Marie and James
After Nigel had left to resume working life back in London, Marie, alone again, concentrated on writing. As days went by, she lost focus on her work and couldn’t deny that her mind had drifted to Jim’s coming visit the following weekend. She felt pleasantly excited about seeing him again, and thought carefully about what she’d wear and what she’d cook. She basically preferred to not eat meat because she thought killing animals was barbaric, and in a lot of ways unnecessary, but she didn’t like to make a big deal about her preference, nor did she like to impose it on others. When cooking for others, she would choose the “middle way”—not meat, but fish, accompanied by a salad of great variety, and to go with a bottle of sparkling wine and a scrumptious desert of frozen berries, slightly defrosted, on mousse au chocolat topped with whipped cream. That was what she decided to make for James.
He called on Friday afternoon and said he’d arrive within the hour, and Marie tried on several dresses before deciding on her burgundy velvet bra and matching underpants when she heard MJ barking. She looked out of her bedroom window and saw an olive green vintage Mercedes parked in front of the house. She quickly put on a pair of jeans, pulled a jumper over her head, and ran barefoot downstairs. After paying her respects to the car by whistling and saying, “Nice ride,” one of her favorite American expressions, they embraced.
Jim stroked MJ and said, “Yours? He or she?”
“Male, and yep—he’s mine.”
“He’s beautiful,” said Jim. “What’s his name?”
Marie told him, and when Jim asked how she came by a dog so quickly, Marie related how she’d met Duncan and how once she’d seen the puppy, she had fallen in love.
“I think it’s fantastic that you have company and also protection now with MJ,” Jim said sincerely. “I must admit, I was a bit worried thinking about you all alone out here.”
Marie, not knowing how to respond, used a phrase she’d picked up watching too much crap on television. “I didn’t know you cared,” and Jim responded by taking her into his arms. The inevitable followed—a kiss, and then another, and then making love in the warmth of the living room and later spending time talking and enjoying the closeness of body and mind under cover of blankets in the bedroom.
As autumn turned to winter, Marie spent her days writing, taking walks with MJ, and looking forward to the weekends with James and the times they would spend together, sometimes alone and sometimes with Nigel joining them. A week before Christmas, Marie took MJ to Duncan to care for him and flew to Germany to celebrate with her family on Christmas Eve, as is tradition there. She flew back to England on Christmas day, having been invited by Jim and his family for lunch and to spend the remaining holidays with them at their country home.
When James picked up Marie at Heathrow airport, he greeted her with a red rose in hand, and although he showed how happy he was to see her, he didn’t seem to be his usual cheery self. Marie thought that he was perhaps apprehensive about her meeting his family, so she asked him if there was something on his mind. He apologized for being absentminded and said a problem had arisen at work, but that he wouldn’t let it get in the way of them enjoying the rest of the holiday, and that everyone was keen to meet her.
He tried unsuccessfully to put Marie’s worry at rest by giving her a forced smile and pressing her hand, which she read as, “There’s definitely something wrong,” but she knew it wasn’t the right time to probe. When they drove up the driveway to James’s parental home, she couldn’t help but express her thoughts aloud. “Oh, how gorgeous!” The house was cute, like an English country cottage, but much larger and with towers, which stood like sentinels on the far ends of the building.
When they halted in front of the house, a man and a woman dressed in green and red and wearing antler hats came out to greet them with a hug and a “Merry Christmas.” Jim, now remarkably more relaxed, said to Marie, “Let me introduce to you Santa Claus and his wife, also known as Brian, my dad and my stepmother, Jane.”
After the greetings, Jim and Marie were ushered into a room featuring a large Christmas tree with blinking lights, and they were each given an exquisite crystal glass into which Brian poured champagne and said, “I believe in your country you say ‘prost’?”
Marie replied, “Yes, prost—or to health.”
“To health it is,” Brian said, and just as they raised their glasses, a tall, extremely pale teenager with stunning red hair appeared. He greeted Marie by shaking her hand.
“I’m Justin—pleased to meet you,” he said and gave James a brotherly hug.
After the champagne and a bit of small talk, James showed Marie to her room. After she showered, she decided to wear her long grey silk dress, her best black shoes with not much of a heel, and the garnet necklace she’d inherited from her grandmother. James had good timing and knocked on her door just as she took a last glance in the mirror. He let out a “Wow—you look incredible,” and when they entered the dining room, she was glad to see that Jane had also changed into a long dress and had replaced the antlers with a finely crafted diadem.
The table was set festively with tall, silver candleholders, a red and green flower arrangement as a centerpiece, and red crystal glasses, which were shining brightly in the candlelight.
Jane asked James to help in the kitchen, and they excused themselves.
“I leave you in the capable hands of my brother,” James said, giving her a kiss on her cheek.
Justin handed her a glass of sherry, which was the way she liked it—medium dry. “Dad is the cook today, and he likes the turkey to be just right. He’s like one of those eccentric chefs in the kitchen, very despotic. I’d rather stay out of his way, let Mum and James be his slaves,” Justin said with a grin.
Marie responded, “Sounds just like my sister. She’s a fantastic cook, but everything has to be perfect. She’s very anal that way.”
Justin laughed and said, “Very anal. You have a way with words. James tells me you’re a writer. Do you write in English or German?”
Marie said, “Both, but I prefer English.” “Why is that?” Justin asked, surprised.
“Well,” Marie said, “I just love English, the way it sounds and flows, and the richness of its vocabulary is unsurpassed.”
“But German is such a beautiful language,” Justin said enthusiastically. “I spent a couple of years in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Mind, it was an international school, and everybody spoke English. I learned to understand a bit of German, but I can only speak a few words like, “Ick leebe dick.”
Marie couldn’t help but burst out laughing and said, “Ich liebe dich,”
Justin corrected himself: “Oh, deech, not dick. So what did I say—I love penis?” and the two of them were laughing heartily when Brian came into the room with a large tray of turkey.
He said happily, “Thought you two would have something in common.”
Jane and James followed with more food, then James walked to Marie and whispered, “You bewitched Justin. He doesn’t usually open up to people he just met.”
Marie whispered back, “Well, didn’t you know that I have magic powers?”
James replied, smiling, “I do know,” while he drew back a chair and waited until she sat down. He repeated the act of chivalry for his stepmother while Justin poured the wine and Brian cut the turkey.
When each plate was filled with the delectable food, Brian lifted his glass and said, “Let us drink to the spirit of Christmas, our guest, Marie, and family and friends present and in absentia.” They all raised their glasses and cheered.
When Brian said, “Bon appétit,” all echoed it.
As they ate, lively conversation flowed, and much praise was given to the excellent chef and his cooking skills. After the last delicious course was served, Jane said eagerly, “Come on, everybody—presents are waiting to be opened.”
After gifts had been exchanged and while Christmas carols played on the CD player, Marie offered to help in the kitchen and James retreated with his father and Justin into the drawing room. Justin picked up his guitar and was hiding behind his instrument in his usual way as James opened his laptop to show his dad pictures of the stolen paintings, then told him about the theft of the paintings and Rebecca’s demands. He said he had no idea where she was staying in London, nor where she lived in New York. There was a moment of silence, and even Justin had stopped playing to look at the computer screen.
Brian said, “Have you told Nigel?”
James answered, “Not yet. I wanted to talk to you first.” Brian then asked, “Is she not very bright? What makes her
think she can pull a stunt like this and not lose you and Nigel as friends—and, of course, her connections to the art world here in England?”
James replied, “I don’t know what she thinks. I think she’s an idiot, but that makes her more unpredictable, and I just can’t afford to lose the confidence of such an important client.”
“Do you think Nigel might know her whereabouts?” Brian asked.
,James said, “I don’t think he does, but I’ll call him tomorrow. I just don’t want to bother him today.”
Brian said, “Of course. Tomorrow is soon enough. See what you can find out from Nigel, and let’s not think about involving the police. We can think about that later. For the time being, I’ll drive to London after Boxing Day, and I’ll create an account you can draw from here, or anywhere overseas. I guess we can’t do much until that woman contacts you again, and it stands to reason that she’ll keep the paintings safe, so let’s not tell Jane or Marie and we’ll enjoy the holidays. I’m sure it will all work out.”
Jim thanked his dad, while Justin, no longer interested, picked up his guitar again and began to play just as Marie and Jane joined them in the drawing room. None of the men mentioned anything about the problem they’d discussed.