbench, Richard gave his brother a curious look. "Why? Why is her approval so important to you?"
"Because she’s my mother."
"When it suits her!"
"That’s not true, Richard, and you know it. She does care, she just…she just doesn’t always show it in the right way, that’s all."
"Okay, fine, have it your own way." Richard sighed and shook his head. "If it makes you feel any better, it’s not as if Mom doesn’t like Corney – as a matter of fact, I think she does. She’d just rather you didn‘t date her, that’s all."
"I know that, that’s the whole point!"
"But why do you care what she thinks of who you date? You never have before – not that there’ve been all that many!"
"Ha, ha, very funny."
Richard grinned at his brother’s consternation. "Come on, tell me. Why d’you care so much?"
"Because it’s different this time, that’s why. It’s…" Mike paused for a moment, as if thinking about what to say. "Well, it would just mean a lot to me if she’d accept Corney in my life, okay? And I need her to do that before…"
He stopped speaking abruptly, and Richard raised his eyebrows. "Before what?"
His brother eyed him thoughtfully. "No it’s not. What’s going on?"
"Nothing, it doesn’t matter. I just want Mom to get along with her, that’s all."
But Richard was persistent. "That’s not all, there’s something else. Why don’t you just cut the crap and…Hang on, I’ve got it!" He bolted upright, his eyes very alert and a huge grin on his face. "You’re gonna propose to her!"
Mike said nothing, but his flaming-red cheeks gave him away.
"You sly old dog! You’re gonna ask her to marry you!" Richard jumped to his feet and strode across the small room, grabbing Mike in a hug and thumping his back. "I'm so glad, Mike, that's terrific!"
Choking, Mike pushed him away. "Don’t strangle me, for pete’s sake! And I’m not proposing tomorrow, Rich, so don’t get too excited!"
"No, I’m not. We've not even said...well never mind. But yes, if things keep going as well as they have been, I will ask her someday. Hopefully someday soon." Richard was still grinning widely, and Mike laughed. "Well I’m glad you’re pleased anyhow. I just wish I could think that Mom would be too."
Richard bobbed his head up and down, doing a good impression of an enthusiastic puppy. "She will be, we’ll work on it. Maybe we could rope Ela and Ed in too. Mom thinks they’re the bees knees."
"I thought you weren’t talking to Ela? Or have you forgotten that performance you put on a couple of weeks ago at Pop’s party?" Mike asked, amused.
"It’s not like that," came the rather pompous reply. "I am talking to Ela, it’s just…hard to see her with Ed, that’s all."
"Are you really that strung up over her?" Mike asked, surprised. This was a new development on Richard’s part. He usually got over girlfriends in the space of an hour, and it was over a month since he and Eliza had parted ways.
Richard, however, shook his head vehemently. "No, it just grates that she’s so happy with Ed, and I’m lumbered with Heavenly, that’s all?"
"And whose fault’s that?"
"No need to rub it in," Richard replied with a scowl. Then changing the subject back to Cornelia, "And as I was saying, I reckon if we enlist Ela and Ed’s help, Mom’ll come round to Corney in no time. Just leave it to me."
Mike looked a little skeptical. "I guess it might work."
"Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas," Richard said reprovingly. Then, seeing the expression on his brother’s face, he added, "We’ll get Mom to accept her, Mike, I promise you." Mike nodded and Richard turned to pick up his coat. "Now, I have to get going. I’ve a lecture in an hour and I left all my books at the dorm." He pulled his coat on and made his way towards the door. "I’ll be round the day after tomorrow, okay? So get thinking about how I can finally get rid of Heavenly, ‘cause I need all the help I can get!"
Mike chuckled. "What are you gonna do with your afternoons when I start my new job next week?"
Richard raised his eyebrows in a look of surprise. "Why, come to your office, of course!" he joked, and then quickly shot out of the room before his brother could think of any reply.
Following the promise he made to his brother, Richard pulled out all the stops over the next couple of months in an effort to make their mother warm to Cornelia. He invited Eliza and Ed to lunch with his parents, organised days out, and made sure Corney was centre of attention as much as possible whenever she was around. Although unaware of Richard’s plans, Cornelia was as sweet, polite and demure as she always felt she should be in Martha’s company.
Despite all of this effort, however, Martha remained immovable. Cornelia Flower was not good enough for her son, and that was that. She even had the temerity to invite Annabel and her parents to dinner a few times when she knew that Mike would be there, on the pretence that as Richard was still dating Heavenly, they should all get together every now and then.
By mid-June, Mike was beginning to despair of his mother ever coming round. In fact, he told Mrs. Ruggles as much when he visited her on his birthday, whilst Cornelia was shopping in the city. Not wanting to be dragged from store to store all afternoon, he had decided to call in to see his old nanny, and arranged that Corney would come and meet him there when she had finished her shopping.
"Sometimes I wonder why I’m bothering at all," he lamented, finishing yet another long diatribe about Martha. "Richard thinks I’m crazy. I suppose you do too?"
Velma Ruggles watched him toying with the handle of his bone china cup, her heart going out to him as she saw the forlorn expression on his face. "Well, why are you bothering, Michael?"
Mike stared despondently down into his cup of tea and shrugged. "Because despite all her faults she’s still my mother. And because I know that if she just made the effort to get to know Corney, that she would like her."
Mrs. Ruggles opened her mouth to respond, but then thought better of it. Mike didn’t even notice. Getting to his feet, he placed his tea on the table beside him and strolled across to the large bay window, where he stood, staring down at the street below.
"Her mother died when she was a baby," he said quietly, as he watched a deliveryman unloading a chair into house opposite.
"Yes, I know," Velma replied gently. "She told me."
Mike nodded slowly. "Well I guess…I guess part of me hoped that if she got to know Mom, that Mom could maybe … oh I don’t know." His voice tailed off and he fell silent again. He rarely ever talked about his innermost feelings like this, especially those involving his mother, and he was finding it difficult to explain himself.
Mrs. Ruggles watched him carefully. "You hoped that she might be something of a mother to Corney?" she asked. He nodded. "Michael, that is never going to happen."
Looking a little upset at her words, he turned from the window to face her. Velma smiled and patted the sofa next to her.
"Come and sit here with me," she said, shuffling up a little. Mike simply stared back at her, but not to be defeated, she tried again. "Please, dear. I need to explain something to you."
Relenting, he crossed the room and sat next to her. She looked up at him, and he felt his demeanour softening as he stared down into the kindly, dark eyes that had mesmerised him ever since he’d been a young boy. Mrs. Ruggles gave him a warm smile.
"Michael, your mother loves you. She loves you very much in her own way, but she is never going to be a motherly woman. She wasn’t when you were tiny, and she isn’t now." Velma paused for a moment and Mike nodded to indicate that he understood. "Above anything else, Martha is interested in other people’s station in life,” she continued, a trace of anger creeping into her voice. "She cares about what club they belong to, what family they were born into, and who they know, not whether they are kind or honest or worthwhile. Though it pains me to say it, that attitude extends to William and you boys, and it most certainly includes the people you two intend to marry." Mike looked a little shocked at her final words and she gave a gentle laugh. "Yes, I’m well aware that you intend to marry Cornelia one day. You and Richard always forget how well I know you both."
Mike stared at her for a moment, and then gave a wry laugh. "Don’t I know it! I haven’t forgotten how terrifying you were when we were little."
Mrs. Ruggles laughed and squeezed his forearm. "I’m sorry I had to put it so bluntly. I just thought somebody should spell it out to you."
"It’s okay," he replied, shaking his head. "I know you’re right. I guess I just keep hoping…"
"And don’t you give up that hope," she smiled, as his voice tailed off again. "It’s what makes you who you are, and I don’t want that changing for the world. Just don’t let it affect the way things are between you and Corney, okay? She’s just right for you, Michael. You won’t find another like her."
At that moment, they were interrupted by a knock at the door, and Cornelia’s voice called "Helloo-oo!" from the other side. Squeezing Mike's shoulder, Mrs. Ruggles got up to let her in, welcoming her new guest with a hug and then disappearing to the kitchen the refill the pot of tea. Cornelia hung her coat on the stand in the hall, and made her way through to the salon.
Pushing his worries aside, Mike glanced up with a wide smile as she entered the room. "That was quick!"
"I know, I’m a fast shopper!" She placed the bags on the floor by his feet and let him pull her down onto the couch next to him. "I don’t like doing it really, but don’t tell anyone," she confided cheerfully, lowering her voice.
Mike laughed and put an arm around her shoulders. "So, what did you buy?"
"I got a new skirt for me, to replace the one I tore on that wire last week, and a new sweater for Poppa, as I burnt one of his on the iron," she replied, reaching down into her bags. Pulling out a long, thin parcel, she sat up again and put it behind her back. "Oh, and I got something for you too," she added with a grin.
Corney shook her head. "Uh-uh. You have to earn it first."
Mike raised an eyebrow. "Do I indeed?"
"Yes, you do."
"Okay then," and leaning forward, he kissed her and simultaneously reached round behind her, snatching it out of her hands.
"Hey! That’s not fair!"
"Not my fault you’re not quick enough for me!" Mike winked, tearing open the brown paper that covered his gift. Peeling it back, he pulled out a mahogany nameplate, with "Michael van Alden" written along it in gilt lettering. "Oh Corney, thank you! That’s terrific."
"It’s not your real gift, that’s at home just now," Cornelia explained, as he admired it. "Only I noticed you didn’t have a nameplate when I had to drop those papers in for Poppa, so I thought I’d get one made up for you. Every man should have his name on his desk!"
”You’re absolutely right, he most certainly should!” Putting an arm around her shoulders again, he pulled her towards him and kissed her. “I love it. It’ll take pride of place on my desk.”
“Glad to hear it!” She beamed back at him, and then looked up as their host re-entered the room. “Oh, scrummy – is that fruit cake?”
Mrs. Ruggles smiled at her. “Yes, it is. Do I detect that you’re a little hungry then?”
“Ravenous! There’s nothing like shopping to work up an appetite, as they say.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” Mike asked, an amused smile touching the edge of his lips.
“’They’ is them,” she replied absurdly, pulling a thoroughly unflattering face.
Placing the tray on the large, battered dining room table, Mrs. Ruggles laughed as she took the lid off the teapot and stirred the liquid inside. Then picking up a plate, she placed a piece of cake on it and passed it across to her hungry guest. “Here you are, tuck in. Cup of tea?”
“Yes please!” Cornelia nodded vehemently, and then picked up the cake and took a huge bite. “Delci’us,” she mumbled, spraying crumbs all over Mike.
Grimacing, Mike brushed down his trousers and then held up his new nameplate for Mrs. Ruggles to see. “Look what Corney bought me!”
“Very smart!” She placed a cup of tea on the small end table next to Cornelia and then sat back down in her seat. “You can help yourself if you want a refill, Michael.”
“No thanks, I’m all good.”
“Okay, well, as I have you both here, I have something I want to ask the pair of you.” Lifting her handbag up from by her feet, she rummaged around inside it for a moment, and then pulled out a white envelope containing what looked like bits of card. “Is there any chance I can interest you both in a trip to Suffolk Downs?”
Mike looked across at her with a wide grin. “Am I likely to say no to that?”
“Well, no, I didn’t think you would,” she acquiesced, with a roll of her eyes. “How about you, Corney? How would you feel about a day at the races? It’s one of my favourite pastimes and I’ve not been once this year. Now I’ve managed to get my hands on six tickets, so I need people to come with me.”
“How did you get hold of six?” Mike asked, with wide eyes.
“Mr. Miller, of course!”
Mike burst out laughing, and Cornelia looked thoroughly confused.
“Who’s Mr. Miller?”
“Mr. Miller lives downstairs, and he’s rather, shall we say ‘sweet’ on Mrs. Ruggles,” Mike chuckled, his eyes twinkling.
“Michael, don’t be so vulgar!” the lady herself replied, her cheeks as red as her crimson cushions. “He’s nothing of the sort. He’s just an old friend who’s well connected, and sometimes he gets hold of these things and passes them on to me.”
Mike looked utterly unabashed. “Is he really?”
“Yes, he most certainly is! Why, he’s not even coming along with us. He’s passed them on out of the goodness of his heart.” Then, before Mike could say anything else, she turned to Cornelia and hurriedly asked, “So, my dear, think you may be interested?”
“Rather!” Corney replied, grinning. “I’ve never been to the races before. It sounds like fun. Say, Velma, if you’ve a spare ticket, would you mind if I invited Poppa too? He’d enjoy it no end, and it’s about time you two met anyhow.”
“Of course I wouldn’t mind. I’ve been looking forward to meeting him, I’ve heard so much about him. And we need to put one aside one for Richard too,” she added, counting off on her fingers, “so that leaves us with one spare. And I’m afraid I’m stepping in now and saying that we are absolutely not inviting Heavenly! Richard brought her around here the other day, and she’s just as ghastly as I remembered. So, who else do we know?”
“What date is it?” Mike asked.
Corney swallowed her tea quickly and looked up eagerly. “Say, Mike, Evvy’ll be staying then. Maybe she could come? She’s my friend from school, she lives in New York,” she added, for the benefit of her host.
Mrs. Ruggles smiled back. “Well that’s it all sorted then. She’ll be most welcome. Any friend of yours is a friend of mine. Now, who’s for another cup of tea?”
Evadne duly arrived for her fortnight’s visit with the Flowers on the third of July, and the following day saw the two women preparing to attend a Fourth of July party at the home of Cornelia's friends, Carol and Geoff. They had been ready for some time, and as the pair of them sat in the salon, waiting for Mike to come and collect them, Cornelia studied her friend carefully as that young lady stared out of the window into back garden. Neither of them had yet mentioned how Evadne was coming to terms with the loss of Ralph, but Corney could see that she was clearly beginning to get her life back together. Although Evadne still looked pale and tired, she had put on a little weight, and had already lost the listless air she had had about her ever since her return from England.
“This party isn’t going to full of society types is it?” Evadne asked, oblivious to her friend’s scrutiny. “I was rather hoping to get away from all that for a couple of weeks!”
Cornelia laughed. “Probably, but don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of nice folk as well.”
“Well I sure hope so, ‘cause I…what?” she broke off, as she turned to see her friend eyeing her intently. “Why are you staring at me as if I’ve two heads?”
“I was just thinking you looked a little fatter!” came the insouciant reply.
“Thanks a bunch!”
Cornelia grinned. “It’s a good thing, you dope! You were a regular skinigalee last time I saw you!” she retorted, cheerfully. Then her tone of voice softened as she asked, “Honestly though, Evvy, how are you getting along?”
Evadne sat down on the window seat, and returned her friend’s smile with a thin one of her own. “A little better, I guess,” she replied slowly. “Just taking it one day at a time.” There was silence for a moment as she stared down at her hands and twisted her fingers together. “I sold the ring last week.”
“You what? Why?”
“Because there was no point in keeping it, that’s why! Ralph never even saw it, Corney. It’s just been sitting there, like some horrid great reminder of it all.” She paused and took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. “I put the money in a trust for Cassie’s two children. That way Ralph gets to leave them a legacy, and I get to move on a little. It’s all for the best.”
Cornelia simply stared at her friend, unsure of quite what to say. Seeing this, Evadne gave her a warm smile, stood up and decisively changed the subject.
“Where’s Mike got to, anyhow? Shouldn’t he have been here twenty minutes ago?”
As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and Cornelia got to her feet. “He probably forgot to lock up again,” she replied, as they made their way out into the hall. “Honestly, Evvy. I’m surprised he’s not been robbed, the way he just leaves his door open. Part of me’s tempted to go slip in one day when he’s out and take something, just to teach him a lesson! I’d do it too, if I didn’t think he’d skin me alive!”
She reached up, taking her light summer coat from the rack, and pulled it on. Then opening the door, she found not one, but two people standing on the doorstep, both wearing big cheesy smiles.
“Sorry we’re late,” Mike apologised, bending to peck her on the lips. “We got halfway here and had to turn back.”
“Forget to lock up again?” Mike went red at her words, and Cornelia turned to Evadne with a grin. “Told you so! And what are you doing here?” she demanded, frowning up at the younger Van Alden. “I thought you were going separately with Heavenly?”
Richard grinned back at her. “Change of plan.”
“Rich seems to think he’s found a way of getting rid of her at last,” Mike put in, with what sounded distinctly like a note of despair.
“You’ll see. But Evvy, I’ll make it known now that I apologise in advance on his behalf!”
From her vantage point behind Cornelia, Evadne stared suspiciously at the two men. “Why?”
“No reason,” Richard retorted, shooting his brother a warning glance. Pushing ungraciously past Cornelia, he turned a charming smile on Evadne and bent to kiss her on the cheek. “Evvy, how are you?”
“Very well thanks,” came the wary response. “You?”
“Glad to hear it,” he replied, ignoring her question. Instead, opening the door to the downstairs toilet, he waved his hand towards the room and asked, “Can I see you in my office?”
“I have a favour to ask…”
“What favour?” but she was talking to thin air, as Richard disappeared into the cloakroom.
Evadne grimaced at her two friends, and then, against her better judgement, she did as he asked and followed him in.
Almost an hour later, the four of them arrived at the Hancocks’ Duxbury home, and as they walked around the side of the house and into the vast gardens that led down to the ocean, Richard took hold of Evadne’s hand and pulled it through his arm.
“What are you doing?” she exclaimed, trying to pull free again, and failing as Richard kept a tight hold.
“She may be the first person we see, for all we know,” he replied calmly. “We have to look the part from the off, or it’ll never work.”
Evadne glared at him for a moment and then relented. “You’d better be making this worth my while, that’s all I can say,” she grumbled.
“I will, don’t worry.”
“She’s never going to fall for this, anyhow. Surely nobody could be that stupid.”
Richard simply chuckled and shook his head. “Oh she is, believe me. In fact, I can almost guarantee she’ll fall for it! I’ve been dropping your name into conversation for past few weeks and she’s already suspicious. Apparently if anything can permeate the thick cloud between her ears, its mention of another woman. Especially a beautiful one.” Evadne stopped and looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “Well I have to compliment you if it’s going to be convincing!” he added defensively.
“Fine.” With a roll of her eyes, she resumed her stride. “So are you cheating with me then?”
“No, not at all. I’ve told her every time I’ve seen her in the past four months that she and I are through, she just never seems to get it! I have, however, told her, so technically we’re not cheating.”
“Technically we’re not doing anything!”
“Pah! Details!” Spotting their hosts chatting to Eliza and Ed, he waved and towed her across to meet them. “Geoff, Carol, may I introduce Evvy Lannis, Corney’s friend from school, and a special friend of mine!” he added with a cheeky wink.
Out of the corner of her eye, Evadne could see Cornelia and Mike laughing, as they watched on with Eliza and Ed, and she grimaced at them before greeting her hosts with a polite ‘How d’ye do.’
“So, no Heavenly today then?” Geoff asked, an innocent expression on his face, though the corners of his mouth twitched as he spoke.
Richard grinned and shook his head. “Not now, and hopefully not ever again!” he announced proudly. “Young Evvy here has offered to help me out.”
"Excuse me! First off, I’m older than you,” Evadne interrupted indignantly, “and second, I’m not sure ‘offered’ is quite the right word – bribed would be more like it!”
Carol laughed at her words. “Well if it helps him get shot of her, we’ll all thank you!” she replied with a grin. “I’m not sure how much more we can take of her being there every time we go out! She’s not here yet, by the way,” she added, turning to Richard. “Annabel’s just got here, though, so doubt she’ll be far behind.”
“Is she really that bad?”
“Worse! Come and help me get some drinks, and I’ll tell you all about her!” and slipping her hand through Evadne’s arm, she led her off towards the house.
Twenty minutes later, Evadne was back and talking to Mike when a tall, slim young woman with a mane of dark brown hair came striding towards them, dragging a sad-looking sack of a man behind her.
“Oh please, not again!” Mike muttered under his breath, as he saw her approaching.
Evadne glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder and then looked back at him with a furrowed brow. “Who’s she?”
“Heavenly’s sister Annabel. She keeps…”
He broke off suddenly as Annabel got too close.
“Mike, how are you?” she gushed, giving Evadne a supercilious glance. “Have you met Arnold yet?” Lowering her voice, she added in a sickly tone, “You should have taken your chance sooner, I’m a taken woman now!” and she threw her head back with a laugh.
Over Annabel’s shoulder, Mike pulled a face at Evadne and then gave Annabel a smile. “I’m very glad for you,” he replied graciously.
Ignoring him, Annabel reached out and tugged at Richard’s sleeve. “I thought you were collecting Heavenly?” she asked accusingly.
Removing her hand from his arm, Richard shook his head. “Well you thought wrong then,” he replied coldly. “I said I’d see her here at some point.”
“That’s not what she thinks! When did you tell her that?”
“Last night, and then again this morning. Five times, as it happens, not that it’s any of your concern.”
Annabel glared at him disbelievingly. Then spinning back round, she poked her monosyllabic date in the ribs. “Make yourself useful and go and get some drinks, Arnold.”
Arnold grunted and trudged off in the direction of the house, and Annabel turned back to Mike with an exaggerated roll of her eyes.
“He’s a dear boy, but just between you and me, he is a little dull!” Mike said nothing, and gazing up at him, she touched his arm flirtatiously. “You know, I could always become available again given the right persuasion. If you ever feel you could do...er...better,” she added, nodding her head towards Cornelia.
Recoiling slightly, Mike raised his eyebrows in shock. “I’ll be sure to let you know, Annabel,” he replied, a sarcastic edge creeping into his voice.
Annabel either missed it, or ignored it, and stroked his arm before she let her hand drop. “Make sure that you do,” and then turning on her heel, she strode off across the lawn in the direction in which Arnold had disappeared.
Thankfully, Cornelia had been too engrossed in her conversation with Eliza to notice Annabel’s behaviour, but Evadne had heard every word, and now she stared up at Mike in horror.
“What was that all about?”
“Charming, isn’t she?” Mike grimaced, rubbing his arm as if trying to wipe it clean.
“A tacky, two-bit piece of scum is what she is! What cheek!”
Mike laughed. “Clearly I’m just irresistible,” he said, jokingly. Then seeing her face, he added hurriedly, “Don’t you worry, I’m not planning on leaving Corney. I’m not sure I’d dare even I wanted to! You’re a scary woman, Evvy Lannis, and I’m quite aware you’d let me know all about it!”
“Yes, well just you remember that!” Seeing Cornelia turn towards them, she gave her friend a wide smile. “Come and tell this beau of yours whatfor, Corney!”
“Why, what’s he done?” Cornelia grinned, slipping her hand through Mike’s elbow. “What are you two gossiping about?”
Freeing his arm from her grasp, Mike placed it around her shoulders and kissed the top of her hair. “You of course!”
“Jolly good,” she replied, grinning up at him. “So long as you’re being nice! Evvy, I think Richard wants you.”
At that moment, Richard poked Evadne hard in the side and hissed for her to come and join him.
“What?” she retorted indignantly. “I’m not your lackey!”
“I know that dumbkopf! Heavenly’s coming!”
Evadne looked round to see very pretty, tiny-featured waif of a girl coming across lawn. She just had time to register the fact that Heavenly looked nothing like her sister, before Richard grabbed her by the elbow and yanked her towards him.
“I know, would you credit it?” he began at the top of his voice, as Heavenly drew closer. “We’ve known each other for quite a while now, but we’ve only just realised what we mean to each other, haven’t we, darling?”
Evadne grimaced. “Yes, snookums. Whatever you say,” she replied sweetly, and Richard cringed.
Evvy shrugged and grinned up at him, but before she could reply, Heavenly arrived on the scene.
“Richie, you were supposed to collect me!” she berated, in the squeakiest voice Evadne had ever heard. “I waited and waited! You left me to come all on my own!”
“But that’s what we arranged, Heavenly,” Richard replied, his tone a little weary.
“No we didn’t!”
“Yes we did. Remember, I told you last night and again this morning?”
“I didn’t think you actually meant it!”
Evadne stared at the newcomer in amazement, marvelling at how obtuse this girl actually was, and suddenly noticing that Richard had his arm around a stranger, Heavenly seemed to bristle visibly.
“Who is this, Richie?”
“Ah, sorry, forgot about introductions. How rude of me! Evvy, this is Heavenly, a friend of mine. Heavenly this is Evadne, my girl. She’s up from New York for a few weeks, aren’t you, sweetheart?” and he stooped to peck her on the cheek.
Evadne smiled up at him and then reached out to shake Heavenly’s hand. It was the limpest handshake she had ever felt. “Pleasure to meet you.”
Heavenly stared at her, and then back at Richard. “Evadne? Your girl?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You kissed her!”
“Well yes, that’s what you do when you’re in love with someone, isn’t it darling?”
He grinned down at Evvy, whose eyes widened in a warning not to try and kiss her again. Oblivious, Heavenly continued to stare at Richard.
“But I’m your girl!”
“Heavenly, we broke up!”
“Several times over, as it happens! Last night you told me you understood, don’t you remember?”
“But you were only joking!”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes you were, you must have been! Nobody finishes things with me!”
Her voice had lowered considerably, the squeaky veneer almost gone, and a little shocked, Richard swallowed hard before saying, “Well I have, okay?”
Heavenly’s eyes narrowed as she glared at him. “They told me you were a cad, Richard van Alden, but I didn’t believe them. I said my Richie’s not like that! But you are! If you think I’m hanging around here, you’ve another thing coming! We’re through!”
“Fine by me! I’ve been trying to tell you that for months!”
Uttering an indescribable squawk, Heavenly turned on her heel, flounced across to where her sister and Arnold were chatting to some other guests, and then stomped out of party. Annabel watched her sister go, and then marched across the lawn, dragging Arnold behind her.
“You’ll be sorry, Richard van Alden!” she screeched. “Nobody messes with a Peabody!” and with that, she stormed out after her sister.
Evadne watched her go in astronishment. “Is she for real?”
Cornelia, to whom this comment had been addressed, merely laughed. “Unfortunately, yes. Delightful family, aren’t they? And Mike’s mother thinks they are models of well-bred ladies!”
“Well from what you’ve told me of her, I’m not surprised.”
“I know. Don’t let Mike hear you say that though. He feels duty bound to stand by her.”
“It must be hard for him though,” Evadne replied, eyeing her friend curiously. "She is his mother after all, however awful she is."
“I know, but I still feel a little angered by it. I try not to, Evvy, honestly, but I can’t help it!”
Evvy grinned. “Don’t worry, I reckon you’ll always come first where Mike's concerned.”
Hearing someone tunelessly singing the words ‘She’s gone!’ behind them, the two of them turned their heads to see Richard bounding towards them. “Thanks to you!” he cried, planting a sloppy kiss on Evadne’s cheek.
Evvy grimaced and wiped it away with her sleeve. “I guess you’re welcome. Just don’t forget I’ll be collecting what's owed to me!”
“Well remember, I’m footloose and fancy free now!” he replied suggestively.
Evadne glared at him. “You never let up, do you?”
“Not with things I really want, no.”
“Well you’ll be waiting a long time, Mister, let me tell you!” Then taking Cornelia’s arm, “Come on, Corney, let’s go hunt out some food. Leave this sad sack to prey on some other poor girl,” and with that, she towed her friend off across the lawn, leaving Richard chuckling in their wake.
The trip to the races, a few days after Independence Day, proved to be a resounding success. Much to the delight of Cornelia and Mike, Mr. Flower and Mrs. Ruggles got on like a house on fire, bonding over their love of horse racing and a tipple of fine Scotland’s finest, and putting their skills to good use as they placed several successful bets. The real honours in that field, however, went to Cornelia and Mike themselves who won on nine of their ten horses, thanks to Cornelia’s method of picking a winner. As Mike put it afterwards, as they all tucked into a slap-up meal at Guiseppe’s, you just can’t go wrong when betting on a horse that is wearing pink socks!
The following day saw Evadne return to New York, with promises from Cornelia to visit her soon, and the next three weeks passed by uneventfully, as temperatures soared into the high seventies and Boston life slowed down for the summer months. July passed into August and Cornelia and Mike’s relationship continued to go from strength, their feelings for each other deepening with every passing day. He was a regular visitor to the Flowers’ Brookline home, often spending entire weekends there, entertaining Cornelia and her father and on occasion bringing Mrs. Ruggles along with him, much to the Flowers’ delight. Joe’s health appeared to be on the up at last, though he still tired easily, and Cornelia felt that she had finally settled into life in Boston, that she had finally found her longed-for home. All in all, the summer of 1946 was a very happy time indeed.
The one fly in the ointment was Martha. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, she refused to accept Cornelia as a long-term presence in her son’s life. For Mike’s sake, Cornelia was careful not to rock the boat, being as charming as possible whenever she was at the Van Alden’s home, but as the end of August approached, things were finally starting to take their toll. It was now the Wednesday before Labour Day, and Martha had invited Mike around to dinner that evening, with a “Bring Cornelia too, if you must.” Unsurprisingly, Corney was a little underwhelmed by the invitation, which was made in her presence, and as a result had flatly refused to go.
Mike had been doing his best to persuade her ever since, and had arranged to meet her for lunch today in a last ditch attempt.
“What’s the point?” Cornelia asked, sounding exasperated, as Mike pleaded his case once more. “She hates me!”
“Of course she doesn’t hate you, don’t be a goose. She just doesn’t quite understand you, that’s all.”
“And that is another way of saying she hates me!”
“No, she doesn’t…”
“Yes, she does, Mike! Can we not talk of it anymore please? I have to get off now, anyhow. I need to be at the doc’s at two-thirty to see him about my eyes.” Draining her glass of coke, she got to her feet and pulled her handbag onto her shoulder. “I’ll meet you at the corner of Tremont and Park at six, and we’ll go to the concert on the Common and then for dinner at Guiseppe’s as planned and not talk once about your mother, okay?” and without waiting for his reply, and with not even a parting kiss on the cheek, she turned on her heel and walked out of the diner, leaving Mike to finish his burger alone.
As she hurried down Tremont Street at five past six that evening, Cornelia caught sight of Mike sitting on a bench just inside the Common, watching two young children who were playing with a kite close by. Her resentment had been building towards him all afternoon, as she brooded on his refusal to accept her point of view, and she had been ready to have things out with him when they met up again. Now, however, as saw him jump up and run to one of the young boys' aide as his kite string got tangled, she felt her heart soften a little and with a smile on her face, she passed through the gates and into the park.
She approached him, just as he finished untangling the string and handed the kite back to its owner.
“Hey there,” she said softly, placing her hand on his shoulder.
Mike glanced up with a smile and got to his feet, as the small boy ran back towards his friend. “Hey yourself. Look at you without your frames!”
“I know!” Cornelia grinned back at him and gave him a quick twirl. “Apparently my eyes are fully recovered and I never need wear them again – not until I’m old, at least. What d’you think?”
“I think you look as beautiful without them as you did with them!” came the somewhat-cheesy reply. Cornelia chuckled and shook her head, and Mike reached out to take her arm. “I’m sorry for what I said at lunch, Corney.”
“It's okay, Mike, it doesn't matter.”
Mike shook his head. “Yes, it does, I should never have pressed things like that.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small package. “Here, I bought a little something to make amends.”
He handed it over and opening it up, she found a bar of her favourite chocolate which she happily accepted. The next thing she knew, he had got down on his knees and taken hold of her hands.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m begging your forgiveness!” he explained, looking up at her with doe-like eyes which shined with a hint of amusement. “Please forgive me, Corney! I beg you, you have to forgive me, I couldn’t be without…”
“Get up, you ass!” Cornelia hissed, half-laughing as she checked around to see if anybody was looking.
“Not until you forgive me!”
“You’re already forgiven! Just stand up and stop embarrassing me, you dope!”
Laughing, Mike got to his feet, giving a little wave to a couple of ladies nearby who were giving them disapproving looks, and stooped to give her a kiss.
“I really am sorry, you know.”
“I know you are. And I know you’re stuck in the middle, Mike, I really do. It’s just I’d like the man I love to take my side every once in a while.”
“The man you what?”
Mike’s eyes opened wide as he stared at her, an enormous smile creeping over across his face. It was the first time either of them had mentioned the word ‘love’, though they had both known it for a while now, and hearing it out loud made his heart skip a beat.
Cornelia froze as she realised what she had said. “I…er…I mean…”
“You mean what?”
“Yes, you do! Come on, say it again!”
“Come on, you have to!”
“Fine! I love you! Happy now?”
Mike stared at her for a moment, his grin impossibly wide, and then cried, “Ha! I knew it!”
Cornelia grimaced back at him. “That wasn’t quite the reaction I was hoping for!”
“How's this then?”
Reaching out his hand, Mike ran his fingers through her bright, blond hair, and pulled her towards him, lowering his head for a kiss. When he finally pulled back again he picked her up, twirling her around as she laughed and begged to be put down. Then, lowering her back to the ground, he placed his hand behind her head and stared deep into her shining, blue eyes.
“Cornelia Flower, I love you too.”
A couple of weeks later, still buoyed up by having finally said ‘I love you’, Mike decided that it was about time their parents finally met. Cornelia’s father was such a kind, humorous, genial man that Mike was convinced that Martha would be won over. And if she could be won over by Mr. Flower, then surely she would warm to Cornelia as well. He had already proposed the idea to Joe, who seemed more than happy with the arrangements. Now he just needed to convince his mother that having the Flowers over for Sunday lunch was a good idea.
As he pulled up in the forecourt of his parents’ home, he was feeling in confident mood and whistled as he walked up to the front door and let himself in. Immediately he heard the hum of female voices coming from the salon. His mother must be having one of her soirees. Strange that she hadn’t told him. He had telephoned to warn her he was coming, after all. Shaking his head, he scrubbed his shoes on the doormat, hung his coat on the stand and made his way down the long hallway towards the kitchen, intending on getting himself a drink and keeping out of the way until it was over.
“It’s no good, you know. She’ll find you wherever you hide.”
Mike spun around at the unexpected sound of his brother’s voice. “What are you doing here? I thought you never came near the place unless I've dragged you here myself?”
Richard grinned as he walked down the hallway towards him. “I don’t, as a rule. I’m here for your benefit, as it happens.”
“For my benefit?”
“Yes. I had to drop something in for Pop and overheard Mom on the telephone to Mimi. Thought you might appreciate a heads up.
“Mom’s latest venture. Apparently she’s gotten it into her head that you, my dear brother, need a helping hand.”
“A helping hand with what?”
“With finding a new girl.”
“Wh…with…she’s…” Mike was not sure whether to believe his ears. Then he remembered to whom he was talking. “You’re kidding me, right? You’re just trying to get a rise out of me.”
Richard shook his head, no hint of a smile on his face. “Honestly, Mike, I only wish I was. You hear that gaggle of women in there?” Mike nodded. “They’re all here for you.”
Mike was flabbergasted. “For me?”
“Sure are. When you called Mom to say you’d be over today it galvanised her into action and that’s the result. By all accounts, she’s herded up every eligible lady in Boston for you to take your pick.”
“Michael, you’re here! Whyever didn’t you say?” At the sound of his mother’s voice, Mike turned towards her, his face set like stone. “Are you quite alright, dear?”
“Is this true?”
“Is what true?”
“You know what I’m talking about!”
Mike’s voice was low and icy and Martha was more than a little shocked at his tone. She was used to Richard losing his temper around her but Mike was generally such an easy-going, cheerful young man. It was rare indeed to see him this angry.
“I’m quite sure I’ve no idea what you mean…” she began haughtily, trying to keep her end up as best she could.
“Don’t play games with me, Mom. Have you or have you not invited a roomful of women over for tea?”
“Yes, but I don’t see…”
“And are they here for my benefit?”
“Don’t be absurd!” Realising that she had been rumbled, Martha went on the defensive. “Surely I’m allowed to have people over to tea in my own home without…”
“Just tell me the truth!”
“I am! I’ve…”
“Are you really?”
Mike’s voice was dripping with sarcasm and in a last ditch attempt to save face, Martha turned on Richard. “I suppose this is your doing? What have you been telling him?”
“Don’t you start on Rich,” Mike put in quickly, seeing exactly what she was doing. “I’m not stupid, I’d have figured it out for myself soon enough. For once in your life, just be honest with me.”
Martha stared at him, her mind racing, trying to find a way out of this. Seeing there was nothing else to do but come clean, she changed tack abruptly.
“Well yes, they are here for your benefit but I’m only doing it for your own good…”
“How d’you figure that?”
“I realise that you had to get this Cornelia thing out of your system but really, don’t you think it’s time…”
“What Cornelia thing?”
“This ridiculous notion that she’s the one for you…”
“She is the one for me!”
There was a moment’s pause and then Martha shook her head, pity written all over her face. “Michael, my dear boy. Don’t misunderstand me, I completely understand how she would fascinate you. She is, after all, a sweet girl and very…” She paused for a second as her son glared at her. “Well, very different, but don’t you think it’s time you started thinking seriously about your future?” You’re not getting any…”
“I can’t believe you!”
“Michael, just listen…”
“No! You just listen, Mom!” Mike was shouting now, and Martha was shocked into silence. “I am with Corney. I hope to be with her for the rest of my life. I am not, and never will be, interested in any other girl and it’s about time you got that through your thick head!”
“Michael, I don’t think that’s…”
“I’m not interested, Mom. I don’t care what else you have to say.”
Pushing past her, he made his way down the hallway to the salon and opened the door. The room fell instantly quiet and he felt eight pairs of eyes appraising him as he stood in the doorway. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Annabel sitting on a chaise longue, giving him what he knew to be her most seductive smile.
“Hi Mike. I’ll bet that this is a nice surprise for you.”
Ignoring her, Mike quickly took in the seven other women and then coughed to clear his throat. “Ladies, I’m very sorry but you appear to have been summoned here under false pretences and I apologise for your wasted journey. I’m afraid I’ll be leaving in a minute or two but please do feel free to make the most of my mother’s hospitality, won’t you?”
Backing out of the room and shutting the door again, he turned back to Martha who was hovering around, clucking her disapproval.
“Don’t bother looking at me like that.”
“There’s no need to be rude, Michael.”
“I think you’ve forfeited the right to any manners from me, don’t you?” Mike’s voice was low again, so as not to be heard by the occupants of the salon, but there was no doubting how angry he was. “Now I’m gonna tell you this once, Mom, and this time you are going to listen. Corney is my girl, end of story. It’s high time you met her father and I will be inviting him here to have lunch with both you and Pop.”
“Well, I’m not sure…”
“You will be a polite and gracious hostess,” he continued, speaking over her, “and you will make Mr. Flower feel very welcome. I think that after today’s little effort, it’s the very least you can do. I’ll let Pop know what date we decide on. Do you understand me?”
“I said do you understand me?”
Martha glared at him, her lips drawn into a tight line, but he had backed her into a corner and she was left with no choice. “Yes, I understand you.”
“Good.” Mike took his coat off the hanger, pulled it on and then turned back to face her. “And one more thing. If you ever pull another stunt like that, I will never - and I mean never - speak to you again.” Leaving her gaping at him, open-mouthed, he held his hand out to his brother. “Thanks for the warning, Rich. I owe you one.”
Richard grinned back at him, overjoyed that for once in his life Mike had told his mother whatfor. “You’re welcome, big brother.” Then, nodding his head towards the salon, he added, “Seeing as you’re not interested, would you mind…”
Mike stared at him and then shook his head in amazement. “You’re unbelievable, you know that?”
Richard simply shrugged. “You know me, I try my best.”
Giving a wry chuckle, Mike waved his hand in the direction of the salon door. “Be my guest. I’m sure they’re far more your type than mine and at least you know Mom will approve!” and with that, he opened the front door and took his leave.
As he walked towards his car, he heard a loud clattering sound coming from the garage and the next moment his father emerged, golf clubs slung over his shoulder and a broad grin on his face.
“Hello there!” he said, catching sight of his son. “I thought you were staying to tea?”
“Hi Pop. Sorry, change of plan.”
William frowned as he caught the look on his son’s face. “Is everything tickety-boo?”
“Not exactly, no.”
William heaved a sigh. He did not need to ask who was responsible for his son’s black mood, even if he didn’t know what had caused it. “What’s she done now?”
“I think you’d best ask her that one yourself.”
“Hmm, like that, is it?” William pursed his lips and shook his head. “Well I’m sorry to have missed you. Why don’t I call the office during the week, arrange to meet you for a spot of lunch. Perhaps Corney could join us if she’s not too busy?”
"That would be good, thanks. Oh, and Pop?” he called after him, as a sudden thought occurred to him. “I’m arranging a lunch with you, Mom and Mr. Flower for later in the month. Is that okay with you?”
William grinned back at him, as he opened the front door. “Of course it’s okay. Splendid idea. See you soon, son.” Then as he disappeared through the front door, Mike heard him call, “Martha? I think we need a little word.”
Meanwhile, across town, Cornelia and Eliza had admitted defeat after a couple of hours fighting the crowds in Filene’s, and were seated at the counter in nearby McGregor’s drugstore, putting the world to rights as they waited for Carol to come and join them. They were now on their second soda and had moved onto the subject of Mike and Ed. Ever since she and Mike had said “I love you,” Cornelia’s mind had been fixated on the future, however hard she tried to divert it. She had even surprised herself a couple of nights previously when, just as she was dropping off to sleep, she had found herself imagining what their wedding might be like. Jerking herself awake again, she had given herself a stern talking to on the subject of getting ahead of things and had been panicking on and off ever since that she might let something slip and give Mike a shock. So far, there had been no talk of anything along the lines of marriage and she was more than a little worried that she might scare him off. Absently stirring her ice cream soda with a straw, she filled her friend in on her fears and then paused to take a sip of her drink. Eliza stared at her for a second and then draining her cherryade and placing the glass back on the counter, she fixed Corney with a broad grin.
“Well if you want my opinion, I’d say he’s just bound to ask you soon so you may as well quit your worrying here and now! You obviously want to marry him someday, else you wouldn’t be having those thoughts, and I reckon he feels the exact same way.”
Cornelia stopped playing with her straw, and glanced up with a frown. “I dunno ‘bout that. He’s shown no sign of it so far!”
“Absolute tosh! He’s told you that he loves you, hasn’t he?”
“And I can tell you for sure that he’s smitten – I’ve known him since we were little kids and I’ve never seen him as ga-ga over any girl as he is with you.”
“I guess.” Cornelia shrugged, but she failed to stop a smile creeping onto her lips at her friend’s words. “I still say he won’t ask me.” Taking another sip of her soda, she turned her wrist to look at her watch. “Say, I wander what’s keeping Caro?”
“Don’t you change the subject on me, Corney Flower! We’re gonna have this one out. Now, give me one good reason why he won’t ask you to marry him!”
“Easy,” Corney replied confidently, “his mother.”
At that, Eliza looked somewhat deflated. “Oh yes. I’d forgotten about her.”
“Well I hadn’t! He’s so set on her coming around to us being together that there’s no earthly way he’ll propose before she does so. And as that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon…”
She gave her friend a wry smile and Eliza pulled a face.
“He needs a darn good talking to about priorities if you ask me! Tell me, what is that thing between men and their mothers? Ed’s just as bad. He’s just turned thirty and yet he has to get his mother’s opinion on everything he does! I tell you, it's crazy! Still, at least his mother’s a decent sort, unlike dear Martha. You do realise the old dragon’ll be your mother-in-law one day, if everything goes to plan?”
“Gee, thanks for reminding me!” Cornelia grimaced. Then, heaving a sigh, she added, “Oh well, I guess you’re right. He’ll ask me someday before we’re old and grey!”
Eliza grinned. “You could always try nudging him in the right direction!”
“How d’you mean?”
“You know, talking about families and children, looking at rings in shop windows, asking him if he thinks you’ll suit a white dress – that kind of thing!”
“Because he’s supposed to ask me!”
“He will ask you, you dope! You’ll just be planting the seed in his head, that’s all. It’s what I’ve been doing with Ed!” Cornelia looked shocked and Eliza laughed. “I have to give him a gentle nudge somehow, else I’ll be sitting in my rocking chair with a blanket over my knee before he gets around to proposing. I know for sure that he’s the right one for me and he’s terrible at all that stuff.”
“And you’ve really been doing all you say?” Eliza nodded and Corney paused for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her face. “Oh I don’t know,” she said at last, “perhaps I should? Mrs. Cornelia van Alden. It does have a ring to it, doesn’t it? And I sure would love a husband and kiddies of my own,” she added, glancing across at a mother and her young son, who had just entered the store. She began to chuckle. “I reckon Mike would have several fits if he could hear us talking right now!”
Eliza laughed. “So would Ed, I’m sure, but I’ll still keep handing him those clues!”
“Well I think I’ll give Mike a little longer to get there himself before I begin with all that,” Corney returned with a smile. Then catching sight of Carol, who was trying to park her car in a space just outside, she nodded her head in that lady’s direction and added, “Say, Ela, don’t let on to Caro that I told you all that, will you? I know she’s our friend and we should tell her things but you know what she’s like. She’s a better telegraph than the postal service any day of the week!”
“Of course I won’t let on! What do you take me for? And don’t you either. If we want the guys to really know what we’re up to, I’m sure we’d rather tell them ourselves.” Glancing over her shoulder, she watched Carol, who now had one rear wheel up on the pavement and was busy hanging out of the window berating a driver who had just gone past. Eliza shook her head. “I swear she gets worse at parking every week!”
“She’s not nearly so bad as Evvy,” Cornelia grinned in return. “She’s learning to drive and you should have seen her attempts when I was down visiting last month! Thirty minutes in an empty parking lot and she didn’t manage to find her way into a single space! Honest, Ela, I thought I’d burst from laughing! Her father even had to buy her a car of her own after his driver banned her from going near his!”
Eliza threw her head back and laughed at this nugget of information. “Poor old Evvy! She’ll get better with practice, though.”
“Somehow I’m not so sure about that!”
As Cornelia spoke, the door of the drugstore was flung open and Carol flounced in, throwing a final couple of insults over her shoulder at the other car. “Of all the two-bit, sponge-headed, fr…”
“What time do you call this?” Eliza interrupted hastily, as the other customers in the shop turned to stare and the mother tried to cover her son’s ears and threw Carol a filthy look. “You should have been here a half-hour ago!”
“I know, I know! I’m sorry!” Carol apologised, forgetting her grievances and flopping down on a stool that Cornelia pulled up. “Things are crazy just now and I had to stop off and pick something up as well. Hi, Mr. McGregor – can I get a coke float, please?” The friendly proprietor nodded cheerfully and bustled over to the soda fountain to get her order, and Carol turned back to her friends. “So, what did I miss?”
“Nothing other than shopping,” Corney answered, as Eliza ordered more drinks for the two of them. “Filene’s was crazy thanks to all the extra reductions, so we escaped and came here early instead. So, what did you have to get that was so important?”
At her friend’s question, Carol’s face broke into a wide grin. “I have some news for you,” and reaching into her handbag, she pulled out a tiny pair of lemon yellow booties.
The other two stared at them in shock. A second later, Eliza yelled and threw her arms around her friend’s neck, startling poor Mr. McGregor who had just returned with their drinks and jumped, sending the whole lot off the tray and over his shoes.
“You’re having a baby!”
Seeing what had happened to Mr. McGregor, Cornelia apologised profusely, promising to pay for the spilt drinks as well as their replacements, and then turned excitedly towards Carol and grabbed hold of her arm. “Say, that’s just grand!”
Carol released herself from Eliza’s clutches and returned Corney’s smile. “I know, isn’t it? We’re both thrilled to bits. We’d been trying for so long, I was starting to think it would never happen! Geoff’s already talking about it being a ball player, of course, but I think it’s a little girl,” and as Mr. McGregor returned again with their drinks, all talk of marriage went out of the window as the three of them settled down to discuss the Hancocks’ happy news.
Following Martha’s attempts to find him what she deemed to be a more suitable girlfriend and the row that had followed, Mike decided that it would be wise to let things cool down a little before introducing his parents to Cornelia’s father. Corney, on hearing about what had happened, had first called Martha a few choice words of her own and then, once she calmed down, had agreed that it was wise to wait. It was therefore well into October, almost a month after Mike’s dressing-down of his mother, before he finally managed to get everyone together.
Deciding that neutral territory would probably be for the best, he had invited everyone to his Beacon Hill home and had been rushing around for the past few days, trying to make sure that everything was as perfect as it could possibly be. This meeting was very important to him and he was desperate to make sure that it went well. To that end, he had abandoned the idea of lunch, deciding that a sit-down meal was not the most relaxed of atmospheres, and had instead invited them all over for afternoon tea. Richard, who had wanted to drop in purely to see how his mother coped with Mr Flower, was summarily banned from the house for the duration of the afternoon as Mike was in no doubt that his brother’s presence would be a disturbing influence, to say the least.
They had all arrived promptly, two hours previously, and so far things had gone as smoothly as could be expected. Martha, who was still smarting from the telling off that she had received from her son, was inclined to be a tight-lipped in his presence. However she remembered her manners where Mr Flower was concerned and was polite and charming, if a little stand-offish, and realising that it was the best that he could hope for, Mike had ignored her attitude towards him. She would get over it eventually, he knew that. Joe had been forewarned about Martha, having heard plenty on the subject from his daughter over the previous few months, and he found her demeanour more amusing that anything else. In addition, things were eased considerably by the fact that he got on like a house on fire with William. As well as their children, they had interests in golf, fishing, horse racing and wine collecting in common and they discussed all of these with boundless enthusiasm, their debates becoming louder as the afternoon wore on and they consumed one or two glasses of scotch.
“Say, Mike! Your father tells me you’re something of a carpenter!” Mr Flower bellowed across the yard, as he downed the last of his drink. “How is it I’ve never heard about this before?”
Mike turned his attention from Cornelia and his mother and gave his guest a grin. “It’s just a bit of a hobby. Nothing to write home about.”
“Rot!” William boomed, attempting to place his glass on what he thought was a low wall and dropping it in a plant pot instead. Not that he noticed. He was a couple of glasses ahead of Joe and his nose was looking a little flushed. “It’s more than just a hobby, my boy! You’re a furniture designer and a darn good one at that!”
“William, your language!” Martha admonished, giving him a disgusted look.
Ignoring his mother, Mike shook his head. “I’m hardly a designer, Pop.”
“Of course you are!”
“I’ve an idea!” Joe announced suddenly. “Reckon you could make me a rocking chair? I’ve been wanting a new one for months, ever since someone,” he added, throwing his daughter a wink, “managed to detach an arm from my old one!”
“I was trying to dust the top of the mirror,” Cornelia replied, flushing.
“By standing on a rocking chair, I might add!” her father supplemented with a grin.
Mike laughed. “Well, I’d be delighted to make you a new one, Sir.”
William jumped to his feet, overturning his chair as he did so. “I’ve a splendid idea. Why don’t we take Joe here down to that workshop of yours? Show him one or two of your wares.”
“Pop, I don’t think…”
“Sounds like a grand plan to me!” Joe put in, getting up from his seat.
“Excellent!” William waved his glass in the air as he spoke. “We can get a refill whilst we’re at it. Wouldn’t want to run dry now, would we?”
He gave Joe as conspiratorial nudge and that man answered in kind, chinking his glass against that of his new friend. Mike watched the pair of them as they laughed at each other, and then rolled his eyes in Cornelia’s direction.
“To the workshop it is then. Won’t be long, Corney, I promise.” Getting to his feet, he bent to peck Cornelia on the cheek and then turned towards the house. “Come along, drunken old fools. Follow me!” and without further ado, he led the pair of them in through the patio doors.
Laughing as she watched them go, Cornelia walked across to pick up William’s chair. Martha watched her as she did so, a thin smile touching her lips. This was the moment she had been waiting for.
Feeling Martha’s eyes upon her, Cornelia turned around with a smile. “They certainly seem to be getting along well,” she said brightly, in an effort to make conversation.
Martha stared back at her. “Yes, I suppose the do.” Then patting the chair next to her, “Cornelia, do come and sit down, won’t you? I need to have a word with you. In private.”
Cornelia’s eyebrows shot up at these words. Martha usually made a hurried excuse and disappeared whenever the two of them were left alone. Either that or she would sit in silence whilst Corney did her best to make polite conversation. For her to actually want to talk, let alone initiate any such thing, was something altogether new.
Standing the chair back on all four legs, Cornelia made her way back to her seat and sat down with her back to the house, giving Martha a nervous smile. “What would you like to talk about?”
There was silence for a moment as Martha simply stared at her, as if trying to decide what to say. Ever since Mike had reacted so strongly towards her attempts to get him to see the error of his ways, she had been doing a great deal of thinking and had finally arrived at the conclusion that if she could not get through to her son, then she would have to go directly to the root of the problem – Cornelia herself. She had been waiting for the right opportunity for a couple of weeks now and here it was, presented to her on the plate.
Sitting back in her chair, she looked Corney straight in the eye. “Right, well, I see no point in stringing this out any longer, so I’ll just cut to the chase. How much will it take for you to leave my son alone?”
Cornelia was stunned into silence. Her jaw dropped and she stared at Martha, open-mouthed.
Martha gave a supercilious laugh. “Oh come now, my dear. There’s no need to look so surprised. You’re an intelligent woman, surely you can see the sense in what I’m asking? I mean, it’s hardly as if this thing you have with Michael is going to last forever is it? I’m simply offering you a chance to get out before he comes to his senses and chooses to finish things himself. And this way you’re a winner. William’s one of the richest men in the state, after all. I can give you any amount you ask, just name your price.”
“My…my price?” Cornelia asked, barely regaining her powers of speech.
“Yes, of course. Any amount you want. And of course, it’ll remain our little secret. Michael will never know that you took some money in place of him. I won’t breathe a word, I promise.”
Silence fell as Cornelia tried to take in what Martha had said. She could not quite believe her ears, and yet she knew she was not imagining it. Martha really had said those words. Suddenly a wave of revulsion swept through her body and her wide, blue eyes darkened and narrowed as she stared at the woman in front of her.
“Do you honestly believe that you can just buy me out of my relationship with Mike? Do you really think I’d ever be that low?” Her voice was cold and shook as she spoke and she was clasping her hands together tightly in her lap, the nails of her right hand digging into the palm of her left.
Martha laughed again. “Don’t be silly. Everyone has their price.”
“Not me!” Corney flashed back, trying hard to keep a hold on her temper. “You can’t buy me off!”
“Of course I can…”
“No, you cannot! Why won’t you accept that I love your son? Giving me money’s not gonna change that! I’d have thought you’d be happy he’s found someone who really loves him!”
“When you’re in the position that my family are,” Martha shot back, “some things are worth sacrificing.”
“Not to me, they’re not! Don’t you even care about him? It would devastate him to know you’d said all this to me.”
“I daresay he’d understand eventually. It’s for his own good. If you really cared for him, you’d take the money and leave.”
“Well I guess my values are a little different to yours…”
“They most certainly are.”
At the sound of the new voice, the two women spun around to see Joe standing in the patio doors, his hands in his pockets and a look of absolute fury on his face. He had returned to collect his glass from the table where he had been sitting and had arrived in time to hear most of what Martha said.
Startled by his sudden appearance, Martha forced a fake smile onto her face. Mr Flower shot her a look of utter disgust.
“You needn’t bother. I heard what you said to Corney.” As Martha’s face fell, his indignation rose to the fore. “How dare you even suggest that you can buy my daughter off! She’s an honest, decent, loving girl, not some self-serving fluffy-headed piece of garbage!”
Martha glared back at him, looking him up and down with a sneer on her face, all pretence at niceties forgotten. “Don’t you talk to me about honest and decent! You arrive in Boston, daughter in tow, and immediately try and worm your way into our affections and our society. I’ve heard all about you from my friends at the country club, the way you’ve managed to make friends with their husbands and get them to invite you in for rounds of golf. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d set your sights on my son and sent your daughter in to do your dirty work for you!” she shrieked, forgetting her head completely, her dignity gone as her plan backfired in her face. “I know your type, Mr. Flower, I’ve seen you before. I’m not letting a lying, cheating, low-life chisel his way into…”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” At this insult to her father, Cornelia’s temper finally gave way. “Don’t you dare talk about my Poppa like that!”
“Corney...” Joe grasped her arm to try and stop her but she wrenched it from his grasp.
“Get off of me, Pops.” Then, turning back to Martha, “You can say what you like about me, I don’t care, but nobody insults my Poppa in that way, least of all you! You’re a rude, ignorant, pie-faced snob and you don’t deserve a son like Mike! He’s too good for you any day!” and without waiting for an answer she stormed into the house, Joe following in her wake.
From the basement workshop, Mike and William had heard the raised voices, though they could not make out exactly what was being said, and they had rushed upstairs to find out what was going on. As they emerged into the hallway, they met Cornelia heading for the front door.
Cornelia tried to brush past him, but Mike reached out and grabbed her arm to stop her.
“Corney, what’s happened?”
“We’re going home!” she replied, trying to tug her arm free.
Mike took hold of her other elbow and turned her towards him. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Nothing. I’ve just…I’ve gotta go,” and as uncharacteristic tears welled up in her eyes, she managed to pull out of his grasp and ran to the front door, slamming it behind her as she went.
At that moment, Joe appeared, concern written all over his face. “Corney, wait…oh Mike, there you are.” He stopped as he caught sight of his host. “Thank you for a lovely tea. I’m sorry we have to leave this way. William, it’s a pleasure to have met you,” he added, holding his hand out towards his new friend.
William looked utterly bewildered. “Yes, you too old chap. I’ll be in touch about a fishing trip, shall I?”
“I’ll look forward to it. I’ll see you both soon,” and grabbing his and Corney’s coats from the stand, he followed her out of the front door without a backward glance.
Stunned, William turned to his son. “What was that all about?”
Mike could feel fury building inside him. “I’ll bet I can hazard a guess.”
Storming down the hall and though the dining room at the back of the house, Mike found his mother standing on the terrace, her hand shaking a she took a sip of her drink.
“What did you say to her?”
Martha looked up as he came towards her. “Never you mind.”
“I do mind. What did you say?”
“Nothing to warrant that reaction, I can assure you,” she replied defensively. “If that’s the way that…”
“You know what, I don’t even care what you said. I don’t want to know. Corney’ll tell me anyhow. I just want you to go. Right now.”
“I warned you, Mom. I said if you ever pulled another stunt, I’d never speak to you again. Well you’ve done it. Congratulations.”
“Don’t be absurd…”
“Just get out!” He turned and headed back to the house, just as his father appeared at the patio doors. “Pop, I’m going after them. I want her out of this house by the time I get back,” and without another word, he disappeared into the dining room, leaving his parents in the garden, staring after him in stunned silence
Parking her car outside the red-brick apartment building in South Boston, Cornelia made her way slowly up the front steps with a heavy heart. To say that the last six weeks had been something of a trial was an understatement of mammoth proportions.
Following the row with Martha, it had not taken long for Corney’s upset to turn to anger, and over the following couple of weeks she had ranted at her father and spilled things out in a letter to Evadne. She had even vented her feelings to Richard and William, both of whom she had made the point of calling that very same evening, after Mike had returned to Beacon Hill.
There was one person to whom she had not told the truth of what had happened though, and that was Mike himself.
On arriving home, she had had time to calm down a little before he had turned up and in a moment of clarity, she made one certain decision. He must never know what his mother had said to her that afternoon. Not for Martha’s sake, but for his own. No matter how angry he was with her already, Corney knew that to find out his own mother had tried to pay his girlfriend to walk away would devastate him and she was not prepared to let that happen. When he asked her what his mother had said, therefore, she had simply replied that Martha had been making allusions to the fact that the relationship would be over soon and that Cornelia was not good enough for him, and that it had all just been a bit too much. Somewhat reluctantly, Joe had agreed to go along with her story, as had William and Richard when she spoke to them, and knowing what his mother was like, Mike had accepted Corney’s version of events without question.
To begin with, she did have some doubts as to whether she was doing the right thing. As the weeks went by, however, and Mike became more and more preoccupied, she came to be very glad at the decision she had made. Out of a combination of his anger and his loyalty to the Flowers, he had kept his word not to speak to Martha despite both his girlfriend and father’s attempts to intervene. But it was glaringly obvious, especially to those who knew him well, just how unhappy he was with the way that things had worked out.
Cornelia had tried her hardest to convince him to at least go and meet his mother and try and talk to her, but Mike was adamant. Martha had to apologise to the Flowers before he would even consider it and even then, he had added, he was not sure that he wanted to know. So, six weeks on, things were still at loggerheads. Mike had even gone as far as refusing to go home for Thanksgiving the previous week, opting to join in with the Flowers’ celebrations instead. He had been thoroughly miserable throughout the entire holiday and Cornelia was determined that he would not spend Christmas in the same vein.
To that end, having run out of ideas for ways to help him, she had decided to pay a visit to Mrs. Ruggles to ask for some advice. Making her way up the stairs to the second floor, she approached door number three and knocked loudly. Voices sounded from inside and the next moment the door opened to reveal Richard’s smiling face.
“Hello!” he grinned, stepping back to let Cornelia into the flat. “Have you come to eat Mrs. Ruggles’ flapjacks too? I thought only I knew about that secret!”
Corney laughed as she took her coat off and hung it on the stand by the door.
“Darn it, you’ve rumbled me! Where’s Mrs. Ruggles?” As she spoke, that lady’s head poked around the side of the study door, the telephone receiver clamped to her ear. Cornelia grinned. “Hey Velma!”
Mrs. Ruggles gave her a little wave and motioned to the telephone, then disappeared back inside the study again. Richard chuckled and placed a hand on Corney’s shoulder, steering her into the living room. “She’s talking to Mr. Miller.”
“Mr. Miller from downstairs?”
“The very same!”
“Why didn’t he just walk up and see her?”
Richard grinned. “He did. She saw him through the peephole and pretended she wasn’t in. Now he’s rather called her bluff!”
Cornelia giggled as she sat down on the sofa, imagining Mrs. Ruggles' face as she answered the phone and found out that it was her somewhat amorous neighbour on the other end of the line. Throwing a pile of papers off an armchair and onto the floor, Richard sat down opposite her. He leant against the back of the chair, putting his hands behind his head, and surveyed her curiously.
“So, what brings you here?”
“Can’t I come visit my friend without facing an inquisition?” Richard raised his eyebrows and Cornelia smiled. “Fine, you win. I need Velma’s advice.”
“You and me both.” Cornelia’s brow furrowed in confusion. Richard watched her closely. “I saw Mike this morning.”
“He looks awful, Corney.”
“I know.” Cornelia stared at her lap and twisted her fingers together. “I’ve been trying to get him to see sense, Richard, I honestly have. I don’t know what else to do, he won’t listen to anything I say. That’s why I’m here. I thought Velma might have some bright idea as to what I should try next.”
There was a brief pause and then Richard coughed to clear his throat. “You know, seeing as he’s in this state anyhow, why don’t you just tell him what Mom did?”
“Because I don’t want him to know, I’ve told you that,” she replied hurriedly. “He mustn’t ever know.”
“Why mustn’t he? Sorry, Corney, but I don’t understand. Surely you want him to know what she asked you to do? She deserves it, apart from anything else.”
Heaving a sigh, Cornelia sank back in her seat and stared down at her lap. “You wanna hear something funny?”
“Not so long ago, I’d have been hell bent on teaching her a lesson but now I’ve met Mike, I don’t care about all that.” She took a deep breath. “It’s not about getting back at your Mom. It’s about Mike, and how upset he’d be if he knew what she did. You’ve seen what he’s like just now and he doesn’t even know the half of it. Can you imagine how he’d react if he did know? I couldn’t bear to see him hurt like that, Richard, and he’s the most important thing to me in all of this.”
“And you don’t think you owe it to him to tell him what she’s really like?”
Cornelia shook her head. “No, I don’t. He views her differently to you, you know that. Despite everything, he still wants to try and think good of her – it’s almost as if he needs to.” She paused for a moment, twisting her fingers together, thinking hard, before she added, “The thing is, I don’t care about your Mom and what she said – not really, not anymore. She can try and force us apart all she wants. Mike’s proven to me that it won’t work so I needn’t worry. But he’s so unhappy, Rich. I’m not letting her make him any more miserable than she already has and if I told him what she really did, it would hurt him so much. She’s not doing that to him – not if I’ve a say in things, anyhow.”
Richard gazed at her, a slow grin creeping across his face. “You know, I was flabbergasted when I found out Mike wanted to date you.”
Corney stared back at him as if he had gone mad. “Thanks a bunch! You know how to kick a girl when she’s down!”
“I don’t mean that! I just couldn’t figure out why he’d want to date you over Evvy, that’s all.”
“Not making it any better, Richard.”
Richard grimaced. “I haven’t finished yet, idiot!” She let out an indignant splutter and he quickly added, “If it’s any consolation, I was wrong. You know how stupid I can be.”
“There’s no need to agree!”
Corney raised her eyebrows and Richard let out a chuckle. “Mike had such a row with me, you know, told me a few home truths. I could only see you as my fun, scatty friend and couldn’t see why he saw you as something else. I thought he was crazy.”
“Now I think he’s very lucky. I just hope that some day I can find someone half as decent as you.”
Cornelia felt herself blushing, touched but embarrassed by his unexpected sentimentality. “Thank you.”
He stared back at her, utterly unabashed, and she grinned at the look on his face. “I didn’t know you had this soppy side to you. What happened to Richard van Alden, cad extraordinaire?”
It was Richard’s turn to look embarrassed and he shook his head and laughed. “Shhh, don’t tell everyone!” Then in a softer voice, he added, “I just thought you should know, that’s all.”
Cornelia smiled. “Well, you’re not so bad yourself, once you get under that veneer.”
A wide grin spread across Richard’s face, and he got to his feet. “Right, well I’d best be off. I’m having dinner with Edie.”
“I can’t believe you’re still stepping out with her!”
“Two months and counting!” Richard laughed. He had met his new girlfriend at his mother’s fixing-up tea and it was a standing joke that at least Martha had managed to matchmake one of her sons. “I think I may even like her – she’s such an antidote to Heavenly!”
Surprised, Corney raised her eyebrows. “Might she be…?”
A horrified look came over Richard’s face. “God lord no! But she’s fun to be with for now. Of course, should Evvy show some interest tomorrow…”
“Which she never will!”
“A chap can dream, can’t he?” He gave her a cheeky wink and made his way out into the hall. “I’ll see you soon. Let me know if there’s any change won’t you?”
As he took his coat off the stand and pulled it on, Mrs. Ruggles emerged from the study. Richard grinned as he saw her.
“How’s the beau?”
“Don’t you start with all that, Richard van Alden!” she retorted, automatically adjusting his scarf around his neck. “Honestly, that man! He doesn’t know when to take no for an answer!”
“Well I’m sure you set him right.” Laughing, Richard stooped to kiss her on the cheek. “Now, I have to get going. I’ll be by again next week. Bye Corney!” and with that he took his leave.
Mrs. Ruggles popped quickly into the living rom to give Cornelia a welcoming hug and then disappeared off to the kitchen to make them both a drink. She returned ten minutes later with two steaming mugs of cocoa. Handing one over to Corney, she sat down in the seat that Richard had vacated. Then, blowing on her drink to cool it down, she clasped her hands around the mug and gave her guest an inquisitive look.
Cornelia smiled as she took a sip. The next second, gasping and pulling a face, she spat the drink back out again. “Ow!”
“Burnt your tongue?” Cornelia nodded. “You have my sympathies! I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve done that over the years!” Blowing on her cocoa again, Mrs. Ruggles eyed her keenly and decided to come straight to the point. “So, am I right to guess you’ve come about Michael?|
Corney’s eyes widened in surprise. “How did you know?”
“Richard told me.”
“He what? I told him not to say anything! What if he tells s…”
“Corney, it’s okay,” Velma put in hurriedly, seeing how worried she was. “He only told me because he’s concerned about him. He’s not going to say anything to anyone else.”
“He better hadn’t!”
“He won’t, you needn’t worry.” She took a sip of her drink and then set her mug down on the table next to her. “So how is Mike?”
“Not so good.” Corney placed her drink on the floor at her feet and then curled her legs up underneath her. “I don’t know what to do, Velma. He’s so down, I hate seeing him this way. And he’s not eating properly. I’ve never known him to not chow down his dinner, but he keeps just playing with it and pushing it round his plate – it’s so unlike him. I’m worried he’ll make himself sick.” She paused for a moment, and then decided to ask something that had been troubling her, something that her conversation with Richard had brought to the fore of her mind again. “Do you think I did the wrong thing not telling him? I know Richard does and so does Poppa.”
Mrs. Ruggles shook her head. “For what it’s worth, I think you did exactly the right thing, so you just ignore what Richard and your father have to say. They’re men, they don’t understand these things.” Cornelia chuckled and Velma gave her a warm smile. “Corney, I know it feels horrible keeping it from him but he’s had enough disappointments from his mother over the years without adding any more, especially one as big as this.”
“That’s what I thought too.”
“Well you were right to think so. I know those boys inside out and Michael…well, let’s just say he doesn’t have the same resistance to Martha that Richard has.” Her face broke into a wistful smile. “My husband used to say that everyone has a weak point – it was something he learnt during his many business deals.”
Cornelia nodded. “I’ve heard Poppa say that too.”
“Yes, well it’s very true, and Martha just so happens to be Mike’s. For whatever reason, he craves her approval. It’s why he went in for stockbroking instead of carpentry. She didn’t think making furniture was a proper career. You see that table there?” she asked, pointing to the rickety, wonky coffee table in the centre of her room. “It was one of the first things Mike ever made. He was so proud of it and he gave it to his parents, and the very next day, he came home from school to find it in the yard next to the trash. When he confronted her, Martha just said it didn’t ‘fit with the furniture they already had’. I don’t think she even let William see it. That’s when Michael gave it to me instead.”
“I had no idea!” Cornelia looked aghast. “The mealy-mouthed, old…” She caught Mrs Ruggles’ twinkling eye and decided not to finish that particular epithet. “Argh, she makes me so mad! How could she do that to her own son?”
“It’s Martha all over, I’m afraid. Mike doesn’t talk about it all that much, but I’m sure it hurt him a fair bit.” A trace of anger crept into Mrs. Ruggles voice. “She still dismisses his work, even now. I believe she views it as beneath her family to do such things!” She shook her head. “So in answer to your question, no, I don’t think you did the wrong thing in not telling him.”
“What if he finds out in the future, though? He’ll be mad as anything at me.”
Velma gave her young friend a thoughtful look. “Have you told anyone outside the family?”
Cornelia shook her head. “Only Evvy, but she’ll never breathe a word, I’m sure of that.”
“Well in that case, you needn’t worry. He’ll never find out. William and Richard are far from stupid, they know how things stand. They’ll be sure to keep it to themselves. The only way he’ll ever find out is if you choose to tell him.”
“I guess I it just feels so deceitful, that’s all.”
Mrs. Ruggles smiled. “Well just remember that you’re doing it for him – that ought to clear that up.
Corney nodded. “I guess.” She took a deep breath. “I just don’t know what to do, Velma. He won’t let me help. He just keeps saying he’ll never talk to her ever again. You know,” she added, a trace of bitterness creeping into her voice, “I really can’t abide Martha and believe me, I’d happily never see her again, but it’s not what Mike really wants. He’s doing it for me and he’s so unhappy, which makes me unhappy, so it’s all so pointless. I just…I thought you might be able to help?”
They lapsed into silence, as Velma sat back in her chair, thinking hard. After a long pause, she eventually leaned forward and eyed Cornelia intently. “You do realise that if this all gets fixed, you’ll have to see her and put up with all her little comments towards you?”
“I know. But she’s his Mom, whatever I think of her. Please, won’t you help?”
Noting the desperation in her voice, Mrs. Ruggles gave in. “Of course I will,” she smiled. “You leave it to me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Never you mind. Now, how about we leave Michael aside and talk about something else. How’s Evvy? And how’s Carol getting on with the pregnancy? Is she well?”
They spent the next hour or so catching up with their news and chatting about this and that, and by the time Cornelia finally left to go home, she was in a far more cheerful frame of mind. Mrs. Ruggles saw her out, and then closing the front door behind her, she made her way through the study. Picking up the telephone receiver, she gave the operator a Duxbury number, pulled up a chair and waited for someone to answer. When they did, she asked to speak to the lady of the house.
A minute later, a new voice came on the line. “Velma, how delightful! To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Good afternoon, Martha. I think we need to have a little talk…”
Neither Mrs. Ruggles nor Martha ever did divulge the contents of their conversation. All Cornelia knew was that four days after her visit to Velma, a letter arrived in the post from Martha, stating that it was possible that she had misjudged Corney’s intentions and inviting the Flowers’ for lunch at the Van Alden’s Duxbury home, with a view to ‘clearing the air’. It was not exactly an apology, but it was at least a peace offering of sorts.
It was the following weekend before Cornelia had a chance to bring the matter up with Mike. The pair of them had met in a diner in the city for a spot of lunch, and unsure how he was going to react, and not wanting him to brood his way through the meal, she waited until they had finished their burgers before saying anything. Once the waitress had removed their plates and left them with the dessert menus, Cornelia reached into her handbag and pulled out Martha’s letter.
“So, I…er…I received a letter this week,” she began, trying to make her voice sound as light and breezy as possible.
Mike was only half-listening, as he used the back of his spoon to check that nothing was stuck in his teeth. “Did you?”
“Uh-huh. I thought you might like to have a read of it,” and she slid it across table towards him.
Mike picked it up and glanced nonchalantly at the front of the envelope. The next moment, as he caught sight of the handwriting on the front, his eyes widened and he gave it his full attention.
“What on earth…?”
“Please, Mike. Just read it.”
Drawing his mouth into a straight line, he hesitated at first, then pulled out the letter, unfolded the pages and began to scan the words. He read it through twice before folding it up again and handing it back to his girlfriend in silence.
Cornelia watched him anxiously as she slipped the letter back into her handbag. “So, what do you think?”
Mike stared at the table as he replied. “I think it’s my mother all over,” he replied, his voice flat and cold. “It's so like her to think she can just contact you out of the blue, no apology or anything, and then expect us to go running.”
“Perhaps it’s her way of apologising?”
“Apologies include saying sorry. I don’t see the word sorry in there anywhere, do you?”
“I said she had to apologise, Corney, and I meant it,” he replied firmly. Then, picking up the menu, he pointedly changed the subject. “Now, how about dessert? The strawberry sundae looks good.”
Cornelia stared at him as he deliberately avoided looking at her, his eyes skimming the menu instead. Deciding to take the hint and leave it for now, she heaved a sigh and turned her attention to the desserts, determined to bring the subject up again the next time she got the chance.
An hour later they finally finished their lunch and pulling on their coats and wrapping themselves up in their gloves, scarves and hats, they made their way outside. It was a beautiful, crisp December day, the kind of day that makes you feel vibrant and alive. Although the thermometers read minus five degrees, the shine shone brightly in the clear, blue sky, glinting off the snow that covered the city like a blanket of white cotton wool.
Mike took a deep breath, savouring the fresh winter air, and then glanced down at Cornelia with a smile. “Cab or walk?”
Corney looked around her and a wide grin spread across her face. She would never tire of the sight of snow on the ground. “Walk, definitely.”
Mike raised his eyebrows. “You are aware that it’s bitterly cold out here? You’re not going to start bellyaching halfway home?”
“No!” she gave an indignant snort and then swept her arm around her. “I don’t care if it’s cold. It’s crisp and lovely and the snow is all crunchy. You know I adore the snow!”
Mike grinned. “You’re an old romantic at heart aren’t you?”
Cornelia pulled a disgusted face, as if she’d just been told something unsavoury. “I am not! I just like snow, that’s all!” Then, before Mike could say anything else, she took hold of his hand. “Let’s go before it gets dark, shall we?” and with that she began dragging him down the road.
They strolled down Tremont Street and entered the common, chatting idly about this and that as they went. Cornelia waited until they were halfway across the open space, with nobody around them, before she broached the subject of the letter again. Her boyfriend looked less than impressed when she reiterated her request that they accept Martha’s invitation and she gazed up at him with pleading eyes.
“Please, Mike, it’s important! She’s still your mother after all and that’s gotta count for something. I know what it’s like not to have a mother, and you don’t want that. I can live with the way she is, I don’t mind. Please?”
Mike stared down at her and took a moment before he replied. “I’ll think about it, okay? I promise!” he added, as she begged him with her eyes.
Cornelia squeezed his arm and they lapsed into silence as they walked on a little further, Mike lost deep in thought. After a couple of minutes, he took his hand from his pocket and placed his arm around her shoulders.
“Do you miss your mom?”
Cornelia smiled and shook her head. “Not as such. You can’t miss someone you never knew. Poppa’s my life - him and my friends. And now you, of course.” She reached up to squeeze the hand that clasped her shoulder. “But there have sure been times when I’ve missed the idea of having a mother. Evvy’s mom was always great to me but she was ill herself almost the entire time I knew her. I guess Mademoiselle, my head at school, was the nearest I’ve ever had to a mom of my own.”
“Your headmistress?” Mike asked in surprise.
Corney nodded. “She and Madame, who started the school. But it was Mlle mainly. She was such a lovely woman, Mike. So strong and quiet. She gave me a second chance when I really didn’t deserve one and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“Why? What did you do?”
“Let’s just say I wasn’t so nice when I first went to the school and Mlle…well, she gave me the chance to change.” She paused briefly, watching her feet as they crunched through the snow. “You know me by now – I never really talk when things bother me. But if things ever got too hard, I’d sneak in to see her and ask her advice. Nobody ever knew. Evvy and my friend Joey both figured it out, and I think Matey suspected, but they never asked and I never told them. She died about seven years ago now, and I still really miss her.”
Mike tightened his arm around her shoulders, and she looked up and gave him a smile. She had taken herself by surprise, talking about something that ran so deep, but now she had started, she didn’t seem able to stop.
“It sounds so stupid, but sometimes…you know when you’re sick and you just want your Momma to look after you?” Mike nodded. “Well I never had that until Mlle. Poppa did his best I guess, but he was always away working.” Her mind began to wonder as she thought about her father. “Then when he was so sick and we were in Ireland, I was so scared I’d lose him and I needed someone to lean on and Mlle had died and there was no-one there. I managed okay, I guess, but I felt real lonely. That’s one of those times when I would have liked to have a Mom." She stopped walking and gazed up at him. "Don’t ever tell Poppa I said all that, will you?”
“Of course not.” Mike promised, stooping to drop a kiss on her nose and giving her a concerned look. “You okay?”
Cornelia toyed with his coat pocket as she nodded. “I’ve never really talked about anything like this before. It’s a little wierd.”
“Well I’m glad you’re able to talk about it with me.”
Corney lifted her face to look up at him and he kissed her gently on the lips. As he pulled back, running his fingers along her jawline, she reached a hand up to hold his lapel.
“So listen, for all her faults, don’t cut her out of your life, Mike. There may come a day that you really need her.”
Mike nodded and said nothing. A moment later, a wicked grin crossed his face. “See, you are a soppy soul really!”
Cornelia looked offended. “Am not!”
“You’re asking for it, Michael van Alden!” and pulling away from his side, she picked up a handful of snow and threw it at him.
“So, it’s like that, is it?” and he returned the favour with interest. Cornelia shrieked as a huge lump disappeared down the front of her coat.
Gathering up another mound of powder, she turned to throw it but Mike was too quick for her. Grabbing her around the waist, he thrust a handful of snow at her, rubbing it soundly into her face. Cornelia squirmed to free herself, and Mike laughed as he looked down at his hand.
“Hey, look at that! Your face has come off on the snow!” and he held his hand up, showing the make-up smeared across the white powder.
Cornelia looked put out, as he laughed again, and trying to catch him out, she grabbed his arm and tried to trip him up. Mike stumbled as she wrapped her leg behind his, and the next moment, they were both face down in the snow. Rolling onto her back, Cornelia began to giggle, which set Mike off as well, and they lay on their backs, laughing up at the blue sky above. It was a while before they managed to pull themselves together, as every time they began to calm down, they caught each other’s eyes and it set them off again. Eventually, Mike sat up, clutching his aching sides and wiping tears from his eyes, and noting Corney trying to calm her giggles, he leant down to kiss her.
Cornelia returned his kiss with interest, and then saying "Truce, okay?" she clambered to her feet. Her hat had fallen off in their struggle and her blonde, bobbed hair was sticking out at all angles, rather reminiscent of a scarecrow. Retrieving her hat, she laughed as she brushed the snow from the front of her coat.
“So, you never gave me an answer. Can we go see your Mom?”
Leaning back on his hands, Mike stared up at her for a moment, and then shook his head and rolled his eyes in resignation. “Fine, we can go. But I’m only doing this for you, I want that noted.”
Grinning, Cornelia held out her hand to pull him to his feet. “Noted. And Mike?"
"Thanks,” she said softly, reaching up to peck him on the cheek. “You won’t regret it, I promise you.”
Mike raised his eyebrows, his hand firmly behind his back. “I may not,” he replied, his expression unreadable, “but you might,” and he pulled his arm forward to reveal a huge handful of snow.
Corney backed away, holding him off with her outstretched arm. “It’s a truce, dummkopf!”
“Is it? I don’t remember saying that!” and as he tried to pull her towards him, Cornelia wrenched her arm from his grasp and with a wild shriek, she set off full pelt across the common, with Mike in hot pursuit.
Mike duly kept his promise and a week later, Cornelia and her father found themselves accompanying him to his parents’ Duxbury home for lunch. Mike had been dreading it ever since Corney had talked him into agreeing, but he needn’t have worried, for Martha was on her best behaviour. As a matter of fact, best behaviour was an understatement. Having taken whatever Mrs. Ruggles had said very much to heart, she was being cringingly, nauseatingly nice.
For her part, far from being the awkward situation she had been fearing, Cornelia found the entire thing absolutely hilarious, not in small part because every time Martha made a sycophantic comment to her or her father, Richard, who had decided to come along for the show, pulled a face behind his mother’s back. Several times throughout lunch, Corney found herself having to bury her face in her napkin or turning her giggles into a cough.
As soon as lunch was over, William excitedly bore Joe off to examine his wine cellar and Mike went to take a look at why Richard’s car wouldn’t start. Left alone in the salon with Cornelia, Martha took a seat on one of the rigid, fashionable sofas and regarded her guest with a lofty air. For once, however, Corney was having none of it. Secure in the strength of her relationship with Mike, she was determined not to let Martha intimidate her in the way that she had previously, and she looked her hostess straight in the eye.
“Was there something you were wanting to say to me, Martha?” she asked, her tone polite and indifferent.
For a fleeting moment, it looked as if Martha’s façade were about to crack, as a nerve above her left eye began to twitch. Then, as quickly as it had disappeared, her ingratiating smile returned once more. “I suppose I should thank you for not telling Michael,” she replied, her voice sounding as if she were speaking under duress.
Cornelia fixed her with a frosty stare. “I didn’t do it for your sake, I did it for his.”
Squirming slightly in her seat, Martha coughed to clear her throat. “Yes well, be that as it may, I thank you all the same.”
“Fine.” Corney replied, fighting to keep her voice calm. “I promise you though, Martha, should you ever do anything like that again, I’ll tell him every last detail. And I think we both know who’d come off best should it come down to that, don’t we?” Having said her piece, Cornelia got to her feet and made her way across the room, not wanting to prolong the conversation any further. “Excuse me, but I think I’ll go see how they’re coming along with Richard’s car.”
She had just reached the door when she was stayed by Martha’s voice. “You know, despite what you may think of me, I do love my sons.”
Cornelia paused, her hand on the handle. “Well perhaps you should show them that then. You could start by apologising to Mike for ruining things last time – you owe him that much,” and without another word, she turned and left of the room, shutting the door behind her and leaving Martha alone to think over what had just been said.
Walking across the hall, she reached the front door and was just about to open it when she heard someone rattling the knob from the outside and stepped back just in time, as Mike threw it open.
He stopped as he caught sight of her and flashed her a wide grin. “I was just coming to look for you!”
“And I was coming to look for you!” Cornelia replied, returning his smile. “How’s Richard’s car?”
“Dead as the proverbial dodo! I’ll ask my buddy Jim to come take a look at it tomorrow. His Pop owns the repair shop in town so he knows far more about cars than either Rich or I do.”
“So what are you up to now?”
“Funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing!” Putting his arms around her waist, he pulled her towards him. “Sorry for leaving you with my mother. I hope she wasn’t too awful?”
Cornelia smiled and shook her head. “She’s not been so bad. Today’s actually been good I think. In fact,” she added, with an afterthought, thinking that a little white lie would do no harm, “she wants to talk to you.”
Mike frowned. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, you do. Come on, Mike,” she pleaded, as Mike pulled a face, “she’s trying, you know she is.”
Mike heaved a sigh. “I suppose you’re right. It can’t do any harm to talk to her, I guess.” He planted a kiss on Corney’s forehead. “Make sure you stay right here, though. I shan’t be long and then you and I are going to go build a snowman!”
Cornelia laughed. “You’re such a kid, Michael van Alden!”
“At your service!” Mike grinned, kissed her again and then released her. “Back in a few minutes,” and with that, he turned and disappeared into the salon.
As he closed the door behind him, another one opened on the opposite side of the hallway, and Mr. Flower appeared at the entrance to the cellar steps. Cornelia chuckled as she caught sight of him. He and William had clearly been sampling a few tipples, as her father had a spot of red wine on the front of his shirt.
“What have you done with William?”
Joe looked up at the sound of her voice and beamed. “He’s opening a bottle or two to breath. Some damn fine tipples he has down there!”
Cornelia rolled her eyes. “So I’m driving home then, I take it?”
“Would you mind?” She shook her head. “So, how was the Wicked Witch of the West?”
“Poppa, shhh! She’ll hear you!”
“Not sure that I care after what she did to you. In fact, I dunno which is worse – her the last time we saw her or her today. Have you ever witnessed anything so nauseating as that display during lunch?”
Corney laughed. “I know but please, Poppa, let’s just do this for Mike, okay? You know what it means to him.”
“Alright, alright, I know, I promise to be good. So long as you don’t expect me to be friends with the woman!”
“Heavens no!” She grinned and slipped a hand through her father’s arm. “Come on, let’s go see if William needs a hand.”
Meanwhile, back in the salon, Martha watched her son as he sat down on the arm of the sofa. Mike crossed his arms across his chest and glared back at her.
“Corney says you wanted to see me?”
Martha raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Did she?”
“Yes.” There was a moment’s silence as Martha stared at him. “So? What do you want, Mom? I don’t have all day.”
“I don’t want anything!”
“Well why did you tell Corney you wanted to talk with me then?”
“I didn’t!” Martha snapped back, looking affronted.
“What do you mean you didn’t? Corney said…oh.” He stopped as realisation dawned, and drew his mouth into a straight line. “I guess she must have been mistaken then,” and getting to his feet, he walked towards the door.
“Lunch went well,” she called after him, and he turned back to face her.
“Yes, it was okay.”
Martha gave him a nervous smile. “So, what have you been up to?”
“Working, the same as ever. Mom, do you actually want something?” Martha said nothing and Mike rolled his eyes. “Right, well this is stupid. I’m going back to join the others.”
“Michael wait, please. I’m…” Martha stared down at her lap as she mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
Mike stared at her, not sure that he had heard her right. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said I’m sorry.” Martha lifted her head to look him in the eye. “Sorry that I was so rude to Cornelia and her father, and that I ruined your tea like that.”
There was a moment’s silence before Mike slowly replied. “Okay...”
“Michael, I only do things because I care, you know.”
“How does you being so rude to my girl equate to caring?”
“I just want you to have the very best!”
“Corney is the very best for me, Mom. She loves me for just who I am, not what my name is or who you and Pop are. She cares about what happens to me and whether I’m happy or not, and quite frankly I love her to bits and she’s all I want in my life.”
“I care about what happens to you too, Michael, you are my son…”
“Well you’ve a funny way of showing it sometimes.”
Martha stared down at her lap again, for once in her life looking genuinely shamefaced. “I know.” She paused and then raised her eyes back to her son. “I promise that from now on, I will be nothing but polite her.”
“And accept her as the girl I want to be with?” Mike’s question was greeted with silence. “Mom?”
“And accept her as the girl you want to be with,” Martha replied reluctantly, the word’s sticking slightly in her throat.
Mike stared at her impassively for a moment, and then his face broke into a broad grin. “Okay then!” and crossing the room, he threw his arms around her and enveloped her in a bear hug.
Martha stood rigid in his arms for a couple of seconds, and then tentatively reached around and patted him on the back. “I thought perhaps this afternoon we could all sit down,” she said, as he released her and she straightened her clothing and patted down her hair, “get to know more about each other and our backgrounds.”
“What? I’m interested! I’m not going to judge anyone!”
“No, of course you’re not!” Mike rolled his eyes. “I’ve a better idea. Corney and I are going to build a snowman. Why don’t you come help us out? Get to know her that way?”
“I can’t go building snowmen!”
“Because I’m a grown adult!”
“So? Come on, Mom, live a little!”
“But…but I’m wearing Chanel!”
“Then go change! Come along, Mother, you’re coming to build a snowman and I’m not taking no for an answer!” and as she continued protesting, he placed a strong hand on her back and pushed her towards the door.
With hostilities with Martha suspended, for now at least, and Mike back to his usual upbeat self, it was a much more cheerful Cornelia who set off with her father to spend Christmas in her birthplace of Burlington, Vermont.
Soon after the sudden death of his wife, when Cornelia was just a baby, Joseph Flower had packed up, sold up and left town with his young daughter, determined to put the hurt of the past behind him and begin a new life for them both. They had moved first to Philadelphia, where Joe had begun to invest the moderate amount of money that he had received from selling his family store in Burlington in a couple of new businesses. It turned out that he had a shrewd eye for investment, and what started out as a small bit of speculation on his part soon grew to success he could only have dreamed of. He invested in property, played the stock market, backed inventors and entrepreneurs, his dealings taking them first to London, then into Europe, and he found himself travelling to far flung countries such as India and South Africa as his wealth and reputation grew.
Cornelia had moved with him, bouncing from nanny to governess, then school to school, never settling anywhere for very long, until a chance encounter with an associate of Mr Flower’s had led them to the Chalet School in Austria’s Tyrol. After an initially rocky start, not helped by her father’s tendency towards indulgence to try and make up for his frequent absences from her young life, Cornelia finally found somewhere to belong. More upheavals had followed though, with the school’s flight from Austria, the war, the death of her beloved Mademoiselle, and the years in Ireland and her father’s ailing health, and she had begun to feel displaced again, as if she might never find anywhere to settle down. That was, until their move to Boston and the fateful night, over a year before, when she had met Michael van Alden. Now, with her father’s health on the mend, a new close circle of friends, and the man who she knew to be the love of her life by her side, she finally felt like she had somewhere that she could call her home.
Now that she was feeling settled, however, she had developed a something of a yearning to learn more about her roots, to get a sense of where she came from, and she had been nagging her father for months about taking a trip to Vermont. Joe had been reluctant at first. He rarely spoke about Burlington, only talked of his late wife if Cornelia asked him a direct question, and had never spoken to her about his youth. Finally though, faced with his daughter’s endless pleading, he had given in and agreed that they could visit for the holidays - the time, or so he told, her, when the city was at its best.
Temperatures had remained low across New England throughout December, and they arrived, two days before Christmas, to find the lake frozen and the city blanketed with snow. Cornelia was thoroughly charmed, delighted by the holiday displays that lit up the shop windows, people skating on Lake Champlain during the day and fairy lights twinkling in the trees at night, carollers singing on street corners, collecting money for the poor, and the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and roasted chestnuts filling the air. She loved Boston during the holiday season, but somehow this captured her more.
They were staying in a small inn near the waterfront and the proprietors, a friendly and welcoming couple in their fifties, had gone all out to provide a wonderful holiday experience for their guests. The Flowers got on famously with the other Christmas visitors - a family from Maine with two young daughters, some newlyweds from Albany and an elderly couple from just over the border in Canada – and a fabulous time was had by all as they exclaimed over gifts, devoured mountains of delicious food and spent the evenings telling tales around the roaring fire in the inn’s cosy and comfortable front room.
Once Christmas was over, Cornelia and her father spent their days taking tours of the city and the surrounding area, as Joe showed her the house where she had been born, the home he had grown up in as a child, and the places he had enjoyed as a young boy. He had begun the trip quite tense and quiet, as if he was struggling with their return to the scene of his early life, but as the week went on and he saw how much his daughter was enjoying her visit, he began to relax and seemed to be taking pleasure in reminiscing. They had even bumped into a couple of people he had known from his childhood days, and had found himself happy to make their acquaintance once again.
It was now the final day of their trip, and they had spent the morning visiting the shops and buying souvenirs to take back to Boston. Deciding that it was time for some lunch, Mr Flower had steered his daughter off Church Street towards Henry’s Diner, a Burlington institution that he had promised they would visit before their stay came to an end. Chatting idly as they approached the restaurant, Joe was about to step back and usher Cornelia in first, when the door suddenly opened, and they found themselves face-to-face with a tall, wiry, fair-haired man of around Mr Flower’s own age.
The stranger froze as he caught sight of them, his face set with an expression as icy as the air outside, and Cornelia felt her father tense at her side. The way that Joe and this man were looking at each other was unnerving her, and she was just about to say something when her father broke the heavy silence
The man she now knew to be Walter glared at her father, as if wishing he would turn to stone. “What are you doing here?”
Not liking the tone she heard in Walter’s voice, Cornelia placed a protective hand through her father’s arm, and he reached around with his other hand and squeezed her fingers in return.
“We’re here visiting for the holidays,” Mr Flower replied, trying to keep his voice even, though Cornelia could feel him shaking a little. “I wanted to show Corney where she hails from.” Walter turned to Cornelia, as if noticing her for the first time, and looked at her with a furrowed brow as Joe continued. “Walter, this is Cornelia, my daughter.”
Cornelia noticed Walter’s expression twitch, before he hastily rearranged it. Giving her a cursory nod, he turned back to Mr Flower. “I’m surprised you’ve the cheek to show your face around here.”
Joe took a deep breath. “It was a long time ago, Walter.”
“Not long enough,” and with a final nod to Cornelia, he pushed past them and took his leave.
“Poppa, who was that man?”
Ignoring his daughter’s question, Mr Flower took hold of her elbow and steered her inside the diner, out of the cold.
Continuing as if he had not heard her, Joe spoke to a waitress, who directed them to a booth near the windows and took their drinks order, before leaving them to decide what they would like to eat.
“Pop, don’t ignore me! Who was that?”
Cornelia was worried by the encounter and it came across clearly in her voice. Mr Flower glanced up at her and gave a deep sigh. “Let’s order first, then I’ll explain.”
Realising that she had no choice but to do as he said, Corney glanced quickly at the menu and then looked around her, frustrated, until their server returned with their drinks and they chose what they wanted to eat. As the waitress bustled off again with their order, she turned expectantly to her father and tried again.
“So? Who is he?”
Mr Flower sipped his coffee, then sat back in his seat and took a deep breath. “That is your Uncle Walter. Your Momma’s brother.”
Cornelia stared at her father in shock. “I have an uncle?” she exclaimed, in her clarion tones. “And you kept that from me?”
“Corney, keep your voice down!” Joe retorted, looking warily around as a few of the other patrons turned in their direction.
“But…but I don’t understand. Why did you never say?” she asked, lowering her tone. “Is he married? Do I have cousins? Do I have any other relatives you’ve not informed me of?” she finished, a trace of bitterness creeping into her voice as she spoke.
Joe ran a hand across his face, suddenly looking very weary. “He was your momma’s only sibling. He was married – to a lady named Betty – but I’ve no idea if they had children or not. And I can’t tell you if your grandparents are still alive.” He took another sip of his coffee, and then looked across the table at her. “I’ve not spoken to them since the day we left.”
Struggling to take in this new turn in her life, Cornelia shook her head as if trying to clear it. “I can't believe I had family all this time and you never told me about them!”
“Corney, I’m sorry…”
“I don’t understand. Why have you not spoken to them?”
A pained expression came over Mr Flower’s face. “Because after your momma died, they wanted nothing more to do with me. With us. I figured nothing much had changed over the years so I never brought them up. And it obviously hasn’t, given what you just saw from your Uncle Walter.”
“But Pop, why…”
“Please Corney, can we not talk about it – about them - anymore.”
At that moment their food arrived, and they lapsed into a heavy silence. As she took a bite of her burger and picked out some fries, Cornelia kept throwing glances at her father but he appeared to be lost in his thoughts, and having noted the hurt in his voice when he had last spoken, she was reluctant to bring it up again, however much she was yearning to ask more questions. Eventually, finding the silence too much to bear, she took a sip of her milkshake, wiped her mouth and gave a small cough.
“Is this why you weren’t so eager to come back here? Because you were worried we’d run into them?”
Recalling himself to the present, Joe looked up at her and gave a nod. “Yes, in part. There are a lot of painful memories for me here, Corney. Ones I wasn’t so keen to relive.”
“Oh Pop, you should have said! I can't believe I made you come here. I'm so sorry.”
The distress in his daughter’s voice shook Joe out of his bout of self-pity, and reaching across the table, he placed a hand over one of hers.
“You didn’t make me, Corney. I chose to come.”
“But I kept on at you…”
“I know, but I didn’t have to say yes, did I? And in truth I’m not sorry I did, so please stop your worrying. It’s been a wonderful week, and it’s actually helped in many ways to come back here, put a few ghosts to rest.”
“Until now.” Feeling her father squeeze her hand, she gave him a tentative smile. “At least we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“I know.” Withdrawing his hand, he heaved a sigh and then forced a smile onto his face. “And we are not going to let this spoil it for us. So how about we stop dwelling on it, eat up and head back out there,” he stated firmly, glancing at the wintry sky outside. “We’d best hurry if you want that last skate on the lake – those look like snow clouds, or I miss my guess!” and with that, he turned back to his meal, Walter and the past forgotten for now.
"And he won’t even answer any questions?"
“Not one. He just clams up and refuses to talk about it. I don’t get it, Evvy - am I so wrong for wanting to know about them?”
Taking a sip of her coffee, Evadne Lannis regarded her friend across the breakfast table. “I dunno, Corney. Your pop generally has a good reason for doing things, you know that. There has to be something more to it. Are you sure you really want to open this can?”
Cornelia frowned. “That’s what Mike says as well, but I can’t help wondering about them. You know I’ve always wanted a family, and now I find out that I had one all along and he kept them from me. I’m trying not to be cross, honestly I am, but I can’t help feeling it sometimes,” and sitting back in her chair, she heaved a sigh.
The weeks since their return from Vermont had passed by as well as Cornelia could have hoped. Mr Flower had got through the worst of winter with only a minor cold, the strongest he had been in several years. The few times she had been in Martha’s presence, that lady had been perfectly pleasant, if not entirely sincere, which made their occasional weekend lunch visits to Duxbury a great deal more pleasurable. And most importantly, her relationship with Mike had continued to go from strength to strength, and she increasingly found herself daydreaming about what their future together might hold
The only thing blighting her happiness was her father’s ongoing refusal to discuss what had happened in Burlington. At first, it had not bothered her too much. She could accept that the memories were painful for him – she even felt guilty about having opened up those wounds by insisting they go to Vermont in the first place. As time went on, however, what had happened on the last day of their holiday continued to pray on her mind. She had begun to ask questions here and there, desperate to understand what happened, but her father had shut down every time she tried, and she was getting increasingly frustrated.
Picking up her fork, Cornelia pushed a piece of pancake through the maple syrup on her plate. “You can’t understand, Evvy. Your folks were always there for you, even when you were away at school. You always knew where you belonged. I know Poppa had to go away for work, but sometimes I just wish he’d been around more.” She dropped her fork back on her plate. “And is it really so bad to want to know more about my mom?”
Reaching across the table, Evadne placed a slim hand over one of Corney's, and gave her fingers a squeeze. “No, it’s not so bad.”
Having a sigh and giving her friend a thin smile, Cornelia released her hand from Evadne’s grasp. “Anyway, enough about that. I don’t want to talk of it anymore.” Pushing her plate away, she picked up her coffee cup and asked, “When’s Richard supposed to be here?”
“Any time now,” Evadne replied, glancing down at her watch. “Are you certain you don’t want to tag along?”
A look of horror crossed Cornelia’s face. “No fear! I hate Filene’s at the best of times, let alone on a weekend.” She shuddered just thinking about Boston’s department store and its famous bargain basement. “You can take on that loopy quest all by yourself. I’ll stay here in my nice comfortable home, thank you very much!” Draining her mug, she placed it back on the table. “I still can’t believe you got Richard to agree to this.”
“Richard doesn’t actually know about this yet!” Evvy replied, with a grin. “All he knows is that it’s time to pay his dues.”
Cornelia laughed. Evadne had decided to take advantage of her visit to Boston to collect on the promise that Richard had made, to pay her back for helping him get out of his relationship with Heavenly the previous summer. She had been wracking her brains for months, trying to come up with an idea that would cause him the most discomfort, and had finally settled on a shopping trip into the city, including a visit to the aforementioned Filene’s, where she would be able to pick up some bargains and Richard would be able to follow, acting as her footman and carrying all her purchases. She had arrived the previous day, armed with lists from Cassie and a couple of her other friends back in Long Island, to ensure she had plenty of bags and boxes that would need carrying, and had called Richard to instruct him to dress in a suit and pick her up from the Flowers’ at ten a.m. sharp, and refused to tell him anything more.
“You know he’s gonna kill you for this?”
“I’d like to see him try!” Rising from her chair, she picked up a chauffeur’s cap from a nearby dresser, just as the doorbell rang through the house. “I can’t believe Mike actually owns this.”
“He bought it for one of our dates.” Evadne looked confused and Cornelia smiled. “I’ll tell you another time," and placing her hand on her friend’s back, she steered her out into the hall.
They opened the door to find Richard standing on the doorstep, dressed in his Sunday best, a wide grin on his face. “Here I am, suited up and ready to do your bidding, ma’am,” he said with a flourish, giving a little bow in Evvy’s direction. His smile faded as he noted the cap in her hand. “What’s that?”
“Your hat for the day.”
“You want me to chauffeur you around?” he retorted, smirking. “That’s your grand plan?”
“Not at all,” Evvy replied with a supercilious air. Reaching up, she placed the cap on his head, setting it a jaunty angle. “Now get a shove on. The sooner we leave, the longer we’ll have in town,” and taking him by the shoulders, she turned him back towards the car.
“Hold up, you’ve not told me where we’re going yet!”
Throwing Cornelia a wicked grin, Evadne followed him out out of the house. Corney watched them make their way across the forecourt, Richard still complaining, then chuckling to herself, she shut the door behind them and turned back into her house.
It was mid-afternoon before they returned, and by then Cornelia had finished her chores, caught up on some correspondence, eaten her lunch and spent some time on the phone to Eliza, catching up on her friend’s news. She was now lounging on the floor of the sitting room reading a book, her shoulders propped up in the lap of a giant cuddly tiger that Mike had brought her for Valentine’s Day, just two week's before. In a bid to make amends for his failure of the previous year, Mike had turned up on the Flowers’ doorstep on the fourteenth of February, laden down with an enormous card, several bunches of flowers and the aforementioned tiger, who was, he informed his girlfriend, to henceforth be known as Cyril. Cornelia had laughed, declared Cyril the most absurd thing she had ever seen, and the tiger had lived in her bedroom ever since.
Hearing the front door open, she sat up, resting her back against Cyril’s chest. A moment later, the sitting room door flew open and Richard barrelled into the room, laden down with more shopping bags than Cornelia had thought possible.
“Did you have fun?” she asked sweetly
Richard threw the bags down against the wall, not caring that half of them fell over and disgorged their contents onto the sitting room floor, and stretched his arms in an effort to get his blood flow running properly again. “Don’t you play all innocent,” he retorted, scowling at Cornelia. “I know you had a hand in all this too. I’d never have come if you’d done the decent thing and told me she was going to use me as her packhorse!”
“I think you mean ass!” Evadne put in, smiling as she entered the room behind him.
“Anyway, you had no choice in the matter. You said you’d make it up to me, so this is your penance.”
Richard glowered at her, and then gestured towards the bags. “Who shops this much anyway? No normal person I’ve ever met!”
From her perch on the floor, Cornelia eyed the mountain of shopping piled against her sitting room wall with a curious air. “How are you planning on getting all those back to New York? You do remember you travelled up by train?”
Evadne simply raised her eyebrows at Richard, her smile widening to a broad grin.
Richard’s eyes widened in horror. “No! Not a chance! Don’t even think about it!”
“You promised you’d do whatever I asked.”
“Don’t you think I’ve done enough?”
“Not yet, no.”
There was silence for a moment, as Richard glared at her and she smiled back at him benignly.
“You’re evil, Evvy Lannis. Pure evil,” and with that, he flounced dramatically out of the room.
Cornelia laughed, as she heard the front door slam in his wake. “I love the way you deal with him.”
Crossing the room, Evadne flopped down on the nearest sofa. “I’ve dealt with far worse than Richard van Alden, let me tell you. I worked with fighter pilots during the war remember? He’s kid's play compared with them.” Looking down at her friend, she regarded her with an amused air. “Nice pillow by the way.”
Cornelia nodded. “Thank you very much. It had to be good for something!” Then, as Evvy chuckled, “Don’t laugh at me, Evvy Lannis, or I’ll not let you have a turn.”
“I thought you said it was the most absurd thing you’d ever laid eyes on?”
“Well it is - it’s ridiculous, look at it! It’s a giant floppy tiger almost the same size as me, with a heart that says ‘I’m Wild About You!’,” and she lifted Cyril’s long floppy arm holding the offending heart to demonstrate. “Who buys something like this?”
“Yes, well Mike’s ridiculous too.”
“And yet you’ve had it in pride of place on your bed ever since he gave to you.”
“Well it had to go somewhere!”
Evadne grinned as she watched her friend cuddle back against the much-maligned floppy creature. “You don’t fool me, Corney Flower. You’re pleased as punch with it and you know it!”
“Well maybe I like it a little.” Evadne raised her eyebrows. “Okay fine, maybe I like it a whole lot. But don’t tell anyone!”
“As if I would. Anyway, if he got you that for Valentines, then can you imagine what you’re getting for your anniversary next week?” At her words, Cornelia turned a rather startling shade of red, and Evadne looked back at her, bemused. “What?”
Corney looked down at her lap, uncharacteristically coy. “Evvy, if I tell you something do you promise to keep it to yourself?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
Taking a deep breath, Corney looked up at her, her cheeks still flushed. “Mike’s arranged for us to go to Burrell’s Point next Saturday.”
“Isn’t that where you had your first date?”
Cornelia nodded. “It used to belong to his great-grandfather. He and Richard own it now. We’re spending the afternoon there, going for a walk along the cliffs – it’s so beautiful, Evvy, I’ll take you up there sometime.” She took another deep breath before continuing. “Then we’re having dinner up there at the house. And he’s getting it all set so that we can spend the night.”
Not following Cornelia’s meaning, Evadne looked back her expectantly, and Corney stared back at her with pleading eyes, willing her to understand so that she didn’t have to spell it out. Suddenly the penny dropped.
“Oh! Oh you mean…” As Evadne’s eyes flew open to their widest extent, Cornelia flushed bright red again and nodded. “But I thought you said you wanted to wait?”
“I know, but I don’t want to any longer - at least I don’t think so. I…I’m…” Cornelia was struggling with her words, finding the conversation excruciatingly embarrassing, but desperate to confide in her best friend at the same time. “I’m real nervous, Evvy. We’ve fooled around a little, but not, well...you know…” She twisted Cyril’s paw in her hands, her cheeks still burning. “And I’m twenty-six and I've still not done it yet. What does that say about me?”
“It says it means a great deal to you and you want it to be special.” The concern was evident in Evadne’s voice, and she regarded her friend with worried eyes. “Corney, are you sure you really want to do this? ‘Cause you know you don’t have to just because he does? He’s not pressuring you, is he?”
“No! Mike’s not like that Evvy, you know that. It was me that brought it up, not him. And I really want to be with him, I know I do, but I keep chickening out. It’s just…” She took another deep breath. “I’ve never done it before and he has and…well, what if it puts him off of me? What if…?”
She tailed off and Evadne shook her head. “I really don’t think you need have that worry, Corney. He loves you like crazy – you know he does. Nothing’s gonna put him off of you.” Cornelia still looked unsure, and Evvy gave her a warm smile. “You know, I wasn’t Ralph’s first either and I was real nervous too, but afterwards I never regretted it once. And if it comes to it and you can’t go through with it, then tell him. He’ll understand, you know he will.”
“But what if we do and it’s awful?”
Evadne grimaced. “I don’t think anyone’s first time is the greatest. I know mine sure wasn’t. But it still feels special - being so close when you’re in love. And it definitely gets better, I promise you!” she added with a grin.
Corney flushed red again. “Thanks Evvy,” she mumbled, staring down at the cuddly paw she still clutched in her hands. “You must think I’m such a kid about all this.”
Evadne laughed in surprise. “You really think that?” Cornelia shrugged. “Just because I’ve done things you haven’t, it doesn’t make you a kid, Corney. If anything it probably makes you more grown up.” Cornelia looked up at her friend, confused, and now it was Evvy’s time to blush. “Since Ralph died I’ve been real lonely – you know that – and, well...let’s just say I’ve done a few things I kinda wish I hadn’t.” She sighed, and stared up at the ceiling. “Sometimes it just hits me real hard and I really need someone - and a few times, back in England, I've gave in to that. But then it was over and I was still lonely, just with a heap of bad choices in my past.” She looked back at Cornelia and gave her a wry smile. “See? Not so grown up after all.”
Corney watched her closely for a moment, and then said, “Come here.”
Evadne stared back at her, and Cornelia repeated her request, patting the ground next to her and shuffling over a little. Getting up from her perch on the sofa, Evvy made her way across the room and sat down next to her friend, between the giant tiger’s legs. Reaching across her, Cornelia took hold of Cyril’s other paw and pulled both long floppy arms tight around them.
“There. Have a tiger hug!”
They sat in silence for a minute, both gripping Cyril’s furry paws as they reflected on everything they had said. Then Evadne began to giggle.
“This thing really is ridiculous!”
“I told you so! But I kinda love it anyway.” Cornelia patted Cyril’s paw, and then turned her head to look at Evadne. “You okay?”
Evvy nodded. Turning on her side to face her friend, she stared at her for a moment, before her mouth curved up in a wicked grin. “So, do I need to explain to you how it all works? What goes where?”
“Oh shut up!” Evadne laughed at her indignation, and Cornelia gave her friend an almighty shove, sending her rolling out of Cyril’s arms. “I don’t know why I bother sharing my tiger with you Evvy Lannis, you don’t deserve it! Richard’s right, you're just evil!” and as Evvy dissolved into peals of laughter, she scowled and pulled Cyril’s arms around her in a huff.
Sitting on a large wooden porch swing outside the old weatherboard house at Burrell’s Point, Cornelia shivered a little and pulled the rough woollen blanket tightly around her body. The sky was clear, the air crisp, dozens upon dozens of stars visible in the early morning sky. She stared into the distance, at the first glimmers of dawn visible on the horizon, lost in her thoughts.
Hearing the click of the patio doors as they opened behind her, she turned towards Mike with a smile. “Hey you.”
“Hey yourself.” Mike crossed the porch, his dressing gown belted tight at his waist and dragging an enormous hand-stitched quilt behind him. “What are you doing out here? You must be frozen stiff.”
“Something woke me and I couldn’t sleep again. You looked so tight asleep I didn’t want to wake you, so I thought I’d come see the sunrise.”
“Want some company?”
“I'd love some.”
“Up you get then,” and taking hold of her hand, he pulled her to her feet. As the blanket slipped from around her body, he smiled as he noticed she was wearing his shirt. “Suits you.”
Cornelia grinned. “Yes, I rather thought so!” she replied, looking down at herself. “I thought I could wear it as a dress!”
Mike chuckled, as he sat down on the porch swing, the enormous quilt wrapped around his back, and pulled her towards him. Cornelia made herself comfortable, curling up against his front like a cat, the blanket spread across her legs, and he pulled the quilt around their bodies, closing it in front of them and wrapping his arms around her.
“There, you should be warmer now.”
Nuzzling against the quilt, Cornelia screwed up her nose. “It smells of moth balls.”
“Well it’s been sitting in a closet for the last two years, so it was that or have it full of moths and holes!”
Cornelia looked closely at the patchwork material, with its multi-coloured pattern of stars and intricate stitching. “Where’d it come from?”
“My great-grandmother made it.”
“It took her thirty years to get it this far. It used to live in her bedroom here, where we stayed tonight. I always loved it and Mom gave it to me when my grandmother passed on, and I returned it up here when I inherited the place. Seemed like it belonged.”
Craning her neck, Cornelia looked up at the weather-beaten building and then back to quilt again. “It fits perfectly.”
“Faded and moth-balled. Just like this rickety old place!”
“This rickety, charming, wonderful old place, you mean!” she corrected, and laughing, Mike dropped a kiss on her head and tightened his arms around her.
“So are you okay?”
Corney tilted her head, gazing up at him with shining eyes. “Very okay.”
“You're sure? No regrets?”
“Not one.” Lifting a hand to his face, she gently stroked his cheek. “Wanna know something?” Mike nodded. “Yesterday was the best day of my life. And not just the end bit. All of it.” A huge smile lit up her face and a blush coloured her cheeks, as she added, “I’m so happy I feel like my heart’s gonna burst.”
Mike gazed down at her, his grey eyes brimming over with affection. “Me too, sweetheart,” and lifting her chin, he brought his lips down to hers.
When they finally pulled apart, Mike closed the quilt tightly around them again and Cornelia snuggled back into his chest. The sky was beginning to brighten as the sun made its way above the horizon, casting orange streaks across the emerging bright blue sky. Corney heaved a satisfied sigh as she took in the beauty before her.
“Have you ever wanted to live here?”
Mike smiled. “I’ve thought about it here and there, but when it comes down to it, it’s too cut off in the middle of winter to make it practical. I wouldn’t want to be making the drive to the city each day through all the snow.”
“And there’s Richard’s ghost also,” Cornelia put in with a wicked grin.
Mike nodded, his voice deadpan as he replied, “Ah yes, the infamous Lady of the Bedsheet. Legend has it she, the Earl Mattress and the Duke of Quilt all lived here in perfect harmony until one day there was a falling out.”
“Jealousy, of course. It was a torrid time – the mattress and quilt started to fight - one wanted her to be a topsheet, one an undersheet. They had a huge row one night as the pillows looked on and the poor bedsheet was torn in two.”
“That’s rotten luck.”
“I know. Just terrible. She vowed to haunt them for the rest of their days. The mattress is long departed now, but the quilt has to live out the rest of his time here, all alone, with just a ghostly bedsheet to remind him of what he did.”
“What became of the pillows?”
Mike shook his head, his face sombre. “Innocent bystanders, caught in the crossfire. It was a massacre – there was nothing left but feathers. We don’t speak of it often, it hits too hard.”
Unable to keep a straight face any longer, Cornelia started to giggle. “You’re crazy.”
“Ah but you wouldn’t have me any other way!”
“That I wouldn’t,” Corney laughed, pressing a kiss to his jaw.
Mike grinned down at her. “I do want to give things a spruce and a lick of paint this summer though, and mend some of the furniture. Make it more comfortable to spend time here. You up for the challenge?”
“Sure am. Sounds fun! Hey, and maybe we can throw a Labor Day party when we’re all done! Show the place off a little.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Turning to stare out across the clifftops, now bathed in the orange morning light, Cornelia smiled and said quietly, “It would be a beautiful place for a wedding someday.”
Taken by surprise, Mike peered at her curiously, but she kept her eyes fixed firmly on the horizon in front of her, her face a picture of innocence. Eventually, realising she had no intention of saying more, he took hold of her left hand and chuckled.
“That it would,” and gently stroking her wedding finger, he dropped a kiss on her hair and they lapsed into silence, staring out at the morning sun.
A few weeks later, Cornelia was perched on a stool in Mike’s workshop, watching him cut grooves in a drawer of a cherry wood dresser that he was making as a nursery present for their friends Carol and Geoff. She was supposed to be helping by sanding the edges of the ones that he had already worked on, but the sandpaper hung loosely in her hand, her mind only half on what was happening in the workshop.
Throwing the sandpaper down on the bench, she heaved a deep sigh. “I’ve been thinking – I gotta go back to Burlington.”
Looking up from his work, Mike regarded his girlfriend with a furrowed brow. “Corney, I thought we’d been over this several times already?”
“So? Is there some rule that we can’t talk of it again?”
“That’s not what I meant. I just think…”
“You think it’s a bad idea,” she interrupted testily. “I know that already. I’ve heard it over and over – from you and Evvy and Velma and Ela and everyone else who wants to stick their oar in. I know what you all think, but none of you seem to care what I think.”
“Oh come on Corney, you know that’s not true.”
“Do I? ‘Cause all I keep hearing is that Pop must have a reason for not telling so I should leave it be. But why should I? She was my Momma, Mike, and they’re her family. Why don’t I get to have a say in all this?” Her voice was beginning to sound choked, and it was so rare for Cornelia to come anywhere close to tears that Mike reached out towards her, concerned. She snatched her hands out of his reach. “You’ve always had a family, even if they are a little crazy. You don’t know what it was like to grow up alone so much of the time.” She swallowed hard. “I love Poppa with all my heart, but I spent so many years being lonely, Mike. I just wanna know them. Is that so bad?”
Her eyes now shone suspiciously bright, and rising from his stool, Mike walked across to where she was sitting, wrapping his arms around her as she buried her face in his chest.
“Your Pop just wants what’s best for you.”
“I know.” Cornelia clung to him a few seconds longer, as she pulled herself together, and then pulled back and looked up at his worried face. “But I have the right to know them if I choose. And that thing Walter said about Pop showing his face – I’ve been thinking about it - don’t you think that’s a little odd?”
“Corney, I really don’t think…”
“Don’t tell me you think I shouldn’t want to know. I’m not a kid, I can make up my own mind. Something happened, Mike, and I have a right to know what broke up my family. Wouldn’t you wanna know if it were yours?”
Mike heaved a sigh. “Yes, probably.” Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, he gave her a tender smile. “I’m just worried about you, sweetheart. You’re pinning so much on this, but you’ve no idea what even happened back then – or if they’ll see you now.”
“I know, but I have to try at least. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want but you can’t stop me from going.”
“I wouldn’t even try to, honey. I just don't wanna see you hurt, that's all." Mike reached out and enveloped her in a hug once more. “And of course I’m going with you. You don’t even know these people – I’m not leaving you to face them alone.” He dropped a kiss on her fair locks and squeezed her tight. “I’ll talk with my boss on Monday – see when they can spare me for a week or so.” Cornelia mumbled her thanks into his broad chest, and he gently stroked her back. “What are you gonna tell your Pops?” She pulled back and grimaced up at him. “You have to tell him something, Corney.”
“Then I’ll tell him we’re going on vacation. He doesn’t need to know where.” Mike opened his mouth to contradict her but she cut him off. “I can’t tell him, Mike, not yet. Not til I find out more. He’ll be cross I’ve even gone back and I don’t wanna hurt him any more than I have to.”
“I’m really not sure it’s such a great idea keeping it from him, Corney. Please think about it, at least.”
“I have thought about it, and I don’t want him knowing, Mike. That’s my decision. And you can’t tell anyone else either. I don’t want them letting it out.’
Mike stared at her for a moment and then heaved a sigh. “Fine, I won’t mention it."
“Thank you,” Turning back to the bench, she picked up the sandpaper that she had thrown down earlier and then gave him a gentle shove back towards his work. “Now get back to your drawers. Caro’s due in a month and you have a whole dresser to make by then!”
Mike shot her a concerned look but realising that, for now at least, she had said her final word on the subject, he reluctantly did as he was told.
Apologies for my tardiness with this update. Normal service will hopefully now be resumed!
It was a few weeks before Mike was able to take time off from his work, and April had just turned to May before Cornelia was finally granted her wish to return to Vermont.
They had opted to stay in the same guesthouse that she and her father had visited a few months before, and the genial hosts welcomed Cornelia back with open arms, and professed themselves overjoyed to finally meet her beau, having heard so much about him over the Flowers’ holiday visit. As soon as they were checked in and freshened up after their long drive, Corney and Mike found themselves happily pressed into sitting down with the hospitable couple for coffee and cakes. They whiled away the next couple of hours with good conversation and the most delicious donuts that either of them had ever tasted, and it was late afternoon before they finally returned to their rooms.
Once she had finished unpacking the remaining contents of her suitcase and had stowed it safely on top of the wardrobe, Cornelia made herself comfortable on her bed and began leafing through a notebook, a large map of Burlington spread out on the pretty floral bedspread in front of her, papers covered in her neat, rounded script placed in piles around it. She was deep in concentration, studying her notes and tracing a line on the map with her forefinger, when there came a tap at her bedroom door and at her cheery call of ‘Come on in!’, it opened and Mike entered the room.
"What's all this?"
Cornelia grinned as he made his way across to the bed, pushing aside some sheaves of paper to make room for himself to sit down. “Promise you won’t think me crazy?”
“Why, what have you done?”
“Well I thought I may as well use all that time we had to wait before you could get off of work, so I started doing a little research.”
“A little?” Mike raised his eyebrows, smirking as he glanced down at all the paraphernalia around him. “I hate to think how many papers you’d be buried under if you’d done a lot!”
“Don’t be a mean!” Cornelia retorted, sticking her tongue out at him. “And I had to do something, else what would we have done – walked around all week knocking on doors and hoping we chance upon them?”
Mike chuckled. “Well it would have added a little spice to things, that’s for certain. So come on then, tell me what you’ve found.”
Reaching across to the nightstand nearest her, Cornelia picked up a worn, folded sheet of paper that looked like it had seen better days. “I searched through some of Poppa's papers when he was out one day and found their wedding certificate. I know I shouldn’t have,” she added quickly, seeing the look of surprise on Mike’s face, “but I couldn’t ask him, Mike, and I didn’t know where else to begin. So now I know Momma’s surname was Healey.” She handed the piece of paper over to her boyfriend, and watched his hands as he unfolded it and smoothed it out. “Even if this is all a dead loss, at least I know one new thing about her anyhow.”
Mike looked up at her, as she gave him a nervous smile. “You didn’t know that already?”
Cornelia shook her head. “I guess I never thought to ask.”
Glancing down again at the sheet of paper he held in his hands, Mike’s brow furrowed as he noted both the date and the mention of the church in Elkton MD, but decided to let it be for now. Instead, he folded the certificate and handed it back to her. “So what else did you find out?”
“I didn’t know where to begin with tracking them, so I went down to the Public Library.” Corney waved her notepad at him, and he saw that the open pages were covered in what looked like addresses and telephone numbers, most of which were crossed out. “When I explained what I wanted, the clerk there was real helpful and she ordered me in a telephone book for the Burlington area. Then when it arrived, she helped me go through and track down anyone who was any kind of W. Healey and I wrote to them all.” She pointed at a stack of papers beside the map. “I got letters back from nearly all of them, saying they were sorry but I had the wrong people. There’s only one I didn’t hear from.” She held up the notebook again and Mike saw one address that had not been struck through, for a Mr W.A. Healey, in Shelburne, VT. “It must be him, Mike. My Uncle Walter.”
“And where’s Shelburne.”
“Right here.” She pointed to an area adjacent to Lake Champlain, just south of Burlington itself. “I wanted so badly to call through and see if it really was him, but I was afraid he’d hang up the line. It must be him though. It has to be.”
Mike stared down at the map for a few moments, looking at the roads she had surrounded with bright red pen. Then, looking back up at Cornelia, he reached out and took hold of one of her hands. “Why didn’t you tell me you were doing all this?”
“Because I thought you’d try and talk me out of it.”
“I would have offered to help you, Corney, not tried to stop you.”
Cornelia shook her head. “I had to do it myself. I know it probably makes no sense but…I just had to.”
Mike squeezed her hand. “It’s okay, sweetheart, you don’t have to explain.” He gave her a warm smile and glanced back down at the map. “So what’s the plan then?”
“I thought we could drive down there tomorrow. Try and see if he’ll talk to me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a day or two? Maybe plan out what you’re gonna say?”
But Cornelia shook her head again. “I’ve thought so much about what to say that I’m driving myself crazy.” She squeezed his fingers, entwining them with her own. “I need to just go get it over with.”
She looked a bundle of nerves, as she stared at him with pleading eyes. Bringing their entwined hands up to his mouth, he kissed her fingers and then leant across the map to plant another kiss on the end of her nose. “Okay.”
She let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
Miked smiled at her affectionately. Then pecking her on the lips, he sat back and released her hand, covering his mouth with his own as he yawned widely. “Sorry – the drive’s catching up with me a little! So what do you want to do this evening?"
Looking far more relaxed than she had a few moments before, Cornelia grinned at him. “I thought perhaps we could take a walk around the shore after dinner. I wanna show you Poppa’s old store – it’s near to the harbour and the walk’s real pretty.”
“Sounds like a plan. And what about before dinner?”
“Well,” she returned, looking back at him coyly, a faint blush on her cheeks. “I can think of one thing to pass the time.”
Mike grinned back at her, eyebrows raised. “Can you now?”
Taking the notebook from her hands, he started to crawl towards her when she put out a hand to stop him. “Fold the map up first.” He stared back at her, disgruntled, but it made no difference. “I’m not having it all creased, we need it tomorrow.”
“Nothing like a little romance,” he muttered, sitting back on his heels and lifting the map to clear it away.
Cornelia merely grinned back at him, as she moved the piles of paper from the bed, stacking them neatly on the nightstand beside her. Sitting back, she held her arms out to him as he placed the map on a nearby dresser and returned to the bed once more. “There, now you can be as romantic as you like.”
“I’m not sure I want to be anymore.”
"Is that so?” came the sceptical reply.
“Well come here then and let me change your mind.”
His grin full of mischief, Mike crawled across the bed towards her. He had just covered her lips with his own, when there was a sharp rap on the door and their host’s voice rang out, asking Cornelia if she had everything she needed.
Trying hard not to laugh, as Mike groaned and buried his face in the pillow, Corney called back that she was all set. Her host continued to chatter through the closed door, and not wanting to be rude, Cornelia got up and opened it a little so that they could talk face-to-face. It was a couple of minutes of friendly conversation before Mrs Bailey took her leave, and Corney was able to return to her beau. Saying her goodbyes, she shut the door and turned back into the room, only to find Mike had fallen asleep, face down in the middle of her single bed.
“Well that’s just swell!”
She shook him by the shoulders, to no avail. He was dead to the world. Giving it up as a bad job, she shoved him until he she had moved him across enough for her to squeeze next to him. Then, seeing nothing else for it, and realising that their early start was catching up with her a little too, she set the alarm on the clock on her nightstand so that it would wake them in time for dinner, curled up beside him, an arm thrown across his back, and let sleep claim her as well.
The next morning, following a hearty breakfast of pancakes and delicious local maple syrup, Cornelia and Mike drove out to Shelburne. Pulling up at the end of the gravel driveway that led up to the lakefront house on Harbor Road, Mike turned off the engine and pursed his lips as he gazed at the huge dwelling before them.
“Well that’s some home! I thought you said your father built things up from the ground?”
Cornelia followed his gaze. “He did. You saw the hardware store. This isn’t his family, remember? Pop always said Momma had a more comfortable life. And Uncle Walter might have made his own money, just as Poppa did.”
“That’s true I guess.” Tearing his attention away from the house, Mike turned to face Cornelia and took hold of her hands. “Are you certain you don’t want me to come with you?”
Cornelia nodded. “I’ll be fine.” Removing her hands from his grasp, she opened her car door and began to climb out.
“Wave if you need me.”
“I will, I promise.” Leaning back into the car, she pecked Mike on the lips. “I shan’t be too long,” and shutting the door behind her, she made her way up the drive.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as she approached the front door and rang the doorbell. She waited a couple of minutes, but nobody appeared. Ringing twice more, with the same result, she gave up and turned to go back towards Mike and the car. She was halfway down the driveway when a large sedan turned off the road, passing her on the way to the house. Hurrying back the way she had come, Cornelia reached the house just as the driver opened his door and climbed out. It was her Uncle Walter. He stared at her for a moment, brow furrowed as if trying to place her. It was clear the moment he realised who she was, as a black look descended on his face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
“Walter!” A woman who appeared to be his wife, if the ostentatious rings on her wedding finger were anything to go by, emerged from the far side of the car. “That is no way to speak to a lady!”
“This is no lady,” Walter retorted, spitefully. “This is Joe Flower’s daughter.” Before Cornelia had time to be surprised that he had not referred to her mother – his sister, after all – he rounded on her again. “Did your father send you? Is that him?” he added, squinting back at Mike’s car.
Cornelia glanced in the direction he was looking. “No, that’s my friend Mike. He came along for support. And no, Poppa didn’t send me. He doesn’t even know I’m here.” She paused and swallowed hard. “I just wanted to come and meet you.”
“Well you’re not welcome here.” Walter looked furious. “I told your father when he left town that he should never show his face around these parts again, and that goes for you too. You’re no more family of mine than he is, whatever your blood says. Now clear off and don’t come around here again or I’ll be calling the cops,” and with that, he stormed into his house.
Taken aback by his ferocious manner, Cornelia stayed rooted to the spot. A small cough sounded nearby, and she turned her head to look at Walter’s wife.
“You should leave,” that lady said, shooting Cornelia what looked like a ghost of a sympathetic smile. “He means as he says.”
Cornelia slowly nodded. “We’re staying at The Lakeside Guesthouse in Burlington,” she said quietly, her voice shaking a little. “In case he changes his mind.”
“He won’t,” and without another word, the lady turned her back on her visitor and followed her husband into the house, shutting the door firmly behind her.
For a few moments, Cornelia stayed where she was, staring at the ground. She had known all along that she might face this kind of reception, but to have it actually happen, without her even having a chance to explain things from her side, had been something of a shock and she was struggling with her emotions.
Eventually she managed to pull herself together enough to make her way back down the driveway. As she approached the car, Mike jumped out and made a move towards her, but she hurried past him and around to the passenger door. Climbing in, she shut it behind her and rested her head back on her seat.
“Sweetheart, what happened?”
Opening her eyes, Cornelia looked around at Mike. “He didn’t want to know me,” she replied, her voice quiet, and she turned her head back to stare out of the windscreen. “Said he’d call the cops if he ever saw me again.” Her voice choked a little as she spoke, and Mike reached out to comfort her. She shrugged his hand from her shoulder. “Please Mike, can we just go? I don’t want to speak about it just now.”
Mike watched her closely for a moment, as she stared out at the empty street ahead. Then, deciding not to push things for now, he started the engine and pulled away from the kerb.
The journey back to Burlington passed in silence. Cornelia appeared to be lost in her thoughts, and Mike was reluctant to intrude. When they arrived at the guesthouse, she hurriedly exited the car the moment Mike had finished parking, and before he had a chance to catch up with her, she disappeared inside.
After stopping to chat to their host and request a hot drink for Cornelia, Mike finally followed his girlfriend up to her room, a strong mug of warming coffee in hand. He found her curled up in a chair on the small balcony, staring out at the view of Lake Champlain. Pulling up another chair, he sat down beside her and handed her the mug of coffee.
Cornelia took hold of it, wrapping her hands around the mug, and gave him a grateful smile. “I knew it might happen that way. Poppa said they wanted no more to do with us – I guess he was right.” She took a deep breath. “At least I can say I tried.”
“Do you want to leave?”
Shaking her head, Corney stared down at the black coffee. “We should stay and have our vacation. It’s not a bad town, and I can show you a little more of where my folks grew up.”
Mike reached out and gently stroked her arm. “Are you okay?”
Cornelia leant into his touch. “Not really, but I will be.” She squeezed his hand. “Would you mind if I have a little time alone?”
“Not at all,” Mike leant across to kiss her and got to his feet. “I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready.”
“Thank you.” Cornelia smiled up at him, and he stooped to drop another kiss on her forehead, and then took his leave. Gripping her coffee mug, Corney curled herself up in the chair again, staring out across the vast lake, and battled hard to keep her tears at bay.
A couple of hours later, Cornelia was lying on her bed, staring at a photograph of her mother that she had brought along with her, when there was a knock at the door and Mike reappeared. She looked up at him with a smile, and he made his way over to perch on the edge of the bed.
“How are you feeling?”
Reaching out, she grasped one of his hands. “A little better. Sorry for being such a mope.”
“Hey now, you’ve no need to apologise.” Mike raised her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. “And I’m sorry to barge in on your time alone, but you have a visitor downstairs.”
Mike tightened his grip on her fingers. “It’s Walter’s wife.”
Cornelia’s huge blue eyes opened to their widest extent. “Why is she here?”
“She said she wants to explain some things to you. I told her I’d ask you how you feel about it.” Mike squeezed her hand again. “I can ask her to leave if you’d rather not see her?”
“No, it’s okay. I want to know, Mike.”
Corney sat up and made a move to get to her feet, but Mike placed a hand on her arm to stay her. “Corney, before you head on down I need to show you something. Do you have that marriage certificate?”
“Mom and Pops’?” Mike nodded. “Yes, it’s in here,” Cornelia reached into the cabinet beside her bed and pulled out a large envelope, full of all the documents that she had brought with her from Boston. “Why?” She watched as Mike emptied the contents onto the bed and searched through them. “Mike, what’s going on?”
Finding what he was looking for, Mike unfolded the dog-eared piece of paper and passed it over to her. “I noticed something the other day when you showed this to me. Take a look at the date.”
Cornelia glanced down at the paper in her hand and stared at the date, confused as to what he meant. “I don’t understand.”
“When were you born, Corney?”
“August 1920 – you know that.” She looked down at the paper again. “I don’t see what that…” She broke off suddenly, her eyes wide once more. “March 1920. But that means…”
Mike nodded. “And look the place.”
“Elkton, Maryland.” Cornelia glanced back up at her boyfriend, confused. “Why would they go to Maryland?”
“Elkton is where people elope to, honey. It’s famous for it.”
They sat in silence, as Cornelia took this in. Eventually she raised her eyes back to Mike’s. “They ran away to be married?” Mike nodded. “And Momma was pregnant with me?” She swallowed hard, trying to keep her emotions at bay. “Why didn’t you say something yesterday?”
“Because I could tell you hadn’t noticed and I didn’t want to worry you. You were already so nervous, Corney, I didn’t want to make it any worse.” Mike reached out and clasped her knee. “But I figure it could be important so I thought I should tell you now, rather than you hearing it from her.” Cornelia stared down at his hand on her knee, and he watched her anxiously. “Tell me what you’re thinking, honey.”
Cornelia remained still for a few moments, before she shook her head and dropped the marriage certificate onto her bed. “I should go down,” she murmured, getting to her feet. “I shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
She turned back to face Mike and held out her hand. “Come with me?” she pleaded, her hand shaking as she grasped her boyfriend’s fingers. “Please?”
Mike got to his feet, pulling her towards him and into a hug. “Come here.” He squeezed her tightly and dropped a kiss on her bright blonde hair. “It’ll be okay, sweetheart. You’ll see.”
Cornelia hugged him back, nodding against his shoulder. Then, pulling out of his arms, she turned and made her way towards the door, leaving him to follow in her wake.
Walter’s wife sitting at a large table in the drawing room, and as Cornelia and Mike approached, she got to her feet and looked Corney up and down, giving her a tentative smile.
“It’s true then, that you’re Joseph Flower’s daughter?” Corney nodded. “You were such a tiny thing when I last clapped eyes on you – just a few months old.” Her smile widened as her eyes swept over Cornelia’s face. “You have the same bright sunshine hair though. And those beautiful eyes – so like your mother’s.” Cornelia returned her gaze, clearly nervous, and Mrs Healey held out her hand. “Sorry, how rude of me. I’m Betty. Betty Healey. I guess that kinda makes me your aunt.”
“Cornelia Flower. And this is my friend, Michael van Alden.” Corney shook the proffered hand and shot a quick glance back at Mike, before swallowing hard and asking, “How can I help you, Mrs Healey?”
“Straight to the point, I see,” Betty retorted, a trace of humour in her voice, but Cornelia simply stared back at her. Betty paused for a moment, and then nodded. “I guess I can understand that.” She took a seat again and waved her hand at a nearby chair, indicating that Corney should join her at the table. “I hope you don’t mind me turning up this way. You looked so shocked this morning – it was clear you had no idea why Walter reacted as he did and I figured you at least deserved an explanation. After all, it’s not your fault - what happened back then, I mean. You were just an innocent babe.” She waved to an empty chair again. “Please, won’t you sit down? Both of you?” she added, turning to Mike. She waited until they were both seated, and then turned back to Cornelia. “Now it’s my turn to come straight to the point, I suppose. I can’t stay too long. Walter thinks I ran out for some groceries.” She gave a slight chuckle and regarded Cornelia with curious eye. “So then, how much do you know about that time? About your parents’ lives here? Has Joseph told you anything?”
Cornelia hesitated for a moment, and then shook her head. “He’s told me a little about Momma over the years, but not anything about her life here.” She gave Betty a wry smile. “I didn’t know Walter even existed until we ran in to him over Christmas vacation. Poppa doesn’t like to talk about Burlington all that much,” she added, anxious not to paint her father in a bad light. “I guess his memories are not so great.”
Betty Healey nodded at her words. “I would imagine they’re not.” Turning, she fished in her handbag and pulled out a small packet. “Here, I brought along a few pictures in case you were interested to see them. Sorry there are so few – we don’t have all that many.”
Cornelia took out the photographs, some of them fading and browning a little at the edges with age, and began flicking through them eagerly, taking in images of her mother through her childhood to her blossoming into a striking young lady, and listening with rapt attention as her uncle’s wife pointed out members of her extended family. Through Betty’s stories, she learned that her grandparents had passed away a number of years ago, and that Walter and Betty had three children – one of whom was killed in the war, and two who now lived across the country.
When they had finished leafing through the images, Betty packed them away again, and then turned back to face Cornelia, her expression much more serious than before. " Before I get into too much detail, you should know that they’re a very proud family, The Healeys. They’re descended from the Boston Healeys and their heritage means a great deal to them.”
Cornelia’s brow furrowed, not understanding the relevance of this, and Mike leant forward and said quietly, “They’re one of the Brahmin families – like my mom’s.”
Betty smiled. “I guess you know a little of how those families are then?” Cornelia nodded. “Emma, your mother, she was such a bright, beautiful girl. Just the apple of your grandfather’s eye. He adored her so - they all did - and he was so proud of where she was headed in life. She struggled with ill health at times, but still gained her school diploma and was all set to be the first Healey woman to enter the University of Vermont – she always said she wanted to teach for a while afterwards, if I remember rightly, before she thought about settling down.” She paused for a moment. “And then she met Joseph Flower.”
Cornelia’s back stiffened at mention of her father’s name, and she felt Mike place a hand on her waist, in an effort to keep her calm. “And why was that a bad thing?” she asked quietly, her voice a little defensive despite her best efforts to keep it level.
Mrs Healey sighed. “Your father wasn’t…well let’s just say he wasn’t like our family. You know that his parents passed away when he was only sixteen? And that he quit his schooling and took over running their store down at the docks?” Cornelia nodded, her mouth drawn in a tight line as she understood the implied meaning of Betty’s words. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that of course, it’s a perfectly noble living, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of future the family had in mind for Emma.”
“And what kind of future was that?” Corney asked, her voice cold, as her previous affability disappeared completely.
“You have to understand, Cornelia, that families like Walter’s have certain standards to uphold,” Betty retorted, sounding defensive herself. “I’m sure that your father’s a good man, but your grandfather expected better things for his daughter.”
Seeing the anger starting to bubble beneath Cornelia’s surface, Mike squeezed her waist in warning, knowing that she would regret it if she let her temper explode and caused Betty to leave before telling the full story. Corney turned to glare at him, but Mike ignored her and simply said, “Please go on, Mrs Healey.”
Betty gave a slight cough and continued. “Your grandparents were obviously not fond of Joseph but they reasoned that it was simply something that Emma needed to work through and that it would fizzle out soon enough once she started college. And when she began her studies and Joseph was still in the picture - well, Walter was sent to remind her that if she wished to remain a Healey, with all the advantages that entailed, then she should remember her duty to the family. Emma wasn’t happy, of course, but she told Walter that she understood, and as she knuckled down to studying and was soon courting a nice young man she met at college – a friend of Walter’s in fact - well, they assumed that was that.”
Mrs Healey paused, and took a deep breath.
“And then the following March, just when everything seemed to be going so well, Emma suddenly dropped out of college. She disappeared for over a week, no note left or anything, and your grandparents and Walter were frantic. They searched everywhere, they even had the police involved in looking for her, and then out of nowhere a telegram arrived from Maryland. Your mother and Joseph had run off to Elkton, without a second thought for the family. Your grandparents were furious, and when they returned a week later, announcing not only that they were married but that Emma was pregnant, well, your grandfather was finally pushed to his limit. Emma tried to reason with him, but it was no use – he threw her out of the house there and then, and told her to never bother coming back. It turned out that she and Joseph had never gone their separate ways – the new young man was simply a ruse to hide what she was up to. And when Emma fell pregnant, your father pleaded with her to give up the secrecty and start a life with him and eventually she gave in.”
Betty swallowed hard and shook her head, staring out of the window as she went on.
“I know she tried many times to see them again, especially after you were born, but they were adamant they wanted to nothing more to do with her. Walter wasn’t happy with her either, but I knew he missed her terribly and I did persuade him that we should visit after you were born.” Betty heaved a sigh. “You were such a ducky little thing, just about three months old, but Emma seemed so pale and tired and frail - she clearly wasn't well. And your father was working all hours to make ends meet and she was alone so much of the time with no-one to help. It was not a life she was accustomed to at all, and she was obvioulsy struggling, especially with her health, though she wouldn’t admit as much. Walter begged her to see sense and come home with us and bring you with her but she wouldn’t hear of it. She got so angry and in the end she threw us out.
It was the last time either of us ever saw her. When she died a few months later, Walter was beside himself. He knew in his heart that if she had just come with us that day, she could have seen the best doctors, had all the latest treatment, but I guess she loved Joseph too much to leave. Her death destroyed your grandparents - they were never the same after that. Walter, of course, blamed your father. If he had never come into her life then she would still have been happy and at home, with the future she was supposed to have." Betty paused for a moment and heaved a heavy sigh. "There was a terrific row at the funeral - Walter told Joseph that he should never show his face anywhere near our family again. And a week later, the hardware store was sold and you were both gone.”
As Mrs Healey finished her story, Cornelia closed her eyes and gripped Mike’s fingers so hard that he let out a strangled ‘ow’. There was so much anger and hurt bubbling up inside her – at the Healeys for the way they had treated her parents, at her father for keeping it all to himself for so long, at herself for digging it all up in the first place – that she didn’t dare speak for fear of what she might say. She simply kept tight hold of Mike’s hand and tried hard to keep her emotions inside.
After a minute, she heard a chair being scraped back, and opened her eyes again to see Mrs Healey getting to her feet. Corney watched in silence, as Betty picked up her bag before turning back to face her.
“I’m glad we were able to meet, Cornelia, but I’m afraid I have to ask you never to contact my family again. My husband took a long time to get over the death of his sister and to put all this behind him and we have no desire for it be brought to the surface again. I apologise if this sounds cruel, but we don’t consider you or your father our family, and that will never change.” Cornelia nodded slowly, her head bowed towards her knees. “I’ll see myself out,” and with that, Mrs Healey took her leave.
As the door closed behind her, Mike leapt up from his chair and hurried around to crouch down in front of his girlfriend. Cornelia’s eyes were screwed tight shut, her jaw shaking, and he placed a finger under her chin and lifted it. He could see tears glistening in her lashes, and as one escaped and ran down her cheek, he cupped her face in his hands and gently wiped it away.
“Corney?” She remained silent, her eyes still closed, and he tried again, his voice full of concern. “Sweetheart, please talk to me.”
Slowly she raised her lashes and stared at him, her eyes bright and brimming with tears. As a couple more escaped and Mike brushed them away with his thumbs, she leant her forehead against his, and in a voice that was almost a whisper said, “I want to go home.”
As Cornelia finished recalling her encounters with Walter and Betty, Joe Flower looked from his daughter to Mike and back again, heaved a deep sigh and sat back in his chair.
“Why did you go there, Corney?”
Cornelia’s tears had given way to anger on the drive back from Boston, and now her eyes opened wide in shock at her father’s response. “Why did I go there? That’s all you have to say?” Mr Flower turned his eyes up to the ceiling, which only infuriated his daughter further. “I went because I wanted to meet them and to know the truth, Poppa. You wouldn’t tell me anything, I had to find out somehow!”
“Why? Why did you have to?"
“Because they’re my family, Poppa! I have a right to know!” The volume of Cornelia’s voice was beginning to rise in her frustration, and Mike clasped one of her knees in an effort to calm her a little. “If you’d just told me it all when I asked, then I would never have gone. Why can’t you see that?”
“I specifically told you I didn’t want to talk about any of it.”
“But why, Pop? I don’t understand why you kept it all from me.”
Under her persistent questioning, Joe’s hold on his temper finally snapped. “Because it was my fault, that’s why! I let her get sick on my watch and I have to live with that every day of my life!”
Stunned as she was by her father’s words, and the ferocity with which they had been delivered, the indignation that had been building inside Cornelia since they had left Burlington several hours previously suddenly evaporated. “But...what do you mean it’s your fault?” she asked, her voice unsure.
Mr Flower stared at her for a few moments and then, with a weary shake of his head, he turned his eyes to the ceiling once more. “Betty’s tale is only true up to a point,” he began after a long pause, his tone much quieter now. “In spite of what she says, your mother and I really did go our separate ways after the Healeys intervened, and it’s true that she began stepping out with that friend of Walter’s. It wasn’t a ruse. Then one morning, a month or two after we’d said our goodbyes, Emma turned up at the store. Walter’s friend had not been good her, you see, and she had nobody to turn to – knew nobody would believe her word over that of the son of a respected judge – but she felt sure that I would be there for her.” He heaved another deep sigh. “I’m not too proud to say that I was still in love with her – I had been since the very first day we met - and it seemed that inspite of everything she felt the same way about me and we became close again. Until, that is,” he added, his voice taking on a bitter edge, “she came over after college one day to say that he’d apologised and begged her to come back to him and that she was very sorry, but she thought it was for the best, what with her family being as they were. I can't say it didn't hurt, but I guess I figured that was that and I’d never see her again. So I went on with my life and tried to put her behind me - until three months later when she came by with the news that she was pregnant with you.”
Joe paused and lowered his gaze back to his daughter’s face. Cornelia stared back at him, her eyes wide, clinging to Mike’s hand and steeling herself for yet more unwelcome revelations. Understanding her unspoken question, her father shot her a look of impatience and shook his head.
“You know you’re my daughter, Corney, so don’t even ask. You only have to look in the mirror to see that.”
Cornelia felt relief flood through her body, and silently berated herself for letting her mind jump to stupid conclusions. He was right – she looked so like her father, there was no mistaking her for anyone else’s child. She gave him a tentative smile. “It’s the big old jaw,” she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere just a little. Joe, however, simply stared back at her. “Poppa, you don’t have to-”
“Emma didn’t know that at the time, of course,” Mr Flower continued, pointedly interrupting his daughter’s feeble attempts to stop what she had started,“but she was real scared about having to give up her studies and what was going to happen and how her parents would react, and I knew if there was even a chance the baby was mine, I had to step up, so I asked her to marry me. I guess she knew that I would - that's why she came to me instead of her other beau, even though she couldn't be certain at the time that you were mine. She dreamt up the scheme to tell her family we’d been together all along in the hope that they would be more accepting - and honestly, I still felt for her so dearly and was so glad at the idea that she would be back with me that I’d have gone along with pretty much anything she wanted. And she did love me in her own way, I know she did. So we set a plan to go to Elkton, figuring that if we married first before she broke the news to her family that it might make things a little easier. And, well, you know how that turned out already.”
Joe fell silent, leaning forward and staring at his hands. Cornelia exchanged worried glances with Mike and then got to her feet and moved to crouch down in front of her father.
She tried to take hold of his hands but he removed them from her grasp, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Don’t, Corney, please.” He sat back in his chair, leaning away from her. “You wanted to hear this, so just sit and listen.”
“I mean it.” Joe fixed her with a firm stare, and waited until she reluctantly returned to her seat next to Mike before he went on. “Things were good at first - we were happy together, despite her family, and then you came along and it was obvious right away that you really were my child, and it seemed like it would all be alright – that we’d get by, just the three of us. But things cost a lot more with a baby around and I had to put in extra hours at the store, and your momma – well let’s just say she was accustomed to living a certain way. We didn’t go without, it wasn’t like that, but it wasn’t all the comfort and help she was used to and she found it real hard.” He swallowed hard. “When she first began to get sick – I’m so ashamed but I just didn’t notice how bad it was. I knew her health had never been that strong, not since she got sick as a kid, but she kept so much of it from me – I was at the store such a lot that it was almost easy - and I thought she was just tired, from dealing with a new baby and all. And when I finally realised just how sick she was, it was already too late. She told me about Walter asking her to go with them when they came to visit, so I went to see him to ask for some help – to try and see their doctor for another opinion and get help in paying for any treatment – but he wouldn’t even see me, didn’t even want to know why I was there. If I’d just realised sooner how sick she was…”
His sentence trailed off and he glanced up at Cornelia, the pain of the memories clear on his face.
“After she passed, I knew we couldn’t stay in Burlington. It wasn’t Walter’s stupid threats - it was just too hard being there without Emma, with reminders of her everywhere, and I didn’t want you growing up under that cloud. I had an aunt in Philly so I cabled her and she said that she’d be happy to help out with you, and she agreed that we needed a new start - just you and I - so I sold up and we left it all behind.”
As he finished speaking, he stared back up at the ceiling again, as if trying to pull himself together. The pain on his face was breaking Cornelia’s heart, and she had to bite her lips hard before she could control her voice enough to speak.
“Poppa, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
There was a long silence before he eventually replied, “Well now you do.” He returned his gaze to hers, his face now set in a rigid expression. “I hope you’re happy now,” and getting to his feet, he began to head for the door.
“Pops, please,” Cornelia pleaded, a slight panic in her voice at her father’s sudden iciness, “can’t we talk some more?”
Joe stopped, his hand on the door handle, and turned back to face her. “No, we can’t. I’m done talking.” He glanced between his daughter and her boyfriend. “Perhaps it’s best if you go with Mike for tonight.”
“But I can’t just leave you like this!”
“I don’t want you here, Corney. Not tonight. I’d rather be alone just now.” He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the distress on his daughter’s face. “You couldn’t respect my wishes over Burlington, so maybe you can find it in you to respect them now. See if you can manage that much,” and without another word, he turned and left the room.
Twenty minutes later, Mr Flower was sitting in his study, staring into space, when there was a knock on the door. Heaving a sigh, expecting it to be his daughter, he called “Come in” and was surprised to see his daughter’s beau instead.
Mike caught a flicker of irritation on the elder man’s face. “We’re about to leave, Sir,” he said hurriedly, “I just wondered if I could have a quick word before we go?”
Joe paused for a moment and then nodded and waved his hand to indicate that it was okay to come in, and Mike shut the door behind him and pulled a chair up in front of Mr Flower’s desk.
“I’m sorry you had to be there for all that, Mike,” Joe said, as Mike took his seat. “Where’s Corney?”
“She’s waiting for me in the car. She’s not doing so good,” he replied carefully, and after a moment, Joe nodded but didn’t reply. Mike took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I know this is probably not my business, but I just wanted to say something about it all.”
Mr Flower stared back at him, and eventually said, “Sure, go ahead.”
“Well it’s just...” Mike began tentatively. “You should know that Corney didn’t go there to go against your wishes. She just wanted to know about her family, that’s all.”
Joe sat back in his chair, his jaw set firm. “I know that, Mike, but it doesn’t change the fact that I asked her to leave things be. She always has to do just what she wants, without any regard to anyone else – and I'm afraid that sometimes she has to deal with the consequences.”
Mike was shocked at his harsh words, and he felt his hackles rise at what he felt was an undeserved slight towards Cornelia. “With all due respect, Sir,” he retorted, his voice hardened considerably as he sought to defend her, “I don’t think that’s either fair or true. Your daughter is the sweetest, most caring person I have ever met – and if you think she gave you no thought through all this then you’d be wrong. I happen to know just how much she worried over knowing that it would hurt you, and she did everything she could to keep that hurt to as little as possible, but she also has every right to want to know about her mother’s family.”
Joe had never known Mike be anything but affable in nature, and that gentleman’s sudden coldness left him a little stunned. He knew in his heart that he was being unfair to his daughter, but reliving such painful memories – ones that he had kept buried for so long – was clouding his ability to see things beyond the deep hurt they had brought to the surface. So, in the face of Mike’s anger, he simply stared at his desk and said nothing.
Seeing that he was not going to get a response, Mike got to his feet. “I’m very sorry for all you went through back then, I really am, but Corney doesn’t deserve any of this. Not from Walter, not from Betty, and most certainly not from you,” and leaving Joe sitting at his desk, he made his way out of the study, closing the door firmly behind him.
“Feet on the floor not on the table, Richard van Alden!"
Mrs Ruggles’ disembodied voice rang through the apartment loud and clear, and Richard sat up abruptly, his feet falling from the coffee table as he did so, and shot an astonished look in his brother’s direction.
“How does she do that?"
Mike was staring out of the window at the street below, lost in his thoughts, and it took a few moments for him to focus on what Richard was saying. “How does she do what?” he replied eventually, turning to face his brother.
“How does she know where my feet are? She’s in the kitchen! Apparently, her witchery now extends to seeing through walls!”
Mike chuckled at Richard’s indignation. “She doesn’t have to see through anything. She knows you too well – you’re a slob.”
“I resent that!”
Mike simply shrugged and turned back to the window once more. Richard watched him, a frown furrowing his brow.
“What’s wrong, Mike? And don’t say nothing,” he added, as Mike’s shoulders visibly stiffened. “You’ve been out of sorts for a while now – you and Corney both.” Richard paused for a moment and then, his voice tentative, he asked “Are things on the out with you two?”
At this, Mike spun back from the window and glared at his brother indignantly. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Well what is it then?”
For a few seconds, Mike simply stared at his brother. Then, heaving a sigh, he took a seat in the nearest armchair. “It’s Corney-”
“So I was right!”
“I just told you that you weren’t!”
“But you said-”
“If you give Michael a chance to get his words out instead of trying to second guess him, then you might get your answer,” Mrs Ruggles’ voice put in, as the lady herself came into the room, carrying a tray laden with two mugs of steaming coffee and a plate piled high with home-baked cookies. Ignoring the injured look that Richard shot in her direction, she placed the tray down carefully on her lopsided coffee table. “I thought you were leaving anyway? Don’t you have a date?”
Richard glanced at the clock on the mantel and shot to his feet, a look of panic on his face. “Shoot, I’m gonna be late!”
“You have a new girl?” Mike queried, as he watched his brother pull on his coat.
“Not simply a girl, oh brother of mine!” Richard retorted, placing his hat on his head and turning to face Mike with a grin. “Believe me when I say Mrs Winthorp is all woman!” Then before his astonished brother could reply he added, “Thanks for lunch, Mrs R. Hope you can fix whatever’s wrong with Corney, Mike,” and grabbing a cookie from the plate on the table, he turned and dashed out of the room.
As the front door slammed behind him, Mike turned to Mrs Ruggles with wide eyes. “He’s dating Mrs Winthorp? Twice -divorced, mother-of-his-friend-Charles Mrs Winthorp?”
Velma Ruggles laughed. “The very same.”
Mike shook his head in disbelief. “How did that come about? Actually,” he added quickly, before Mrs Ruggles could reply, “forget I asked that, I don’t want to know.”
“A wise choice, I think,” Mrs Ruggles replied, still smiling. “Believe me, there are times that I wish your brother did not feel the need to keep me abreast of every new turn in his life – as they say, sometimes ignorance is bliss!” Mike gave a half-hearted chuckle as he reached for his coffee, and Mrs Ruggles eyed him closely. “Anyway, that’s enough about your brother and his nefarious romances. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Mike was silent for a moment, as he took a sip of his drink and eyed her over the rim of the cup.
It was now almost two weeks since the trip to Burlington, and relations between Corney and her father were still extremely strained. Despite his daughter’s best efforts to apologise for making the trip and to explain why she had felt the need to go against his wishes, Mr Flower insisted on maintaining a distance between them, spending large parts of the day holed up in his study and speaking to her as little as possible, until she gave up trying and left him alone. For her part, Cornelia was doing her best to put a brave face on things, trying to carry on as if everything was alright and telling Mike that it would all work itself out, but Mike knew her so well by now that he could see straight through her façade and knew how just how hurt she really was.
He also knew that Cornelia had paid a couple of visits to Mrs Ruggles in the past week. Velma had become something of a confidante for Corney over the past year, and Mike shrewdly guessed that his girlfriend was likely to have confided some of how she was feeling to her new friend. With that in mind, he had decided to pay a visit to his old nanny to see if she was able to help.
“I was hoping to ask for a favour,” he replied eventually, placing his mug on the table next to him. “I guess that Corney’s told you what happened? With Burlington and her father?”
Mrs Ruggles nodded. “A little, yes. How is she?”
“She’s being typical Corney – pretending everything’s okay when it’s clear as day that it’s not.” Mike stared down at his lap and heaved a sigh. “I’m real worried about her. She’s not sleeping all that well, though she keeps trying to hide it from me, and you should see her face when Joe cuts her dead when she speaks to him – her heart breaks every time. And I know she’s blaming herself and it’s just so unfair.”
Mike’s worry was clear on his face, and sitting forward on the sofa, Mrs Ruggles reached over and gave on of his forearms a comforting squeeze. “And how can I help?”
“I was hoping that perhaps you could go and talk with Joe. Make him realise what he’s doing to Corney.” Mrs Ruggles frowned, but Mike pressed on. “If I didn’t think I’d make things worse, I’d tell him exactly what I think of him for the way he’s treating her, but I don’t want to make things any harder for her.”
“And what makes you think me talking to him would do any good?”
Mike looked up and gave her a tentative smile. “You and he get on so well together – I know he respects you a great deal – and you have a…well, you have a way about you, of getting people to listen to sense.” The edge of his mouth twitched with a hint of his usual mischief as he added, “And if all else fails, you can be terrifying!”
“A skill refined entirely by having to wrangle you and your brother,” she shot back, a twinkle in her eyes.
Mike gave another half-hearted chuckle and then fixed her with pleading eyes. “Please say you’ll talk to him? For Corney’s sake?”
Mrs Ruggles sat back and observed him with a smile. “You really do think the world of her, don’t you?”
Mike flushed a little and nodded. “She’s the best thing in my life,” he replied, his cheeks flushing a deeper red as he spoke. He rarely talked about feelings that ran so deep, but he knew he could trust his old nanny with his life, and he knew that she would understand. “I don’t have the nightmares anymore,” he continued, his voice much quieter. “Not since I’ve been with Corney.” He swallowed hard. “She makes me feel safe again.”
Velma Ruggles forced down the lump in her throat. When Mike had returned from the war in Europe, he had suffered from horrible nightmares, as his subconscious refused to suppress the memories that he worked so hard to keep at bay during the daylight hours. After a couple of months of sleepless nights, he had confided in Mrs Ruggles that he was terrified that those nightmares would haunt him for the rest of his life. She loved Michael and his brother like they were her own sons, and to hear that he was finally being relieved of his suffering, and that falling in love had helped provide that relief, filled her with intense gratitude towards Cornelia. And if she was honest, she really very fond of that young lady herself. She had always longed for a daughter of her own and the more she got to know Corney, the more she felt that void being filled.
Mike watched Mrs Ruggles with anxious eyes. “I can’t stand to see her hurting. She longs so much just to have a family, it’s not right they’ve all turned on her this way,” he added, his voice still quiet. “I thought if you could talk to Joe, and maybe I can go back to Burlington, try and make Walter understand-”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Velma interrupted. “It’s best if you leave those people be.”
“They’re not her family, Michael. They don’t consider her as such and she doesn’t need them in her life.” Mike opened his mouth to contradict her but she cut him off. “And frankly they don’t deserve to know her. She’s far too good for the likes of them.” She leant forward and clasped his forearm again. “She has all the family she needs right here, even if she doesn’t realise that just yet,” she added, giving him a meaningful glance. “But I promise I’ll speak with Joe. Stupid stubborn old fool that he is!”
Mike smiled and shot her look of intense gratitude. “Thank you.”
“Well you’re very welcome. Sometimes it takes a good woman to point out a man’s mistakes to him, you know!”
At that, Mike gave a surprised laugh. “Apparently so!”
Mrs Ruggles grinned back at him and picked up the plate of cookies from the coffee table. “Now then, young man, how about you help me eat these and I fill you in on the details of your brother and Mrs Winthorp!” Feeling much better now that he knew Mrs Ruggles was going to step in, Mike pulled a quite remarkable face of distaste and shook his head, and that lady laughed, glad to see him looking much more like his normal self. "Sorry, but I’ve decided if I have to be burdened with the knowledge of this little tryst, that I will not suffer alone. Prepare to be horrified,” and with that dire warning, she picked up her cup of coffee, kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up underneath her, ready to pour forth her tale.
A few days later, Joseph Flower was sitting behind the large walnut desk in his study, staring at a page of figures with unseeing eyes. Giving it up as a bad job, he leant back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. His head was throbbing with a vicious headache, which had been present for days, and his body felt utterly drained. He had been suffering from broken nights of sleep for over two weeks now, and they were beginning to take their toll.
Frustrated, he heaved a deep sigh. He was in the middle of an important business acquisition and had a mountain of work ahead of him, but was finding it impossible to get anything done. Ever since he had been forced to relive what had happened all those years ago in Burlington, he had been unable to clear the memories from his mind. Rubbing his temple, he cursed his daughter under his breath. He understood that she must be curious about her mother’s family, he really did, but he just wished that she had stopped to consider the turmoil that her curiosity might cause. But once she had an idea in her head, Cornelia was stubborn and headstrong, with what felt like tunnel vision for what she wanted. Not for the first time in the past two weeks, he wished fervently that he had made more of an effort to tame those traits in her when she was young.
At least today she had gone with Mike to visit friends, leaving him alone with his thoughts instead of endlessly interrupting him with attempts to make amends. He knew in his heart that he was being a little unfair to her, and they would mend their rift in time, of that he was certain, but just at the moment the pain that reliving the memories had caused felt all too raw, and a large part of him was still too angry with her for going against his wishes.
The clanging of the doorbell interrupted this train of thought, and pinching the bridge of his nose once more in an effort to calm his throbbing head, he got to his feet and made his way through to the entrance hall.
Opening the door, he was surprised to find Velma Ruggles standing on his doorstep, a tin clutched in her hands. His mind lagging with tiredness, Joe stared at her dumbly, whilst she looked him up and down with a critical eye.
Velma’s opening remark pulled no punches. “You look terrible.”
Her words brought Joe back to his senses. “Kind of you to say so, I’m sure,” he retorted, with not a little sarcasm in his voice.
“Just saying it as it is,” she replied, utterly unabashed, making her way past him as he stepped back to let her inside.
Joe closed the door behind her and turned to find her hanging her coat and hat in the hall closet. His eyes travelled from Velma, to the tin she had left on the hall table, and back again. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked, a little bemused.
“I made a fruit cake,” Mrs Ruggles replied, making her way back to the table to pick up the tin. “I thought that we could enjoy a slice with coffee and have a little talk,” and giving him no chance to reply, she turned and made her way through to the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, Joe found himself sitting at his kitchen table, watching as his guest poured out two mugs of steaming black coffee from a pot on the stove. Mrs Ruggles had still not divulged the reason for her unexpected visit, but he thought he had a good idea what the ‘little talk’ might be about and between that, his headache and the amount of work he knew that was waiting for him in his study, he was beginning to get a little annoyed.
Mrs Ruggles placed a mug of coffee down in front him, took a seat on the opposite side of the large pine table and picked up the knife in front of her. “Cake?”
Ignoring her question, Joe stared at her, his lips pursed. “Velma, why are you here? Not that I don’t enjoy your company,” he added quickly, not wanting to seem rude, “but I’m not simple, I know it’s not because of a fruit cake.”
Velma calmly sliced two pieces of cake, served them onto plates and pushed one across to Joe before she replied. “This was the first cake I ever learned to bake. It was my husband’s favourite when he was a boy. His mother passed the recipe on to me when we got married, so that I could make it for him just as she did.” Pressing her fork into a corner of the slice, she broke a piece off. “This is the first time I’ve made it since he passed away.”
Joe stared at her across the table, surprise visible on his face. He had been expecting her to launch into a lecture about Cornelia, and her remarks had caught him off-guard.
Mrs Ruggles looked up at him. “Have Cornelia or Michael ever told you the tale of what happened back then?” Joe shook his head and Velma gave him a thin smile. “I loved my husband a great deal, Joe, but he was not a perfect man. Not by any means.” Laying down her fork, she sat back in her chair. “I don’t know how much you know about where I live,” she continued, referring to her South Boston neighbourhood, “but a lot of the business that goes on around there is not, as they say, ‘on the up and up’. And Patrick was most definitely a businessman, if you catch my drift.”
Joe nodded. “I’ve met a few of that type myself.”
“Yes, so I can imagine. Especially in this town.”
“In Europe, in the main, but they’re all pretty much one-and-the-same.”
“Of course.” Mrs Ruggles smiled and took a sip of her coffee. “Anyway, Patrick was a successful man, but he conducted his business in a…let’s just say ‘unorthodox’ way. It wasn’t a secret. He was well-known in those parts and people like to talk, so I knew who and what he was before I agreed to marry him. But as we both know, love can do strange things to your sense of judgement.”
Joe gave a wry smile. “It sure can.”
“Yes, well, he promised me that when we got married he would cut his less salubrious ties and keep his business dealings above board, and for a few months I believe he did his best to stay true that promise. But then somebody came to him with an opportunity worth a great deal of money, and I guess he couldn’t help himself. Because money drove him at heart – it always was the case with him, however much I wished it were otherwise. And the problem with making deals with the devil is that eventually the devil will outplay you. I don’t know the details of what he got himself involved in, and to be honest I don’t ever want to. All I know is that one day, about nine months after we were married, he was at work in his office when two men pushed their way in and shot him in the head at point blank range. He didn’t stand a chance.”
Joe’s quick eyes caught the flash of pain on Mrs Ruggles’ face before she was able to correct it, and he felt his heart go out to her. “I’m so sorry, Velma. That must have been real hard.”
“It was not the easiest time in my life, no.” Velma stared down into her mug of coffee. “It’s how I came to work for the Van Aldens, as it happens. I needed to get away from South Boston and make a new start. I was young and had never really worked, but I come from a large Irish family and as one of the eldest I always helped look after my brothers and sisters, so when I saw the advert looking for a nanny for two young boys it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I met with Martha and was upfront with her about my situation, and if you can believe this about her, she looked right past it all and took me on there and then.” She looked back up at Joe, a hint of a smile on her lips. “Martha may be a first-class snob, but she’s not all bad. There’s a good heart underneath that veneer, even though it may not seem so sometimes.”
Joe smiled in return. “That’s good to know.”
“Indeed.” Velma sat back again and eyed him cautiously across the table. “So you see, I know the pain of losing the person you love the most just as your life together is starting. And what it’s like to be let down by that person you hold so very dear, and how deeply that hurts, however much you try to push that aside. And I well know what it’s like to feel so much pain in your heart that you never want to take a chance on love again.”
Mr Flower closed his eyes and bit his lips for a moment before he replied. “Corney told you.”
“She had no right.”
“As it happens I think she had every right.” Joe opened his eyes again, and Mrs Ruggles held his gaze. “You’re a luckier man than you appear to know, Joseph Flower. You have the most wonderful daughter who is so loyal to you and loves you so fiercely. She is distraught that she has hurt you by dragging up the past. But you seem to have forgotten that your past is also hers – and one that until recently she had no real notion of. And she is well within her rights to talk about it with whomever she chooses.”
Joe pursed his lips and said nothing, so Velma continued on.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but that girl has longed for a family for as long as she can remember. She would never speak ill of you, but it’s obvious in some of the things she’s said about her past that there were times before you sent her that school in Austria, or when you were sick in Ireland, that she felt very alone and longed to have people who were there for her.”
Mrs Ruggles paused, and Joe’s face flickered, as he took this in. “She’s never said anything to me.”
“Of course she hasn’t, because she loves you and she knows that you only wanted the best for her. But surely you can understand that when she found out she had family – her mother’s family no less – she would want to try and get to know them, in the hope that they might want to know her too? And instead all she has faced is dismissal and cruelty and guilt at every turn. And she could probably cope with that if it had only come from her uncle and his wife, but not when it’s also coming from you. Are you even aware of what you’re doing to her? Because if not, you should know that you are breaking her heart far more thoroughly than she has ever broken yours.”
Joe stared down at the table, trying hard to get himself under control. Velma’s speech had hit home. He knew that he had been somewhat unfair to Cornelia, but he was shocked to realise that his own hurt had blinded him so much to the pain that he was causing her. He felt a wave of guilt sweep through his body. “I never meant to do that to her.”
“I know that.” Velma’s voice was gentle as she replied. “I know that you’re a good man, Joe, and I know how much you love your daughter. And I also understand how much pain reliving those memories must have caused you, I really do. But if you don’t fix things with Corney right away, you could damage your relationship with her beyond repair. And I don’t think you would ever forgive yourself if that happened.”
A long silence followed, as Mr Flower toyed with his mug of coffee and took all of this in. Eventually he looked up and nodded. “You’re right, I wouldn’t.”
“Then you should talk to her, as soon as possible. Because much as she may sometimes long for a larger family, the thing she needs just now, more than anything, is her father back.”
Joe nodded again, and then lifted his mug to his lips and took a sip. “Thank you.” Velma gave a small nod of acknowledgement. “I’m very glad to know that Corney has you in her life.”
“And I feel very lucky to have her in mine,” Velma replied warmly. “She’s a wonderful young lady, you should be very proud.”
“I am.” Joe sat back in his chair, clutching his mug in his hands and eyed his guest appraisingly. “And you are an impressive and formidable woman, Velma Ruggles,” he added eventually, admiration clear in his tone.
A hint of amusement twitched at the corners of Mrs Ruggles mouth. “So I’ve been told.”
“I must say I do appreciate that in a lady.” Joe took another sip of his coffee and then placed the mug down on the table. “I wonder, given that we have been, as you put it, two people afraid to take a chance with our hearts, if I might persuade you to put that fear aside and accompany me to dinner one evening next week?”
It was Mrs Ruggles’ turn to be taken by surprise. “I’m sorry, are you asking me on a date?” she asked, her voice incredulous.
Joe grinned widely in return. “We could call it that, if you like.”
They stared at each other for a long while, before Velma regained her composure sufficiently enough to reply. “I tell you what,” she said, pointing her finger at Joe as she spoke and trying her best to hide the smile that was threatening to cross her face. “You make things right with your daughter, and I’ll consider your offer.”
Joe chuckled and reached for his slice of cake, shooting her another broad grin as he did so. “I think I can work with that.”
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