Authors: Katherine Hall Page
Just then Will came downstairs, his hands at his neck, his jacket draped over an arm. “I can never tie these things, but if I try to get away with a ready-made one, I'll never hear the end of it. Oh, hi, Laura. Merry Christmas.”
Will must have changed at warp speed, Sophie thought sourly.
“Merry Christmas, Will. I brought your gift.” Laura kissed him on the cheek. Very close to his mouth.
“Well, best be heading out. Merry Christmas to you, too, Laura,” Sophie said, grabbing the stole and an evening purse she'd left on the hall table. The hall was getting rather crowded at this point and it was time to leave. More than time.
But when she turned around, Laura was tying Will's formal bow tie and neither of them seemed to have heard Sophie.
She tried again. “I'm sure we'll see you at the open houses tomorrow, Laura. Good-bye for now.”
“Ice cold. Just the way you like it.” Laura pulled a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne from the bag she was carrying. “And here's something to tuck into your stocking.”
Sophie recognized the familiar robin's egg blue of a Tiffany's box. Cuff links? Key to Laura Belvedere's heart?
“Aren't you the sweetest thing?” Will said. “Sophie, get some glasses and we'll toast old Saint Nick.”
“Honey, I don't think we have timeâ”
“Y'all obviously don't know this family, Sophie.” Laura laughed. “Time is not something they pay much attention to, unless it's like now and we're pouring drinks.” Her laugh was one of those tinkling, glass-shattering ones. Sophie wanted to smack her. Instead she took the bottle and went into the kitchen to pour three glasses.
They were sitting in the front room when she came back with the tray. Three glasses, the bottle left in the kitchen. No cheese straws, sugared pecans, or any other nibbles.
“Here's to us,” Laura said, raising her glass and draining it. Sophie had no choice but to return to the kitchen for the rest.
When they arrived at her in-laws over an hour late, Randy started to tease them the moment they walked in. “Hey, sister-in-law! That a little love bite I see peeking out from under the pearls?”
Sophie took the joshing good-naturedly, only wishing it had been the truth.
“Hush now, Randall,” Anson said. “These two have some catching up to do. I don't know what y'all put in your eggnog in Connecticut, but here we like it with a lot of heavy cream and a healthy amount of bourbon.”
Sophie took a sip. It was so thick you could almost stand a spoon in it, and she'd finished the cup before she knew it.
“Sinfully delicious,” she said. Anson promptly topped up her cup from the enormous Waterford punch bowl and looped his arm through hers, pulling her aside.
“Now, you come tell me all about this new client of ours. I didn't get to be in the other movie and I'd like to have a cameoâisn't that what they call it?âin this one.”
“It is, and I'll make sure that's part of the final agreement,” Sophie said. She filled him in quickly, looking back into the front parlor and
thinking they could be on a movie set now. The crystal chandeliers, gleaming period furniture, lavish holiday decorations, and above all the cast. The women were in elegant gownsârichly colored satins and silks. Sophie had obviously not been the only one to go to the bank, and jewels gleamed at throats and wrists. Carlene was wearing a diamond and emerald necklace that would not have been out of place in Cartier's window. And the men in black tieâhandsome without it, but elevated to George Clooney status with the change in dress. And they were all wearing socks. No flip-flops or loafers tonight, although Sophie wouldn't put it past Randy.
As soon as she had given Anson the highlights of the deal, he said, “I just want you to know how happy I am to have you as part of our family, Sophie. This is the happiest Christmas I can remember in years.” They were standing in front of the portrait of his mother. Of Aurora. “Her pearls look lovely on you, darlin', and she would have loved you.”
Impulsively Sophie gave him a kiss. “I know I would have loved her, too, and Will's mother. I wish I could have known them both.”
Anson's eyes filled with tears. “I wish you could have, too. They surely didn't deserve the ending dealt them. . . .”
Gloria bustled over. “Now what's with the long faces on Christmas Eve? Santa's not going to be happy! Y'all sit down. The rest of us are starving.”
But not for long. Sophie had thought the dinners at Bells Mills had been generous, but this Yuletide table was groaning loudly. A ham
roast beef, shrimp in many forms, greens, cheese grits, beaten biscuits, and Savannah red rice. This was Sophie's first taste of the city favorite, and once more she thought of Faith, resolving to get this version of the recipe for herâsmoked sausage, tomatoes, hence the name, and all sorts of other yummy things. (See
The meal was as merry as it was delicious. Sophie hadn't had much to drink after the eggnog, having had Laura's champagne to start, but she now realized she was drunk on the food and there
was still dessert to come, served in the double parlor, where it had been laid out on the pair of Duncan Phyfe sideboards that had belonged to Will's great-grandparents.
She slipped away to freshen up and, finding the powder room on the main floor occupied, ducked into a small room off to one side, not wanting to embarrass whoever was using it by waiting just outside. She left the door ajar and when she heard footsteps going past, she started out only to find herself pushed back by the firmly closing door. Odd.
But what was even more odd was the woman's voice that reached her. “She must have felt overserved and gone home to lie down.”
“Overserved,” a euphemism for “drunk.” Who'd gone home? And who was speaking? It sounded like Patty Sue or Gloria, even Carlene. Sophie realized their voices all had the same pitch. As did Laura's. Well, she'd find out in a moment, she thought, reaching for the doorknob.
A doorknob that wasn't there.
The whole thing was absurd. Sophie banged on the door, calling, “Hey, I'm stuck in here!” She heard footsteps and gave a sigh of relief, but the steps went right past the door and kept going. She hit the door harder, rapping with her knuckles until they stung. The oak was thick, and only someone right outside would be able to hear her. She tried again anyway with her other hand.
She felt around the door and located a light switch. An overhead fixture revealed where she was. Larger than a closet, it was a storage space that must have been created when the powder room was added. There was a vacuum cleaner and various boxes plus an ample coatrack that would probably be put to use during tomorrow's open house. She'd surely be discovered then, she thought ruefully, well aware that someoneâsomeone femaleâhad deliberately shut her in and lied about Sophie's leaving.
There had been a knob on the outside of the door, which meant a shank to open it. She knelt down and peered into the opening. The metal piece was close and she tried to grab it, but even her slender fingers were too thick. What she needed was something like needle-nose pliers.
Sophie stood up and started opening the boxes. They were filled with china and glasswareâthe kind caterers used for large gatherings. Her hopes rose. There would be cutlery. She could try using two knives to turn the shank.
One box did contain layers of knives, forks, and spoons. The knife blades were too broad, but she continued to search until she reached the bottom of the box and was rewarded by a layer of thin-bladed steak knives.
Again, she couldn't get purchase to twist the knob open, but she realized she could try sliding one blade between the door and the jamb, pushing the latch in. She'd never leave home without a Swiss Army knife in the future.
The trick worked with credit cards in mystery novels and the movies. She took a deep breath and slid the knife into the crack. It didn't budge. She tried again, coming from the top and giving the blade a sharp twist when she felt it reach the metal lock.
Sophie switched off the lightâleaving the door wide openâand went to the powder room to put on some lipstick, then calmly entered the parlor where the family had gathered for after-dinner liqueurs and coffee.
“Sophie!” Will came over to her side and put his arm around her waist. “We thought you'd gone back to the house. You should have told me. I was just about to leave to check on you.”
No one else said anything, but all eyes were on her. Was one pair more surprised than the rest? Wondering how she had escaped? Sophie couldn't tell.
“No. I feel fine. Fine now, that is. I've been locked in that little room next to the powder room. Someoneâ”
Gloria quickly interrupted. “Anson, I keep telling you we have to get that wonky doorknob fixed! I'm surprised this hasn't happened before! But whatever were you doing in the box room, darlin'?” She laughed. “Never mind. You're here now and that's what counts.”
Carlene came over with a snifter of brandy. “Get this down.
You do seem to have had bad luck since coming here! Did you happen to see anything in the dark? I've never heard this house has ghosts, but you may have coaxed one out!”
“Sorry. I turned the light on right away and if there was one, it disappeared.” Sophie smiled at Carlene, who seemed genuinely disappointed, and patted her arm. “Maybe another time.” The brandy did the trick and she felt much less shaky.
Her appearanceâor reappearanceâseemed to signal the end of the party. And it was time to head out for the Christmas Eve service. Sophie and Will found themselves leaving before the others. Sophie managed a “thanks for a lovely evening” when she actually wanted to say “a strange” one. There were Merry Christmas hugs all around, and so far as she could determine, none was less effusiveâor moreâthan the others.
As they walked toward Christ Church and Johnson Square through the streets of Savannah, Sophie debated telling Will about the way she'd been shoved in the box roomâand the words she'd overheard, even through the thick door. Back in the parlor, she'd tried to separate out each woman's voice, even the two cousins who were, as usual, dressed in twin outfitsâlong plum-colored taffeta gowns with lace fichus. None of the voices stood out for certain.
No, she wouldn't tell Will. It was their first Christmas Eve. Later in the week before he went back to Atlanta she would, however, ask him who'd said Sophie had left, that she was “overserved.” She didn't need to know now and a part of her was afraid it might not be Patty Sue, her prime suspect. She liked Carlene and Gloria. And the cousins were straight from the pages of a Gothic Southern novel. Maybe slightly “porch light on, but nobody home,” but Sophie ruled the two ladies out.
Approaching the church from across the square, Will stopped in the shadows of a live oak festooned with moss and took his wife in his arms. “I want a picture of you in this dress. Not that I'll need one to remember the way you looked tonight. Oh, Sophie, how did I get so lucky?”
His kiss was filled with longing, one she knew she'd satisfy soon. For now it was enough to hold each other under the magical Christmas sky with all its promise. When reluctantly, she sensed, he moved his lips away from hers, Sophie whispered, “And how did I get so lucky?” before they slowly walked the rest of the way to join the others.
It was only when Sophie walked through the church door that she remembered one more thing from the evening.
No one had asked her how she'd gotten out of the room.
Faith was anything but thankful for the reason, but she was appreciating this quiet Christmas Eve. Truly all was calm and all was bright. Amy had been improving steadily since she'd been discharged from the hospital yesterday morning. Since Monday Niki, Tricia, and the rest of the staff had taken over for Faith. Today was the last big job until New Year'sâa staff luncheon at one of the IT firms in Burlington, and Niki reported it had all gone so well the president had booked them for next year already.
Instead of her usual late night/early morning gift wrapping, she had been doing it this evening in her bedroom, checking on Amy in between tying bows and writing tags. To welcome her home from the hospital Pix had brought over a beautifully trimmed tabletop tree for Amy's room, and Faith had left the tiny lights on. With both bedroom doors open, she could see the soft glow in the hallway. Dr. Kane had told them not to worry if Amy slept most of the time, which she was. “Keep an eye on her temperature and wake her to keep her hydrated with whatever she feels like drinking, preferably something with protein and caloriesâsmoothies would be great, but she may just want fruit juice for now.” That had been the case until this evening, when Amy asked for ice cream and Faith made a strawberry-banana shake with a large scoop of soy powder.
Yet what had proved the best medicine so far was the get-well
card Amy's English teacher had delivered signed by the whole class. Some of the students had added messages, and Faith made a list of those names. Once Amy was better and back at school, Faith hoped to help her make some new friends. Maybe a small party at the catering kitchen for some of the girls. Cupcakes were the in food these days, and they could make some fun ones.
Over the next week Faith knew she and Tom would have to work hard to convince Amy that things would be better at school, avoiding the start of what could become a deep-seated phobia. She only hoped Amy would be well enough to go back. Also, they had to keep assuring her that Ben's upcoming trip would be safe. Ben had already told his sister this, showing her the letters he'd received from the family in France. The son was his age and the daughter was the same as Amy. “Just like us except the dad is a lawyer and the mom teaches school.” He'd promised to bring her back a few special Tintin books, a favorite, and large bars of CÃ´te d'Or chocolate in flavors not available here.
Tom and Ben would be at church late, but Faith knew they'd both be ravenous despite the early dinner she'd given them. She'd left a stack of roast beef, sharp cheddar, and horseradish mayo sandwichesâtheir favoriteâon the kitchen table next to the plate of cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. Last year when she'd suggested they skip it, both kids were appalled. “Mom, it's a custom!” Amy had declared. There was ginger beer for Ben and Sam Adams Old Fezziwig Ale for Tom in the fridge.
She wasn't listening to her usual carols; she wanted to be able to hear Amy, and without the music Faith's mind drifted. Sophie had called yesterday to chat and again this morning, wanting to check on Amy. The fancy family dinner must be about over and they would be headed to their Christmas Eve service. Yesterday's conversation was all about Amy, but today Sophie had told Faith about the dresses she'd ordered from Bergdorf's and the jewelry she would be wearing. From the sound of it, the Maxwells' safe-deposit box was not that far removed from Aladdin's
cave. Tomorrow there would be more revelry in Savannah. The Maxwells and their circle of friends had Christmas Day open houses, not the traditional Southern New Year's ones, although Faith was sure there would be plenty of those.
Sophie wanted Faith and the kids to come for the February school vacation, and the notion of leaving a New England winter was extremely appealing. Sophie hoped to be in her own house by then, but even if she wasn't, there was plenty of room where she was now. Faith wanted to take a good look at the famous wardrobeâand the anonymous threatening note. At least, she thought with relief, nothing had happened since, and soon Will would be finished with the job in Atlanta.
The Maxwells were very different from the Fairchilds, but Faith kept being reminded of her own first year of marriage when she thought about the young couple. Like Sophie, she had come to a place that was unlike the place where she had grown up. And now it was where her children called home, like Sophie's would. Her children. Faith felt a small lump in her throat. Growing up fast. Too fast.
Throughout the holidays, she had tried not to suppose that it would be the last Thanksgiving, the last Christmas in Aleford. Tom had been open with the church on the South Shore, telling them he was interested but that he needed to get to know them better and they him. When he preached in January it would not be as a candidate.
As the weeks had passed, he was torn about whether to tell First Parish's Vestry about the possibility. Faith wasn't sure if he was concerned they would hand him his hat in a hurry or the opposite. From long experience she knew it was difficult to predict what a church's governing body would do at any given time. She had remained supportive, listening to Tom and trying to match his enthusiasm. Change was healthy, she told herself. New chapters. Tom mustn't feel stuck. But why didn't she? In earlier years she would have jumped at the chance to leave the small town. But Tom's sabbatical year in Cambridge made her realize how embedded
sheâand her childrenâwere in Aleford. No Pix, all the Millers, Ursula, the Averys, other friends, the business. She needed to stop thinking about it now. Whatever Tom decided would be fine. The whole “whither thou goest” thing. She shelved the prospect of leaving once againâit was getting to be a reflex.
The last gift was wrapped. She peeked in on Amy and took the packages downstairs. She still had the stockings to fill. Tomorrow Tom and Ben would head down to Norwell for the Fairchild Christmas dinner. Faith would bring a book and sit with Amy in her room or maybe move her downstairs to the sofa in front of the fire if the patient felt up to it.
It would be a good day, this Christmas Day, and rare for the lack of workâall obligationsâsave tending to Amy. A day Faith wished away with all her heart. Wished Amy would be opening gifts under the tree and finding the most special giftâan open ticket to go see Daisy in Californiaâin her stocking. Wished this last week, Amy's entire difficult fall, had never happened.
She went to make a cup of tea. She would sit by her daughter's side all night, as she had these last two, and be there when she woke up in the morning.
“Merry Christmas, my love,” Will said. Sophie, half awake, had moved closer, her head nestling into the crook of his arm. Now fully awake, she was torn between wanting to stay exactly where she wasâpossibly for the entire dayâand giving Will the presents she'd put under the tree last night when they'd come back. He solved the problem for her.
“Come on! Let's see what Mr. Claus leftâand I need coffee.”
Sophie jumped out of bed and reached for the dressing gown at the foot of it, putting it on.
“Sure you need that?” Will teased. “You're not in the frozen north anymore and I kind of like the idea of seeing my wife in the buff with maybe a little bit of tinsel around her neck.”
“Will! What if someone drops by or peeks in the window!”
“Have it your way, but I still think it's a fine idea.”
He pulled on some sweats and they went downstairs into the kitchen.
As the coffee was brewing, Sophie heated up some muffins she'd picked up. Despite the amount of food she expected they'd be consuming the night before, she knew her husband's appetite. In addition to the muffins she had a Savannah Rum Runners cake from the bakery of the same name, which she kept hearing was delicious at any time of year but a special holiday treat. She'd sent one to the Fairchilds along with River Street pralines and an assortment of honeys from the Savannah Bee Company.
“How about some eggs?” she asked. “I can do an omelet or just scrambled? There's bacon, too.”
“Presents first. Let's have this under the tree for now, but I might could eat eggs and bacon later. Maybe even much later.”
Sophie gave him a kiss. No question. Best Christmas ever and it was only eight o'clock.
“You first,” Will said, handing her a large box wrapped in shiny gold paper, tied with scarlet ribbons.