Summary: Christmas on the Ponderosa is, more or less, always the same. Yet this year, there’s a certain moment of unpredictability: there’s a visitor staying over the holidays who could jeopardise it all…or make it extra special. And maybe she even knows a better present for Adam than yet another book….
Word Count: 3000
Adam woke with a start to thundering footsteps on the stairs. Christmas morning, no question. No matter how old his little brother would get, Joe would always be the first one up at Christmas and the first one down in the living room, and Hoss wouldn’t be too far behind. Eager as young children to get their presents.
Adam always wondered how Christmas presents could be so important. It was nice to get something, not that anyone got him wrong, but in the end it was always the same: arms and armours for Joe, riding stuff for Hoss, tobacco and brandy for Pa, books for him. The only questions were: which calibre was Joe’s new pistol, which colour was Hoss’ riding gear this year, would Pa have a pipe coming with his tobacco, and had his family been able to choose the right titles for him for once.
There was a slight moment of unpredictability this year, though. After some very lively discussions with his not-overly-enthusiastic family—Joe’s “Can’t we have one last quiet Christmas? Please?” combined with a heartbreakingly begging pout still stood vividly in his memory—Adam had finally been allowed to invite Juliet Heatherstone to the Ponderosa for Christmas. She was, after all, the woman he was going to marry, and sooner or later the family would have to get used to having her around. Before long, of that Adam was sure, they would discover that Juliet wasn’t half as demanding as they thought if she felt welcome and comfortable. And Adam was determined to show Juliet that there was no reason not to let her guards down when with his family—that soon would be her family, too.
Of course, Juliet had been reluctant to accept the invitation: staying the night in a house with four men had seemed very inappropriate. However, when Adam had stressed out that her only other Christmas option included not only Mrs. Hawkins’ tooth-breaking biscuits, but also the prospect of days spent in the nerve-wracking company of the widow’s newest guests—some very unappealing businessmen from Syracuse, who spent all their free time in the boarding house’s parlour bragging about how much salt they had sold, were selling and would be selling in the future, and how salt should rather be called White Gold—not to mention with a slightly drunk, umpteenth repetition of Mrs. Hawkins’ late husband’s adventures in the vaudevilles of the world, Juliet had readily yielded and agreed to join the Cartwrights for the holidays.
They had spent a surprisingly apollonian evening, with Juliet thanking Hop Sing for an excellent banquet in a very gracious and complimentary laudation that actually made the cook blush, Hoss and Joe behaving more or less like grown ups for once (well, maybe except for the episode with the wax angel and the frying pan), Pa nearly choking over having a female voice reading him the Christmas Tale after so many years, and Adam spitting his brandy all over the room when Juliet suggested they all could sing some Christmas carols. Later, when Joe and Hoss had commenced the epic checkers battle they fought out at every Christmas and Pa had settled down with his pipe and the edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol Juliet had brought as a “present to the host,” Adam and Juliet had snuggled up on the settee in front of the fire place, just enjoying to be together. Juliet had laid her head on his shoulder, and squirmed and hissed “shh” and secretly pinched his arm when he had started to whisper naughty nothings in her ear, but had also smiled and let her eyes sparkle and hadn’t taken her ear out of hearing distance. All in all, a cheerful, pleasurable Christmas Eve.
Adam yawned and stretched his long limbs. Time to get up. Juliet claimed to be an early riser, and Adam would not push his luck and risk her being alone with his younger brothers’ childish Christmas antics. She would surely find some biting commentary for that, and Adam didn’t want the peaceful spirit getting spoiled by her sarcastic words that Hoss and especially Joe wouldn’t recognize as the teasing they were meant to be, and that would leave them grouchy and sulking, and less than eager to spend another day with her ladyship.
When he came down the stairs, Hoss and Joe were already unwrapping presents, and even Pa was fingering something shiny, and red, and with a golden bow. Juliet was sitting in the red chair next to the fire place, a vision in heavy scarlet silk, a now closed book in her lap, sipping at a cup of tea and watching the men with a contented smile.
Adam exchanged ‘Merry Christmases’ with everyone and worked his way through a pile of wrapped books. Oliver Twist (Pa), Doctor Faustus (Joe; really, he should know better than to ask Juliet for advice), The Song of Hiawatha (Hoss, bless him—on second thought, though, he must have asked Juliet, too; but she would never use Hoss to give Adam a wipe, that was a role she apparently had reserved for Joe), and a few more. When he had thanked everybody profoundly, Juliet held out a parcel to him.
“Merry Christmas, Adam,” she said. “I hope you’ll like this.”
It was…well, it definitely wasn’t a book. A good start. Adam opened the oval box and peered inside. He saw two strange contraptions: thin, long steel blades perpendicularly fixed on wooden planks.
“Are these… skates?” he asked unbelievingly.
“But…why…?” Adam gazed at her in wonder. “I never…”
“Oh, come on,” Juliet beamed. “The way you move, you’re a natural born skater!”
Later that day, out on the frozen lake, Adam still wondered what could have made her think so. His butt ached from the seemingly hundredth fall, his ears rang from Juliet’s laughter, and his nose was so cold that he was sure it would simply fall off within the next few minutes. The only thing that made the experience worth the effort was Juliet. She was standing on the ice on her own skates, gracefully keeping her balance, with her thick black woollen coat, her ridiculously thin black kid gloves, that always let her hands get so cold she had to warm them up inside Adam’s warm jacket (but only when no one was watching), and her long light blue Kashmir wool scarf, wrapped around her head and shoulders and still hanging low down her back and at the front of her coat. Her cheeks were pink, and her eyes bright and sparkling with joy.
“Slowly, Adam, slowly,” she told him for what must have been the thousandth time. “Keep one foot on the ice, lean onto the blade and push with the other foot.” She laughed again. “Rock over and bite!”
And suddenly, amazingly, he moved. The blade was gliding over the ice, and when he increased speed— “Yes, Adam, that’s it!”—he became steadier, more balanced and confident. It was pure bliss—like drifting—no, like flying! A weightless floating, a suddenly effortless epiphany of speed and balance.
Juliet encouraged him, coached him, corrected this little detail and that, and finally she joined him, taking his hand in hers and they glided over the frozen surface, together and in undreamed-of harmony. Eventually they stopped, and Juliet shoved her cold hands in Adam’s coat, and he shuddered when he felt her fingers through his shirt—not only because of the cold—and she gazed at him and smiled and said, “I told you, you’re a natural!”
And then she was all coy and un-Juliet-like and asked, “Do you like your present, Adam?”
Adam felt the soft wool of her scarf in his face, and he inhaled her scent of snow and wool and cinnamon. He closed his eyes and said softly, “This is the best present I’ve ever had, Mylady.”
Christmas day had ended with another unexpected gift for Adam: his family had retreated early, much earlier than usual, all proclaiming the festivities had worn them out completely and they really, really needed to fall asleep soon and not get up until the morning. They had bid Adam and Juliet good night and all but fled the great room, leaving the couple space and time to be alone. Surely not something of that Miss Westlake, Juliet’s governess of gone-by days at Barnstoke Hall, would approve; but the strict Miss was far away in England and had lost influence on her reluctant charge long ago anyway.
And nothing in Juliet’s behaviour showed that she was bothered much about the inappropriateness of the situation. In fact, she nearly looked like an excited puppy—something Adam found both unexpected and endearing—as she settled on the settee looking at him expectantly, slid out of her elegant slippers and pulled her feet up and under the skirt of her elaborate dressing gown. The scarlet silk robe with embroidered silver and white snowflakes at the sleeve hems and lower part of the skirt must have cost Juliet a fortune, but the dark red complimented her so much—now, in the warm light of the fireplace and the oil lamps, even more than earlier that morning. Her face was slightly flushed, if still from the cold at the lake, from the warmth of the fire, or from…anticipation, Adam didn’t know, but he surely hoped for the last.
Juliet tapped on the seat next to her. “Won’t you…?”
“In a moment. I have to…” Adam turned and rummaged under the lowest branches of the Christmas tree, retrieving a small flat parcel and a burlap bag.
Bringing his findings, he joined Juliet on the settee. “I haven’t given you your presents yet, Mylady.”
“But I thought…”
“Those books were from my family, not from me.”
She looked at him lifting an incredulous eyebrow. “You want to tell me you had nothing to do with that pretty collection of Shakespeare’s most famous works? Shakespeare?”
He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, I might have been asked for advice.”
“And you couldn’t resist, naturally.” She shook her head, then raised her eyebrow even higher and pursed her lips. “It’s a very handsome edition. Real jewels. Mr. Marlowe would be delighted.”
Adam grinned, taking his new copy of Dr. Faustus and wagging the book under Juliet’s nose before he put it back on the table. “Me thinks we’re even, my scheming lady. Don’t think I didn’t recognise your signature.”
“Indeed, we are.” This time Juliet chuckled. She reached out and squeezed Adam’s arm. “May I have my presents now, Father Christmas?”
“I’m not sure. Have you been a good girl, all this year?”
“Of course! I’ve been perfectly good.” She even managed innocent big round child’s eyes.
“Really?” Adam brought down his voice to a growling bass.
She lowered her head and then peered up from under her eyelashes. “Why, yes! Certainly.”
“I don’t know,” Adam said, barely holding back a smirk. “I do seem to recall that only last week you—”
“Well, you were, weren’t you? I don’t think that—”
“Father Christmas, please.”
She leaned back and crossed her arms, considering him through narrowed eyes. “Well, Father Christmas, if I recall correctly, you were there last week, too, being…not good.”
Now he did smirk. “Oh, you recall correctly: I was there. But, come to think of it, we weren’t bad. Not at all. In fact,” he leaned over and brushed a butterfly kiss on her cheek, “it was delightfully good. You were delightfully good.”
She turned and nibbled at his earlobe, kissed that tender spot below his ear. “Was I?” she whispered, and then breathed, “Now give me my presents already.”
Silently laughing, he gave her the burlap bag first. She untied the ribbon at the top and reached in, stopped when she touched the contents looking at him in surprise, and then carefully pulled out some dry stems with soilless roots.
“Roses?” she queried.
“Well, I thought you’ll surely want to plant some around the ranch house when you’ll be living here.”
She nodded silently, then studied the bare-rooted plants, tracing the short stems with her fingers in a tenderly fashion. Eventually she took the attached paper label and read the clumsy script.
She closed her eyes heaving a deep breath, and when she opened them again, they seemed to glisten. Her voice was hoarse when she said, “Queen de Bourbon, Adam? Where…?”
“They are from Barnstoke. I asked Poole to send them. He says to give you his regards.”
She breathed heavily. Once, twice, three times. And then she gave up and let the tears spill.
Adam pulled her into his arms. “Hey, shh. I didn’t want to make you sad. I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
“No.” It was choked and muffled, and he felt her warm breath through his shirt. “I’m not sad. I’m…” She pressed her face into his chest, drying up her tears on his shirt, then wriggled out of his embrace. “I’m not sad. You didn’t make me sad. You made me—” She stopped to brush away new tears escaping her eyes. “Look at me: I’m maudlin.” She laughed under the tears. “You’ve made me maudlin, Adam.”
He dried up her tears with his handkerchief and wiped the last drops away with his thumb; and she kissed him. Seizing his face with both hands, pressing her lips on his with vigour, she kissed him.
“And happy. Content,” she said, snuggling up against him. She laid her head on his shoulder, arranging herself in that already so familiar way, and whispered, “Thank you.”
He folded his arms around her, held her tight until her breath evened out and he felt her body relaxing fully. Only then he took up the other present and slid it between them.
“There’s something else, Mylady.”
She took the parcel, looking at him timidly.
He nudged her nose. “Come on, open it. It’s safe.”
And it was safe. It was a book, but it wasn’t a book. It was a journal, much like the old, nearly full black notebook Juliet used to collect what she wrote other than her newspaper articles: poems, short stories, ideas, fragments of that novel she planned to complete one day. It was bound in dark green silk, fashionably decorated with Chinese embroidery in bold but pleasant colours, showing a serpent.
“It’s beautiful, Adam.” Juliet ran her hands over the smooth material, tracing the meandering body of the snake.
“It seemed to be made for you,” Adam replied. “Hop Sing told me you were born under the Chinese zodiac of the serpent.”
“A serpent? Like…sin? Good gracious.”
“No. Like wisdom.”
“Ah. That’s better.” She smiled sweetly. “And what’s your zodiac? A mule?”
Adam grinned and pulled on a stray strand of golden hair. “Nope. I’m a tiger.”
She snorted. “You’re making that up.”
He shook his head. “No.”
She looked down at the journal, traced the serpent’s tail one more time, then glanced at Adam’s waiting face and spoke low and with a small smile, “It does suit you, though. Very much so, actually. A tiger….”
She opened the journal and found his inscription on the first page. He had taken great care to make his script neat and decorative, had adorned the first letter of each stanza with garlands and flowers.
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.
The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.
“Marlowe.” It was only one word, only a name, and some people might have thought Juliet was stating the obvious, but Adam heard the contentment, the wonder, and the gratitude that showed him she’d understood the message. Well, all the messages.
“I’m not a shepherd, Mylady, but I do want to make thee a bed of roses,” he said anyway—just to make it even more distinct.
She closed the book, laid it delicately on the table. “Adam,” she smiled turning back to him. “You’ve made me a bed of roses already.”
“Have I?” He pulled her back to his chest and moved around so that they came to lie together on the settee, Juliet slightly atop of him, secured from slipping down by his arms enfolding her.
“You have. And more than once,” she sighed into his chest.
It was uncomfortable, the settee clearly too narrow for two; it was awkward and they didn’t know where to rest their legs and arms; they couldn’t see each other’s face without some artistic wrenching, they got constantly entangled in the sumptuous skirt of Juliet’s dressing gown, but it was warm, and it was soft, and they were as close as they could be and completely at home, and it was wonderful.
They just lay there, listening to the crackling of the fire and to each other’s heartbeat; and before the warmth and the quiet lulled him into sleep, Adam kissed Juliet’s forehead and whispered, “Merry Christmas, Mylady,” and Juliet seemed to melt even more into him murmuring sleepily, “Merry Christmas, Adam.”
A/N: many, many thanks for the beta to Sandspur and Sklamb! Have I told you lately how wonderful you are, ladies?