Chapter 3

It is time.

The manor looks foreign without a layer of snow covering the roof, but more cozy and grand with the window lit up in glory. For the first time, I notice ivy creeping up the sides, which gives it an old, scholarly look.

I look down at myself, to make sure I look all right. My suit is a faded shade of black; we had borrowed it from the Miller's oldest son. Father said I should be thankful, but in truth, it is outshined by everyone else's fine clothing. I look out of place, the obvious goose in the flock of ducks.

As we enter the manor, I can see that the crystal chandelier is dusted and lit up with flaming candles. Everything is elegant and full of grandeur- the velvet staircase with the polished wooden rails, the arranged furniture, even the polite talk of people of high status. I can feel the spirit of the holidays racing through the air, the comfortable atmosphere, but also the feeling of self- importance that might be conjured from my nerves and imagination.

Then I see Maria. Her black, silky hair is pinned up in curls at the back of her head, framing her face beautifully. She was laughing with a group of friends, her face aglow with happiness. Her beauty took my breath away, as she was donned in a dress that was fitted along her torso and dropped with ruffles to the floor. The material was ivory with purple silk ribbon, which looked so rich and fine I bet it had cost a fortune.

Father must have seen me looking. As he catches my eyes, my emotions still on my face, I can see it all click in his mind. He leans close and whispers, "That Maria is a fine girl." He gives me a smile, his eyes twinkling in the light, and heads off, apparently seeing someone he knew.

I know that this is my only chance to get her, and I will stop at nothing.

I continue to walk past the hallway, and when I look in the mirror this time, I see something else- a proud yound man with a confident demeanor, a large build, and piercing green eyes. I take one last breath.

And then the dancing begins.

How does someone get the girl of his dreams when she doesn't even know he exists? I narrow my gaze and find her again in the crowd. I feel like that the whole world is empty, except for just us, and I can feel my heart thumping in anticipation.

Maria is alone, near the desserts table, which is laden with chocolate scones and shortbread cookies. In her hand is a chalice full of ruby red wine. I slowly approach, every part of me clenched with nerves. I slowly calm myself down, clearing my throat, and pour myself a chalice of wine, the gold sparkling.

"Merry Christmas, Maria." The word come out of my mouth before I know what I'm saying. I feel like the stupidest man on earth. I feel my cheeks ignite with warmth.

I have startled her out of her thoughts. She takes me in coldly, then her gaze softens, her eyes once again unreadable. What is it about her that makes me so crazy?

"Do I know you?" Her words are soft on her lips, her voice rich. She is closer than I have ever seen her, and I hungrily take in her features- her round blue eyes, pale skin with freckles dotting her nose in the cutest way possible, her lips pursed with uncertainty.

"I mean, are you enjoying the party?" She glances away awkwardly, regretting her rudeness.

"Of course, my lady." I feel like this conversation is going nowhere, but I enjoy every second. I catch a faint, soft scent of lavender in the air, and my heart beats faster. On a strange impulse, I reach down and take her hand, as soft as rabbit's fur, and bring it to my lips.

She snatches her hand away, her face full of confusion, and then slaps me hard on the cheek. I am left standing there, dumbstruck, trying to comprehend my failure. My fingers run through my hair in frustration. I acted like an idiot! All of my self confidence is blown away on a sea of lavender.

I watch her as she approaches her friends. That face, the one I have dreamed about in fantasies, is fervently retelling the story about my stupidity. Her friends laugh, to my embarrassment, and glance in my direction.

I know nothing about women, so how could I have thought that tonight would be any different?

My mind drifted away, my feelings driving me insane. The golden locket burned a hole in my breast pocket. I had found the perfect present, its gold elegance filling me with hope. Now it was wasted.

Then I felt someone behind me.

I froze, smelling lavender creeping seductively through the air. "Thomas, are you having a nice holiday?" Her whisper is in my ear, and I can hear the smile in her voice. Two can play at this game.

I whip around, my eyes narrowed into two emerald fires. She stands there, alone, giving me a cute half smile. "Why are you so difficult?" I say incredulously.

"Why are you so attractive?" As she leans closer, I can see the shy side of her reflected in her eyes. Just to be talking with her seems like a dream. She blinks, her feminine lashes catching in the light. My palms grow warmer, and now I can see every detail of her lips, which are parted lightly, and feel her warm breath on my skin.

"How do you know my name?"

"It's easy. Everyone knows you- Thomas the dreamer." Her eyes are more pretty than the finest sapphires.

In that moment, I feel like our souls intertwined- that our personalities met with each other curiously, and ignited a flame in my heart.

"Do you like to look at the stars?" She took me by the hand and led me to her father's study, which was masked in shadows. I felt unexplainable warmth inside as I gazed at the glamour and the lights of the city on Christmas Eve. Maria took the telescope and led me outside, her fingers intertwined with mine. I barely held in the wide grin that played at my lips.

We were walking in the gardens. It was just us, the rows of flowers and a small fountain spraying water onto the dark grey stones that lined the paths. Finally she stopped, in the center near the fountain where the four paths intersected. Then she set the telescope down and said, "Come."

Slowly I knelt next to her, my heart beating like a drum. I looked through the eyepiece, my fingers holding the shaft and Maria's breath in my ear. And what I saw was magic.

The sky was illuminated in a circle, blurred around the edges. It was pitch black and crystal clear, the stars lighting up the night and twinkling in the sky with a white-golden light. The serene, vast beauty took my breath away, and suddenly I could feel the Christmas spirit running through the air, and the magical joy of love.

I looked up, a wide grin spreading on my face. "The stars- they are like-"

"Magic," she said with me. Then she gave me a shy smile. "I've never showed anyone this before. No one- I didn't think that anyone would understand." I thought of Maria's father, who was kind at heart, although his thoughts barely escaped the realm of business and duty.

"I understand feeling the like the only person in the world with dreams." We sat there for a minute in a contemplative silence, staring into each other's eyes.

At that moment, something amazing happened. The church bells tolled, a great brass ringing, throughout the town. My heart was beating fast, and I was warm inside from happiness and love. I slowly tucked a loose strand of black hair behind her ear, looking at each detail of her face- her small, delicate nose, her pale, radiant skin, and her soft eyes that made my heart dance. She smiled at me, and I leaned forward- my breath warm in the cold December air, the curves of our lips coming together as Christmas Day dawned on the town of London.

The kiss was like nothing I had ever imagined. Her warm, sweet lips were tentative and at first, but then I put my hand of the back of her hair and leaned forward. The warmth spread all the way through me, made me not want it let go of this moment, so precious and intimate. The soft aroma of her hair and her body filled me, and I closed my eyes with bliss.

She came up for air, and I slowly reached my hand to the small of her back, where it fit perfectly. She opened her lips again and tangled her fingers in my hair. Adrenaline rushed through my veins, and suddenly, with an urge I had never discovered before, I pulled her body close to mine and kissed her with a passion and desire that was almost unhuman. The thoughts we slipping away, only filled with lavender and a sense of hunger for her lips.

As we broke apart, I could feel the heat between us. In the distance there were shouts of joy and carolers singing, but that was far, far away.

"I didn't know how I felt about you, but now-" I held her close, her head resting on my chest. I imagined her listening to the beat of my heart, and I felt a surge of protectiveness.

"Maria," I whispered. "I love you." She gave me a smile that shamed the sun itself.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the locket. The chain felt smooth and fluid in my fingers, the heavy gold heart the only thing weighing it down. The beautiful engraving gave her face a look of astonishment.

"Merry Christmas, Maria," I said for the second time this evening, in completely different circumstances. She took turned around, exposing the gentle curve of her neck, and I unclasped it. I reached around and carefully connected the chain. Then she turned around.

"Oh, Thomas, it's beautiful." She looked gorgeous with the necklace around her neck, starshine in her eyes.

At that moment, I knew the meaning of my dream- there were three things golden in my life. The first was the stars- all of my fantasies and dreams that were always swirling around in my mind, an unquenchable curiosity for words and ideas. The second was the gold coins my mother had given to me. She was the kindest, most generous person that I knew. And the third was the golden locket, which was my love for Maria. The heart, engraved with the letter M in a sea of swirls, held all of my passion. And now they were complete- my dreams of the stars shared, the coins spent on the most wonderful gift, and the locket in the possesion of the girl I loved most.

My smile lit up the whole black sky. It was the most perfect start I have ever had- to a day of joy and gifts, and to a life I had only dreamed of.