|Draw Me A Picture
Author: MeredithGreeneWriter PM
Jobless & alone, 23-yr-old Michelle sells pen & ink drawings on a Manhattan street corner in order to eat. Lonely, she draws the portrait of a handsome, British stranger whom walks by her each day. He sees it, though Michelle's nutty uncle may interfere..Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Chapters: 6 - Words: 59,364 - Reviews: 792 - Favs: 593 - Follows: 459 - Updated: 02-18-13 - Published: 09-14-07 - id: 2414913
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A chill wind ushered in Thursday morning. Despite the dreary cold William was ready at five AM. He'd spent much of the previous evening talking to Michelle on the phone as they packed; she'd made him laugh often with her quiet and frank manner of expressing herself. He could almost feel her blushes through the phone when he confessed how much he'd missed her.
"You just saw me three days ago," was her reply.
"Must you rub it in?" he returned. Sitting outside Michelle's hotel in his roadster, William waited for her to appear. Alfred sat in the passenger seat, mumbling now and then about 'the ungodly hour' and the 'frigid cold'. William was unable to hide his grin. Watching the atrium doors, he drummed his fingers happily on the wheel, whistling some unnamed tune.
A smartly dressed young woman in white and blue swept through the doors carrying a single, brown traveling bag; her uplifted expression made William smile.
"Oh thanks heavens, just one bag," Alfred said, letting out a sigh of relief.
"You brought two, old boy," William reminded him, his smile widening. Alfred sniffed.
"I'm an old man; I need a lot of layers," he articulated, gravely. William hopped out of the car, a spring in his step. Michelle stood a little awkwardly by the door, looking around until she spied William; her smile lit up her face. She let him enfold her in a warm embrace and take her bag.
"I am glad you came," William told her, smiling. Michelle smiled back her answer, liking the twinkle in his eye. Opening his door for her, William folded his seat forward so she could climb in.
"I hope you don't mind taking the back, my dear," Alfred said, apologetically. "I'm afraid if I sat there, they'd need a crowbar to remove me. William acted like he hadn't heard that; he got in and shut the door.
"Not at all, sir. This is such a cozy car," Michelle said; she wiggled around slightly in order to put on the seat belt.
"It's a roadster, actually," William corrected, grinning at her over his shoulder. "And thank you for not calling it 'cute'." Michelle giggle, softly at his words..
"How are you this morning, Alfred... if I may call you that," she asked of the elderly gentleman in the front passenger seat; the white haired valet looked well-swathed against the cold.
"Miss Michelle-if I may call you that-I am very well," Alfred answered, with a smile. He touched the brim of his bowler hat at her.
"Cold and grumpy, you mean," William put in, directing the roadster away from the curb. That got a 'harrumph' from Alfred. Michelle smiled; she felt idiotically happy sitting in the car with them, like a little ten-year-old going to Disneyland.
The roads out of the city were unusually clear; those going into the city were jammed, even at 5:15 in the morning. Looking at the lines of cars, Michelle felt deep sympathy for the folks who sat in traffic for hours a day, went to work, then back in traffic again.
"It's almost better to walk to work," she mused aloud as they zipped by the static cars opposite.
"You're not far off the mark there, Michelle," William put in. "I rarely use the car."
"Sometimes I take the subway," Michelle said. "And though it does reek a little, it is such an interesting experience with all the unique faces crammed into such a tiny space, barely tolerating one another's existence." William laughed.
"A true artist alone can call the subway 'unique'," he said, smiling. Michelle studied the ceiling for a moment.
"The faces only have one thing in common," she said. "No smiles."
Alfred surprised her by speaking up.
"Yes, well… in my experience, Miss Michelle, the general populace of New York City either has no reason to smile, or if they do... they wish to keep it to themselves, as not to incite jealousy." Michelle laughed at this. William liked the sound of her laugh; it was feminine and clear, but not too loud.
"That would be sad if it wasn't so ridiculous," Michelle said, smiling. "Humans have to express and feel some form of happiness; it's part of our DNA."
"Indeed," Alfred put in. "Otherwise we dwindle down to self-absorbed lumps that feed off our own misery, to the ultimate detriment of society." William lifted his eyebrows a little at Michelle in the rear view mirror; she smiled back.
"I agree. Can you imagine a world without laughter? " Michelle asked. "Or Picnics? No eyes sparkling with fun?"
"Heaven forbid," Alfred said, gravely. "New Yorkers may appear to thrive on stress, but humans must have moments of brevity here and there, lest we go mad."
Nodding, Michelle sat back. The leather seat of William's car was comfortable, in spite of the cramped space. It was very cozy and obviously expensive. Polished wood and glowing leather greeted her eyes anywhere she looked, with shiny brass knobs and fixtures.
"This car kind of suits you," she said, to William. "It's all polished and proper."
"Why, thank you, Michelle," William returned, grinning. "At least you didn't say 'compact' or 'stuffy'." Michelle made a face, which William caught in the rear-view mirror; he chuckled.
"Who could call you compact?" Michelle demurred. "You must be at least six feet tall." William let out a short laugh.
"A little more, actually," he said. He looked over his shoulder at Michelle and winked. Getting a blush back, he turned to concentrate on his driving once more.
They fled the city. As the Burroughs and suburbs passed by, the road seemed to grow brighter and increasingly more scenic. Flocks of birds soared in the sky, flying away to warmer places; groves of trees pocketed the roadside, dressed in bright red and orange leaves. Fewer cars graced the road with them as the day progressed. Soon, the three travelers found themselves driving along a two-lane country road, winding through endless meadows and orchards. Michelle felt almost entranced by the scenery; just being out with William and the amiable Alfred left her feeling cheerful. Her host drove with quiet steadiness; muted classical music played in the background. Alfred preferred to read but gave up as the road became more winding.
Michelle stole glances at William often, debating on whether or not she should say something. The lack of conversation was pleasant in itself, but she wondered if she was being impolitely hermit-like by saying nothing at all. Encountering William's eyes in the rear-view mirror every so often, Michelle blushed at the subsequent winks he sent her way. Smiling, she continued to enjoy the view out the window.
Around noon the roadster rolled into a quaint little town which boasted a small, country-style café; it looked humble but well-kept and harbored several patrons within. William parked in front and helped Michelle out. Alfred unfolded himself from his seat, wincing as his back popped audibly.
"Are you alright, old boy?" William asked, grinning. Alfred shot him a narrow glance.
"I shall be after a short rest, thank you," he quipped. Michelle patted the elderly man's shoulder.
"It looks very comfortable inside," she suggested. Alfred gave her a smile.
"It does. Let's hope they have loose-leaf tea."
The diner was quaint and nearly full of locals; they chose a corner booth and a waitress appeared immediately. William ordered the eggs Benedict, explaining he'd skipped breakfast. Michelle saw someone eating a pastrami sandwich on rye that looked delicious and ordered the same. Alfred questioned the waitress intently on how the café's tea process and was obliged to follow her into the kitchen to inspect it, himself. When the man was out of earshot, Michelle turned an incredulous glance toward William.
"I had no idea tea was such a big deal," she said. William chuckled at her bewildered expression.
"Everyone has a particular bend, Michelle; a 'passion for process', if you will. Alfred's is the proper selection and brewing of tea. He's a master at it." Michelle remained quiet for a moment before answering.
"I suppose mine is the careful selection of friends and the possible avoidance thereof," she said, with a broad smile. William gave her a glance of mock-incredulity.
"You don't say?" he returned, flipping out his napkin.
"I'm curious what yours is," Michelle said, keeping her eyes locked on William's face. Her companion grinned, a little sheepishly.
"My clothes," William admitted. "I like them neatly pressed and stored properly." Michelle giggled.
"I suspect you have more clothes than I do, William," she remarked. "But then again you're a professional... and English." The last part of the sentence she said under her breath. William glanced up at her, his eyes narrowing.
"Don't make me come over there and tickle you," he warned; his eyes held a mischievous twinkle. Michelle's teasing smile pulled at him, irresistibly.
"Now, now... there's no need for tha', sir," Michelle said, utilizing what she hoped was an English accent.
To her surprise, William pushed his chair back and stood, his hands resting firmly on the table.
"Oh, I think there is," he said, his voice low and ominous; to Michelle's chagrin he began to slowly circle the table towards her.
"Tea?" came Alfred's voice. William turned to find his valet standing behind him, holding a large tray with correctly-polished tea paraphernalia upon it.
"Ahem... yes," William intoned, casting a narrow look at Michelle; she let out an audible sigh of relief. William chuckled at her expression. "The tea looks splendid, Alfred," he praised, sitting down again in his chair. Alfred nodded sagely.
"The staff got a free lesson in tea etiquette," he said, pouring a cup. "Michelle, can I interest you in a cup of Darjeeling?"
"Yes, thank you," Michelle said, finally standing to take off her hat and coat. Laying them beside her on the seat, she sat back down.
A bit disappointed by Alfred's interruption, William nonetheless enjoyed watching Michelle remove her coat. It amazed him how she had no idea of her attractiveness to the general male populace; everywhere they were, when Michelle took off her coat it seemed appreciative stares were directed their way. The young woman never seemed to notice. William found himself admiring her choice of clothing himself, never mind anyone else; today she wore dark-red, fitted jeans and a cream-colored sweater that looked like it would be very soft to touch. Michelle looked flushed with warmth and her eyes were bright from their banter earlier; she met his eyes, blushed and then looked quickly away. William resolved to continue his hunt later. Being so close to her and being unable to hold her felt almost painful. To make things worse, he caught just a hint of her apple blossom perfume in the air. William picked up a local newspaper and opened it, attempting to concentrate elsewhere.
Michelle accepted a cup of tea from Alfred with a smile. The flavor if the hot liquid surprised her; it was spicy and fragrant, with just the right strength. The taste of it made one want to nibble the teacup as well.
"Alfred, this is delicious!" she praised, holding her tea with both hands. Alfred smiled on her benevolently.
"Yes, it is amazing what method can do," he said, plaintively.
"Method nothing," Michelle remarked, inhaling the fragrance slowly. "This is art…"
"My dear, you flatter me… but, thank you." Alfred poured his own cup and one for William.
The food arrived son after and conversation halted for awhile. The meal was well-cooked and hearty in typical country fashion; after eating, they sat enjoying some more tea and talking about the surrounding area.
"This looks like a pleasant, little township," Alfred said. "Charming locals." William smiled.
"Charming in the way that the café cook didn't chuck you out of the kitchen?" he asked. Alfred lifted an eyebrow at his employer.
"Not everyone is averse to learning something, sir," he returned.
"Certainly not," Michelle agreed. "I hope you'll teach me your secret to tea perfection someday."
"Gladly, my dear," Alfred said. "About how much longer will we be traveling sir?" His voice seemed a little tired to Michelle.
"Another four hours, or so," William said, leaning back against his chair. "The roads are more scenic than efficient, I'm afraid. But, we should be there in plenty of time for dinner, perhaps even detour to pick up some of those eclairs that you and Mother are so fond of." At this, Alfred smiled.
"They would be excellent for dessert, sir," he said, a trifle eagerly.
"Anything would be better than the inevitable Crème Brule that Jean-Claude keeps tossing at us."
At this William laughed; he looked over to see a consumed expression on Michelle's face.
"Jean-Claude is my mother's chef," he explained. "He and Alfred have a kind of friendly cooking rivalry going, but the Frenchman takes it a bit far."
"A bit far is correct," Alfred said, wryly. "I like a good Crème Brule the same anyone, but he's served it the last six times, out of spite; each time the flavor is more bland. He thinks the English have no imagination when it comes to food."
"Then, William's idea of picking up dessert certainly has merit," Michelle said, quietly. "Give him motivation to impress us." Alfred lifted his teacup toward Michelle.
"I will drink to that," he said. William chuckled and stood to go pay the check.
Watching Alfred sip his tea from across the small table, Michelle suddenly felt curious about the man.
"Have you always been a valet, Alfred?" she asked, setting her teacup down. The white-haired man looked over at her with a small smile.
"No my dear," he said. "I started in the profession not long after I lost my wife. Influenza, you know. It was still a very bad thing to contract, back then."
"I'm so sorry..." Michelle said, biting her lip. "I didn't mean to pry."
"Nonsense," Alfred assured her, patting her hand briefly. "It's obvious William already considers you part of the family, so please do not worry yourself about asking questions. It is quite refreshing, actually, that you wish you know about my life."
"Thank you," Michelle said, blushing a little at his comment William's consideration of her; she felt extremely flattered by the inference and hoped it was true.
"If I may, what was her name?" she asked, feeling a bit more comfortable.
"Helene," Alfred said, a soft look coming into his eyes.
Reaching into his waistcoat pocket, he produced a watch; opening it, he carefully held it out enabling Michelle to view the inside of its lid. Leaning forward, Michelle found herself looking at a faded black and white photograph. In it a slender woman sat on a small, striped divan, her back very straight; a little boy of about three in a dark suit stood next to her and tiny little girl in a frilly, white dress sat on her lap. In spite of the woman's rather severe posture, her face was soft, kind and very pretty. Michelle found herself smiling back at the photograph.
"She's lovely," Michelle said, looking at Alfred. He looked at it as well, his eyes growing slightly misty.
"Yes, she was," he said, quietly.
"Did your children survive the... influenza?" Michelle asked, praying that they had.
"Oh, yes. We sent them off to live with my brother and his wife in the country, when the first outbreak started. My wife was a nurse, you see; caught a particularly virulent strain at the hospital. The children were almost out of school when she died." He pointed to the boy. "That is Peter; he's forty-four now, with a wife of his own; a very nice girl, too. They have two children; the eldest would be about your age, I think. My daughter Patricia is also married, to a fairly decent chap. She's a very good mother; she and Charles have four children now. Little Abigail is the youngest, and quite my favorite."
"Wow. Six grandchildren," Michelle said, impressed. "What a wonderful family. Do you see them often?"
"Yes, well not as much as I'd like," Alfred admitted. "Ever since we moved to the United States, I only see them once a year. It's difficult to fly so far at my age."
"I guess so," Michelle said, sympathetically. "I guess being a valet is a fairly good living, though." Alfred nodded, putting away his watch.
"Yes, and you get room and board with it, though I still own my old house; it has good tenants in it now... but, someday I'll retire there. Master William matches my retirement contributions, but that is fairly standard in Great Britain."
Michelle wondered when Alfred would retire; he seemed about the age most people thought about it. Would William hire a new valet? Alfred watched Michelle's face with a smile.
"I don't plan on retiring until Master William gets married," he said, forestalling her question. "Only then could I be certain he's well taken care of." Michelle kept herself from blushing, barely.
"I suppose you get pretty attached to the family, then," she said, fiddling with a table napkin.
"Yes, my dear. Especially when they get attached to you," Alfred commented. The elderly gentleman saw William making his way back to the table. "It appears we are about to embark."
"Will you be alright?" Michelle inquired, picking up her coat. Alfred chuckled.
"Don't worry about me, Miss Michelle. I'll be fine," he assured her, moving to stand up. "As Master William stated some days ago, I was once in the army. The mind remembers these things even if the body has long forgotten. I'd be more worried about you, packed into the rumble seat like so much baggage."
Michelle giggled softly at his words.
"It's very comfy back there," she protested. "I get to stretch my legs out on the seat."
"What, a whole two feet? I'm jealous..." Alfred sniffed.
"Shall we be off then?" William inquired, gaining the table. Michelle nodded at him and stood to go, sliding quickly into her coat. She stopped when William put a ten-dollar bill on the table, looking at her closely.
"I know you'll do it anyway, so you may as well get it over with," he said, grinning. Smiling, Michelle bent down and folded her origami bird; Alfred chuckled over it and stated that it was a clever way to leave a tip. Michelle smiled at the man and then turned to address William.
"Thank you," she told him. "Although, you could have let me pay the tip; you rushed off to get lunch and I wasn't able to..."
"Hush," William said, touching the tip of her nose with his fingertip. "I'm driving; therefore you get absolutely no say in the 'who-gets-to-pay-for-the-food' issue." Michelle gave him a sweet smile. Her eyes had no fear in meeting his anymore, William noticed; the fact pleased him. He found himself wanting to reach their destination quickly. There were so many things he wanted to know about Michelle, to discuss with her; he really wanted time alone with her but it was not going to happen today, at least. William's smile reflected his inward thoughts. Michelle seemed to find his grin unnerving and kept giving him uncertain glances in the rear view mirror, much to William's amusement; he dropped a roguish wink at the young woman. In response, Michelle looked down and smiled. William's grin did not fade for the entire remainder of the journey.
As dusk fell, the roadster pulled into a small little, touristy village of sorts which, according to the driver, was fairly close to Margret's home. William parked in front of a brightly painted bakery and ducked inside for a few minutes. While he was gone, Alfred pointed out the window, showing the direction of the town square. It was a little too dark to see anything, though.
"Quite a show, they put on here," he said. "Almost any time of the day there is something fancy and artistic going on. Weekends are especially busy, but the town profits nicely from the tourism."
"I guess they would," Michelle said, looking out the window into the gathering dark. "Why else would they allow common visitors into their backyard?" Alfred chuckled.
"Their backyard? Hardly," he said, smiling. "They only show that to those in their set, normally. Affluent, wealthy, famous, etc."
"I see," Michelle said, seriously. "So, does that mean I'll be sleeping in the chicken coop?"
At her words, Alfred laughed hard and continued until he started coughing; Michelle had to smack him lightly on the back.
"My dear, you really are amusing," he wheezed. "Margaret is hardly arrogant; she fairly sang your praises to me over the telephone. She has a true appreciation of the arts and couldn't care less that you make your living selling drawings on a street corner."
"Oh. So you knew about that," Michelle said, softly, sitting back in her seat. Alfred turned to look back at her.
"Yes," he said. "In my opinion, you have made the very best of a bad situation. You've nothing to be ashamed of, young lady." Feeling enormously flattered, Michelle patted his shoulder and said no more. Alfred continued to chuckle to himself, even as William got in the car; the driver held a large, pink bakery box, tied with white ribbon.
"Making jokes about me, eh?" he said, grinning at Michelle. "Would you be so kind, my lady, as to hold this?" Smiling back at him, Michelle took the box and held it securely on her lap.
They drove another five minutes before turning down a wide, landscaped street; it was a gated community. Stopping his car, William showed the two guards his ID and wrote his name in their ledger. The gate moved to let the roadster pass. Michelle squinted in the dark as they drove past long, winding drives that led deep into wooded acres, and vast, sprawling lawns that looked more like personal golf courses. Little lights twinkled from far away, revealed that people indeed lived somewhere out there.
Looking out her window, Michelle leaned back and let out small sigh; her parents and grandparents had been well-off but hardly affluent. Above all she hoped the kind lady she'd had lunch with existed in the same frame of mind as the owner of one of these mansions. Soon, William turned the car under a stone arch onto a subtly lit drive; it looked impossibly straight over the hilly landscaping. Michelle wondered how large an army of gardeners it took to mow the place.
Ahead in the distance, light streamed through the trees, from no less than four stories; it almost looked like William's mother was having the party of the year. Dread filled Michelle as she stared forward through the windshield.
"Are there... uh... a bunch of people there, too?" she asked, feeling a bit childish; she heard William chuckle.
"Don't worry, love," he said, warmly. "Mother likes to keep all the lights on at night."
"Terrible waste of the electrics," Alfred remarked.
"Indeed," William agreed, with a nod.
"It looks like she has a hundred people over," Michelle explained, sheepishly. "I bet she could fit many more in there."
"It sleeps thirty-five, I know that," William said, absently.
"Ah... sleep," Alfred said, stifling a yawn. "Yes... I'm old and tired."
"I wasn't going to say that," William said, grinning. He winked at Michelle in the rear view mirror; she covered her mouth to stifle a giggle.
"It's true," Alfred said, with a sigh. "Here we are, at last."
The car pulled into a roundabout drive; it circled a large fountain, which itself was surrounded by thick, groomed hedges.
"Hedges? Around a fountain?" Michelle queried.
"It keeps the guests from midnight bathing," William said, a boyish grin on his face. Michelle smiled.
"It's a little cold for that," she said. "It's lovely... the fountain I mean."
"Come on, minx," William said, getting out of the car. He turned to help Michelle out, holding onto her hand.
The feel of her skin pleased him; a keen longing to hold her entered his thoughts. As Michelle exited the car, she looked up into William's face; shadow hid most of it from her view, as his back faced to the house. A cold, night breeze whirled around them; the light from dozens of windows illuminated Michelle's face, and the pink box she carried. William's gaze dropped to her lips; he wanted to taste them, just for a moment.
"A moment? Who am I kidding?" he thought ruefully.
"Are you alright?" Michelle asked, looking uncertain. William appeared to be just staring at her, but she could not make out a single feature of his face. William grinned to himself. Normally, when being stared at a woman would touch her face and ask if she had something on it, yet Michelle just wanted to know if he was all right.
"I'm good, love," he said, gently. "'Tis cold out here. Let's get you inside." The young woman smiled; her face appeared serene again.
Michelle followed William to the door, knowing there was something he wished to say, but held it inside for some reason. She'd known this since the dinner at his flat. Unable to really read this man yet, Michelle had been over it and over it in her mind as females are wont to do. Hope sprung up again in her, melting into a sort of calm. Michelle knew he would speak his mind to her eventually; he was the sort of individual that did not leave one in doubt for long. The man was just complicated enough to be interesting, yet open enough to ward off suspicion.
William rang the doorbell, waiting with Alfred and his lovely companion by the door; he reached down and took the bakery box from Michelle, all the while regarding her with a heated gaze.
Michelle felt his scrutiny and stared down at her boots; she'd never known a look to incite so many simultaneous feelings in her as William did with his azure eyes; exhilaration, uncertainty, excitement, diversion, bliss and the soft sighs of contentment, not to mention feeling uniquely vulnerable and feminine. Michelle decided she very much liked the enigma that was William and hoped fervently she'd get the chance to figure him out. His silence, now, was especially intriguing; it was as if he was harboring sneaky, romantic plans.
Margaret answered the door herself, holding a slender cup of coffee; her welcoming smile lit up the doorway. To Michelle, the lady embodied the gracious hostess in her cream-colored dress and jacket; she cheerfully greeted them all and motioned them all in, out of the cold.
"I am so glad you came, Michelle!" Margaret said, clasping her guest's hand. "I hope the trip wasn't too tiresome." William smiled down at his mother and handed her the box of baked goods. "Oh, of course I am glad to see you, too, dear," she smiled up at her son and gave him a fond peck on the cheek. "Ah, I love these pastries; you know that, don't you? There goes my diet…"
The home appeared to be everything Michelle thought it would be, minus the hundred guests. It was decorated surprisingly simply, in a quaint, English style but still, Michelle could ascertain that everything was enormously expensive. The long, wide staircase to the upper levels took up most of the entryway. Margaret ushered them all into a large sitting room to the right. A smart butler in a gray suit nodded at them and informed them that dinner would be ready in twenty minutes.
"Thomas will take your things up to your rooms," Margaret was saying, indicating with a gesture of her hand for everyone to sit down.
The 'parlor' was delicately furnished with lovely wooden pieces and tasteful rugs. The best thing about the large room, in Michelle's opinion, was the large, shiny black concert piano up on a slight dais. Her fingers itched to play it; the last time she played the piano after her parent's funeral, on their old wall-piano; it was the last things she'd done before the house was sold. Her mother had truly loved to play; most evenings in their home had after-dinner music and singing. Especially near the holidays. A lump rose in her throat; Michelle turned to the conversation of the others, blinking the oncoming tears away.
"You cannot be thinking of decorating for Christmas already," William was saying. Nearby, Margaret held up a garland of some kind; it was a woven garnet-red rope with little crystals dangling from it.
"Apparently I can," she said, smiling. "The girls informed me that there is an unwritten law where one can begin 'holiday' decorating as early as next week; I'll put up the fall ones for Thanksgiving… and these ones here are for Christmas."
"...and live animals for new years," William put in, rubbing his forehead. "Festoon your house with dollar bills for all I care; it's your house. This is why I never decorate for holidays."
At his words, Michelle smiled.
"Not everyone decorates," she said, quietly. "I have not either, since moving to New York." William looked up at the young woman as she spoke. Her tone was amiable, but he realized the meaning of her words; it occurred to him that she had not had a Christmas, or any kind of holiday in three years. With her parents gone and no family or friends, he supposed the very idea was daunting for her.
Margaret put the garland down in a box at her feet.
"Well, come on… let me show Michelle the rest of the ground floor," she said, happily. "You probably want to stretch your legs a bit anyway."
"Indeed madam," Alfred said, with conviction. William grinned at Michelle and offered her a hand up.
With an easy stroll, Margaret took great pride in showing her guests around her home.
"I have actually made a little money on the side living here," she said, showing them into an echoing all room. "Two of my friend's daughters had their wedding receptions here... dancing, dinner, the whole works. They took care of all the preparation and cleaned up when they were finished."
"Well done, Mother," William said, rubbing his chin.
"It is a lovely room for a party," Michelle agreed, looking around. Light sage-colored walls looked well with the burnished red-brown wood floors; several glowing chandeliers hung overhead from a vaulted cathedral-style ceiling. The room itself was mostly empty, save for a couch and an easy chair set up by a large fireplace on the far left side of the room. One wall was almost comprised of glass windows, with glass doors that could be opened outward. A few pieces of exercising equipment stood near the glass wall.
"My physical therapist comes twice a week now," Margaret informed them, waving at the equipment.
"Did you have an accident, or surgery?" Michelle asked, concerned. Margaret chuckled.
"No, my dear, I merely wish to keep in good shape," she said, smiling. She guided Michelle gently over to the far right wall, which bore many pieces of art, all framed beautifully and lit with gallery-quality spotlights.
A picture in the middle caught Michelle's eye. It was her portrait of William, looking a hundred times better in a simple, polished, burgundy-colored wood frame and light gray matting. The beauty of it touched her; her eyes grew a little misty to see her work treated so well.
"I told you it was well situated," Margaret said; she spoke much like a mother would. The look on Michelle's face moved the lady greatly.
"It looks so well," Michelle managed to say. "As if it is cherished; I thank you for that... and for having me here. Your home is simply breathtaking."
Margaret patted her arm.
"I am honored you came to visit me, dear," she said, smiling.
"Thank you," Michelle repeated, giving the lady an earnest smile. "And thank you for not filling every corner of your home with nick-knacks." Margaret laughed; she had a clear, real laugh… much like William's. "No, my dear," she said, smiling. "I've not descended into that madness, yet."
William drifted over to them. He looked from the portrait to Michelle.
"It does look well there," he agreed. Leaning closer to Michelle, he whispered in her ear. "But it also looked well on the cardboard display, right next to the pretty girl." Michelle blushed and looked at the floor, managing to draw Margret's attention by commenting on her lovely flooring.
"Oh, yes..." Margaret said, brightly. "It's Egyptian wormwood, or so William tells me. Isn't it nice?" William took Michelle's arm as they followed her through the hall, studies, the large dining room and finally into the kitchen.
The kitchen was not as big as Michelle feared, but still massive compared to an average middle-class family's kitchen. It resembled a place an Italian villa may have to cook meals in: wide open spaces and muted earth tones, stone flagged floors with plenty of granite counter space for food preparation. Michelle longed to cook something in this gorgeous place. The chef eyed them from behind a counter; he was about a foot shorter than William, stocky with dark black hair and a white, button-up jacket. No chef-hat sat on his brow, however; instead he wore a dark green bandanna over his hair.
Alfred, in his English-accented French, began arguing with the chef about the tea; at least Michelle assumed it was about tea. William's valet gestured at a small counter across the kitchen with a formal service set up and a long line of tea canisters. After a moment of heated banter the chef picked up a knife, his expression dark.
"Jean-Claude, really..." Margaret said, laughing. "Let him prepare the tea... you know how he is." In answer the chef began chopping vegetables; he hurled them with force into a nearby stockpot, muttering to himself.
Fairly close to the final counter sat a small, simple table, just big enough to seat six people. Michelle was relieved to see it was all set up for dinner; she was grateful they weren't using the huge, formal dining room. This seemed much more comfortable.
"Michelle, let me show you your room so that you can go freshen up for dinner," Margaret said, beckoning to her guest.
"You have her in the pink room, I imagine," William spoke up. Margaret smiled.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" she said, wagging her finger at him. "Jean-Claude?" The chef looked up at Margaret, his expression softening, a little. "How long?" The man held up ten fingers then went back to chopping. "Excellent; we've just enough time. This way, please." Michelle went with her, following through the hall and up the grand staircase.
As they ascended the young woman admired the smooth wooden banister; she touched it lightly with her hand and let it guide her upwards. Margaret walked in front of her, all the while smiling.
"Again, let me convey how very glad I am that you came, Michelle," the woman said as they gained the top of the stairs. "It's been too long since I had such good company." Hearing this, Michelle was tempted to point out that she was pretty much just a stranger, but refrained. Margaret seemed to glow with an inner happiness and Michelle did not wish to dampen it; this was her house, and the lady could invite whomever she wanted.
The pink room was thankfully not swathed in some frilly, garish pink decor; it was tastefully and simply done with muted, rose-colored walls, wood floors, a light brown rug, taupe bed linens and graceful drapes. The low lighting lent a cozy look to the entire room. A small vanity stood on one wall with unopened hygienic essentials on a tray; a fine wooden armoire stood tall by it. Michelle could see her bag was already on the queen-size bed. Through an open door, Michelle could see a sizable bathroom, decorated with white, gray and faded blue tones.
"Wow," Michelle said, wishing she could come up with a better exclamation. "It's huge." Margaret chuckled.
"I'm glad you like it," said she. "I trust you'll be comfortable here."
"Yes," Michelle said, nodding. She touched the bed cover briefly. "It's very serene in here."
"Good," Margaret said. "Dinner will be in a few minutes; we'll eat in the kitchen. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. I prefer it," Michelle said, earnestly. Smiling, Margaret nodded.
"I do as well," she said, moving towards the door. "No need to dress up that way. We shall expect your presence downstairs shortly."
"Thank you," Michelle said, as Margaret exited; the lady smiled and closed the door after her.
Shaking out her coat, Michelle hung it on a hook located on the wall, by the door. Scratching her head a little, she walked over to her pack and undid the zipper on an outside pocket. Taking out her brush Michelle sat down at the vanity, a piece of furniture that appeared to be elegance incarnate with its slight curves, rich red hue and carved feet. The heavy beveled mirror, alone, must have cost a pretty penny. Michelle shook her head.
"If I start scrutinizing the value of everything, I'll be awake all night," she thought, brushing her hair. After using the washroom she put on a little lip gloss. Taking one more look around the room, she made her way out of the room and back down the wide staircase.
Whatever feelings of insecurity Michelle initially felt around Margaret, they vanished during dinner; the lady did her utmost to make her guests feel at home. William added bits of humor to the conversation. The petulant chef even joined them to eat, though he made a great show of sitting as far from Alfred as possible. He visibly when the aging valet made comments about the strip steak being slightly overdone. Margaret laughed it off and spoke a few words to Jean-Claude in French.
Listening to them, Michelle wished she'd taken French lessons after all. She resolved to learn it someday. It seemed to be a handy language, especially in this circle. Looking at William-from the corner of her eye-she wondered how many language he spoke. After dinner Margaret served them coffee, playing the hostess with practiced ease. Michelle's admiration for the matronly woman grew and she spurred herself to answer questions more readily and comment when looked at.
As the clock struck ten, Michelle hid a yawn in her hand. The company was very good but normally she was fast sleep by now.
"Goodness, it is getting late," Margaret remarked, looking at the clock. "Just to let you know, Michelle, we eat breakfast at eight sharp. There is an alarm clock on your night stand, if you wish to set it."
"Thank you, Margaret," Michelle returned, smiling at her. The lady paused and looked at her young guest.
"You know, Michelle, when you say my name it sounds lovely," she said, smiling back. "I've always disliked my name, but your accent gives it just a hint of beauty."
Michelle smiled at this; she never considered herself having an accent but she supposed and Englishwoman would think so.
"It's a great name," Michelle remarked. "Like Margaret Thatcher, or Princess Margaret."
William's mother laughed, lightly.
"I am flattered you know they exist," she said, smiling. "Thank you, my dear. I'll let you turn in now. Oh, er…. if you cannot sleep or wake early, there is a large reading library four doors down from you on the right. Large, arched doors; you cannot miss them."
"I adore looking at personal libraries," Michelle said, feeling a little more awake. "The variety of titles reflects the taste of the owner in such an open way."
"Feel free to peruse it, my dear," Margaret said, smiling at the young woman's enthusiasm.
"Thank you for your kindness."
"Nonsense, my dear. Sleep well. Goodnight." The lady of the house took her cup to the sink and gracefully left the room.
Michelle stood from the couch, feeling both tired and a little excited. This was such a strange situation for her to be in. Half of her expected to wake up and find this all a dream. Michelle was fairly certain it was not but still, she wondered if the fates were just sporting with her and one day she'd wake up still on her street corner, pining fruitlessly after William.
"I should turn in as well," William commented, standing to go; his eyes never left Michelle. He fervently hoped he'd get a chance to make out with his pretty girlfriend a little before bed. As if sensing his plans his valet rose from his seat as well.
"As should I," Alfred announced, smiling. He saw William's grimace and chuckled to himself.
Michelle earned a few points with the chef by thanking him for the dinner. The man beamed and captured her hand, kissing the back of it devotedly. William made a face at the man but Michelle's surprised expression made his smile return. Blushing, Michelle got her hand back and turned to William and Alfred.
"I guess I'll say good night to you then," she said, biting her lip. "The trip here turned out very pleasant, I thought." William stuffed his hands in his pockets, looking impatient. He wanted everyone to disperse and go to sleep, except Michelle of course.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," he said, instead. "It was one of the better car trips I've taken up here, for certain.".
"I second that," Alfred said, ambling towards the door. "Far more riveting company than usual." William snorted.
"I was going to say the same thing, old boy," he said, grinning. "At least you didn't bring out a crossword puzzle this time, causing us meaningless agony over pop-culture terms." Michelle giggled softly as she followed them out of the kitchen. As she ascended the stairs, she glanced back at William, wanting to give him a proper goodnight kiss but not daring to in front of everyone. Some things she still considered very private.
An hour later Michelle lay on the 'pink room' bed, looking up at the canopy; despite the comfortable surroundings sleep eluded her. Her clothes were already hung in the armoire. She already succumbed to the lure of the shower; the hot water had felt divine, the soap smelled of sandy beaches, the hot water relaxing... but there was just something about being in a strange place that Michelle was having a bit of trouble settling into; she missed William. The idea of the library nearby appealed. Maybe just a look...
"William's probably asleep by now," she thought, sitting up. She hopped out of bed, a feeling of restlessness driving her actions. A mirror on the back of the bedroom door reflected Michelle's outfit: cream-colored yoga pants and her Stanford camisole. Slipping on her robe overall, she glanced at the clock. 11:05. Surely everyone would be asleep. The house had been silent for some time.
Opening the door Michelle looked up and down the dim hallway; neither a sound nor sign of anyone presented itself. Four doors down she found an ornate set of doors, taller than the others; they formed two halves of an arch just as Margaret had described. The doors opened silently on thick hinges. As she entered the room Michelle stopped, drawing in a sharp breath. Stretched out on a cozy-looking sofa lay William, asleep. An open book sat face down on his chest. Michelle tarried by the door, not willing to wake him but wanting a goodnight kiss nonetheless. Stepping back, she reluctantly began closing the door behind her.
"Don't go, Michelle," came the sound of William's voice. Michelle smiled; she opened the door again but stayed on the threshold.
"You looked so peaceful… I didn't want to disturb you," she explained. William closed the book and stood up. Michelle gripped the door handle, suddenly feeling silly in her pajamas and bare feet.
"You don't disturb me, love," William told her. He was favoring her with one of his intense gazes. Michelle stepped back a little.
"I should... go," she said, giving a weak smile. "To.. uh.. sleep." William grinned, his eyes alight. In two steps he reached her side and pulled her into the room with him; reaching over Michelle's shoulder, he shut the door.
"You came here because you couldn't sleep," he stated. "I've been reading here only in the hope that you'd eventually show." He wrapped his arms around her. Looking down into her eyes, William felt a little moved by the uncertainty he saw in her expression. "I'm not going to harm you, Michelle," he said. Michelle smiled a little.
"I know. Just... no tickling, OK?" she replied, nervously. William laughed.
"It's that bad, eh?" he asked, amused. Michelle nodded sheepishly. "Well, I make no promises," he said, releasing her. "Besides, you deserve a good tickling..." Michelle's eyes grew wide at William's tone.
"You wouldn't dare," she countered, backing away from him. William grinned.
Walking down the hallway some moments later with a glass of milk, Alfred heard laughter and shrieking coming from the library. Opening one of the doors, he peered in and then chuckled at the sight before him. Michelle was perched on top of large armoire, shaking her head and grinning at William; he pointed at the ground.
"Get down here, you little minx," William instructed, trying to sound severe. "I'll call a truce, for now."
Alfred shook his head.
"I would ask but I think I do not wish to know," he remarked, smiling. William crossed his arms over his chest.
"She's quicker than she looks," said he.
"He started it," Michelle countered.
Aiming to end the 'war' William turned around to get a chair. When his back was turned Michelle nimbly leaped down and ducked behind Alfred for protection.
"She's a veritable lemur, sir," Alfred intoned, trying not to laugh. "Perhaps, though, Miss Gregory wishes to turn in... as we all do." He gave William a remanding glare.
"Perhaps so," William returned, sobering a little.
"In which case I shall bid you both 'good night'," Alfred said, stifling a yawn. He waddled off, leaving Michelle in the hall; she looked warily at her boyfriend. Hands in his pockets William leaned against the library door jamb regarding Michelle with a soft expression.
"I'm starting to like your barefoot-pajama-housecoat look," he remarked. Michelle nodded slowly, but kept her distance.
"I'm going to ignore that," she said, softly. "And bid you goodnight, since I didn't really get to earlier." In one movement, William stepped forward and caught her in his arms again; his speed rather surprised Michelle.
"You're not the only dexterous person around here," William told her. He turned them both around; Michelle felt the library door behind her back. Looking up, she searched William's eyes. "I have so many things I want to tell you, love," he said, softly. "It's just too early to say them."
William thought his words sounded extremely lame... and vague, but they honestly represented his thoughts. He'd been toying with the idea of proposing to Michelle for quite a few days, in spite of their relatively new acquaintance, especially since thoughts of her kept him awake at night and facilitated the necessity of frequent cold showers; more so than at any other time in his life. However, the look of trust Michelle regarded him with made William push down his desires once more.
"Soon she'll be mine," he thought. Michelle observed that her companion inwardly battled with something and smiled reassuringly.
"I bid you goodnight, Sir William," she said gently, her eyes bright. "I hope you sleep well." William was thinking of kissing her on the forehead but Michelle surprised him by standing up on her tip toes and giving him a real kiss. William returned it, holding her tightly; he felt his newly re-enforced dam of resolve fast slipping away.
Breaking apart from her, William pushed away from the wall.
"Ah... perhaps we should say goodnight, shall we?" he said, his normally steady tone a bit faltering.
"I thought I was saying 'goodnight'," she said, smiling. William favored her with a look that said otherwise.
"A goodnight like that can lead to 'good morning' rather quickly, Michelle," he informed her, smiling. At this, his companion blushed. "So... good night?" William realized how difficult this was, even for him. This girl was unlike any other he'd ever met.
"Goodnight, William," she replied, softly; she turned and walked to her room.
Against his better judgment William watched her every move until her door closed, cutting her off from his view. Running his hand through his hair, he trudged down the hallway to his own room, an expression of undisguised misery on his face. As he passed Alfred's door he heard it shut, though very quietly. William chuckled. The fatherly valet was fast becoming their chaperon.
"Not such a bad idea," he thought, once alone in his room. He turned the shower on, setting it on 'cold'.
In her room Michelle collapsed backward on the bed, feeling absurdly like a teenager with a crush. As she slipped under her covers, a feeling of safety washed over her. She drifted off to sleep, wondering what William had wanted to tell her.