Since my readers don't have the advantage of being able to gauge a physical book, I think it's only fair to say that we're a good two-thirds through the story now. I'd really like to have this wrapped by Easter -- it hangs over my head like the sword of Damocles, ready to fall on me any evening I try to ignore it. And yes, at the end I'll reveal the secret source, I promise, and you can all see why I feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew.
For anyone weary of waiting two weeks for new installments, here's last year's finished product for your instant reading gratification. I read it over this afternoon, and... it's kinda okay, actually. Though I laugh at my own jokes, too, so take that for what you will.
Melly stood in the stairwell, her forehead pressed against the warm red glass. She could feel the heat of the August afternoon just on the other side of the pane, and she let the authentic warmth seep through her against the artificial chill of the house. Opening her hand the slightest bit, she considered the slender box she held, its robin’s egg blue velvet stained a bloody purple by the light streaming through the colored window. Alys had given it to her — pressed it on her, really, a gift too expensive to accept and too awkward to refuse.
She had gone to the cottage that morning — Friday, the day before the ball — to have the tiara fitted. After the first glow of queenship, she was beset with anxieties and inadequacies. She had a dress, and a lovely one, but that was it. Her slippers were old and scuffed, the same pair she’d worn to the past three balls. That was no matter; no one would see her feet anyway, if she could help it. Dress, tiara, slippers — that was all she had to wear to the ball. When Sophia had been queen, she had been draped with jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, earrings, brooches, tiaras. Sometimes the Spencers had rented the pieces and sometimes she had been presented with gifts before the ball. Melly had a vivid memory of the fallout from the year that Sophia had demanded emeralds and had received a conservative strand of pearls.
It was not that she wanted to call attention to herself — far from it! After her first transport of delight at Richard’s unexpected kindness, she had been seized by the terror of being the face of the Stillwater Ball. Everyone would look at her, and scrutinize her every move, and compare her to Sophia, and judge the house on how she stood or fell. That was what weighed on Melly: now she was representing Stillwater, and she must do credit to the house, no matter how she wanted to hide behind the curtains. Who had ever heard of a Stillwater queen without jewelry? And yet Melly had none.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. There were her earrings, the little gold hoops she wore everyday. And there was the crucifix Rene had given her when she was confirmed. It was absolutely beautiful, a reproduction of an 18th-century rosary cross, something Rene had found at a museum store. Melly had worn it day and night until the corpus had come loose from the cross. She had put it away carefully in her little wooden box, but not carefully enough: she had wanted to take it to Alys and ask her if she could mend it, but after having turned her box, her drawers, and her room upside, Melly, through her tears, had to face the fact that she had lost her brother’s crucifix, and that she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen it. Her carelessness had brought its own appropriate punishment. Instead of merely asking Alys to fix her crucifix — a minor business transaction, for which Melly had been prepared to pay — she was going to have to ask if she might borrow some of Alys’s jewelry.
She told herself fiercely that she was not too proud to ask a favor. Wasn’t her whole life at Stillwater one favor after another from the Spencer family? No, it was not the begging. It was being under obligation to Alys that would rankle. Why? Sitting on her bed with her empty box in her hand, she tried to reason out why she should find it so onerous to receive anything from Alys’s hands. Alys had made the tiara, hadn’t she? Ah, but that hadn’t been specifically for Melly — it was for the Stillwater Queen, who just happened to be Melly this year. Esther had thought she would be queen when she gave Alys the commission for the crown, though deep down inside, Melly had to admit that she couldn’t imagine Esther wearing the delicate coronet. It didn’t suit her one bit. It has no shrewd angles or sharp edges.
Nor did she really fear that Alys would refuse her. No one could doubt her generosity. She wore her wealth lightly. She was gracious and funny and talented and pleasant and easy to talk to, a “nosegay of all virtues”, as Melly remembered from studying Hamlet with Malcolm.
Malcolm. Melly’s cheeks burned. She was jealous of Alys, that was it. Pure stupid jealousy. Alys had been nothing but kind to her from the day they’d met, but because Malcolm admired her, Melly would rather stew and make Stillwater look cheap rather than humbling herself just a little to ask a favor that Alys would gladly grant. It was stupid and immature. Malcolm would think she was a big baby if he knew about it.
Carefully she straightened her room and smoothed her hair, and then, willing herself to put on a cheerful face, she stepped over to the cottage where Alys was waiting to adjust the tiara.
But Alys had outmaneuvered her. Just as Melly had started nervously to say that had a favor to ask of her, Alys had forestalled the conversation by placing a narrow blue box on the table.
“Actually, do you mind if I go first?” she asked cheerfully. “I have a confession to make.”
Her demeanor was about as far from contrition as possible, but Melly was glad to put off her request.
“The opals in the crown — I didn’t buy them new, I didn’t have time. I just cannibalized a necklace I already had, and reset the stones.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“Don’t be! I never wore it. It wasn’t my style, and anyway, it’s done. But the necklace was part of a set.”
Alys opened the box and drew out first a bracelet and then a pair of earrings and laid them on the table in front of Melly, who caught her breath in wonder. The same opals that Melly had seen the night before nested in the undulating curves of the tiara were here before her again in their iridescent glory. Alys had been right when she said that the pieces were not her style — their quiet, elegant formality contrasted against the baroque whimsy that characterized her own creations. Melly stretched out a fingertip and gently touched the silver links of the bracelet and exhaled in wonder and longing.
“Do you like them?” Alys asked, trying not to smile too broadly at Melly’s intoxication.
“Yes, they’re beautiful.”
“Perfect. I think they like you too — at least, they like your coloring. Here,” and she was already fitting the bracelet on Melly’s wrist and closing the clasp, “let’s see how they look.”
The opalescent sheen of the gems made Melly’s pale skin luminous. Alys stepped back and cast a critical eye on the effect, then nodded decisively.
“That’s going to go perfectly with the tiara!” she proclaimed. “So it’s settled. You have to wear these to the ball, no question about it.”
Melly, startled and delighted, looked up with glowing eyes. “Do you mean it? Oh, thank you! That’s so kind! I’ll take such good care of them, and bring them right back the next morning, as good as new.”
“No you won’t!” laughed Alys. “They’re for you. You keep them.”
“Keep them!” Melly was horrified. Alys was a connoisseur of jewelry; she must know how much these cost. It was obvious that Alys wasn’t teasing, and yet it was impossible to accept such a valuable gift. It was entirely out of proportion to their friendship, such as that was. She immediately took the bracelet from her wrist and laid it back on the table. “No, I couldn’t do that. They’re yours. It’s nice enough of you to even let me wear them.”
Here followed a delicate ballet of urgings and denials. Alys laughed and protested that she hadn’t worn the bracelets or earrings forever — she’d only brought the set with her to Louisiana for parts anyway. The bracelet and the earrings were doomed if Alys kept them.
“Would you rather I cut ‘em up for parts?” she asked.
“No, you can’t do that!” Melly exclaimed, dismayed.
“Yes, I can, and I will if you don’t take them,” said Alys heartlessly. Then, seeing Melly’s continued hesitation, she adopted a more reasonable tone: “Don’t tell me you’re too proud to accept gifts, Melly. I’m convinced that you’re the sweetest person ever, and it would disappoint me no end to find that you liked to bargain like everyone else.”
She had settled the jewelry back into the slim bracelet-length box and held it out now to Melly. There seemed to be no more objections to make: the bracelet and earrings belonged to Alys; she was perfectly within her rights to give them where she would, and it clearly wasn’t going to inconvenience her to part with them. Swallowing her protestations — she would not give Alys reason to think that she was proud or ungrateful! — she accepted the gift and smiled as gracefully as she could.
“Thank you a thousand times,” she said. “I don’t know how I can ever repay you, except to remember you every time I wear them.”
“That’s all I ask,” replied Alys, smiling as she packed up the tiara for Melly to take with her. “But you’d better remember Ian too — he’s the one who gave them to me in the first place. Doesn’t he have good taste? He could have bought them expressly for you.”
“Your brother gave you this?” Melly dropped the box on the table as if it were poisoned, and backed away. “No, I can’t take it. I know you can’t really want to give away his present.”
“Why not?” said Alys with a shrug. “He won’t care. He gives me stuff all the time.”
Melly’s agitated demeanor did not indicate that she found this a convincing reason for Alys to part with anything her brother gave, or for her to receive it. Alys drew on her not-inconsiderable powers of persuasion to sooth her.
“Look, I doubt he even remembers when he bought this. Anyway, I’m sure he’d probably agree that it looks better on you than on me. Who knows — maybe he put me up to it.” She burst into laughter, pleased at the pretty flush that sprang to Melly’s cheeks. “Goodness, Melly, I’m joking. I’ve never known you to be so suspicious. Come on, now you have to take them as proof that you don’t think there’s anything underhanded going on.”
Somehow Melly found herself bundled out of the door with the tiara in one hand and the robin’s egg blue box in the other.
“See, that wasn’t so hard now,” said Alys, bidding her goodbye. “I hope next time it won’t be so hard to persuade you to dip into the Winter family treasury. We’re all friends, right?”
Coming back into the house, Melly had intended to go straight to her room to store the tiara more safely than she had Rene’s crucifix, but as she passed through the stair hall she felt the familiar yearning to tell her troubles to the stained glass window at the midpoint of the curving stair. Perhaps seeing the world in either red or blue would make everything clearer to her. It was nothing now to climb the steps — no pain or heaviness of limb; heaviness of heart was another matter. How, how could she take Alys’s jewelry — Ian’s jewelry? How could she keep it? How could she step out in public covered with Winter gems? How could Alys, who was so generous and cheerful and thoughtful enough to offer Melly her jewelry without making her beg for the loan, be so callow about throwing Ian in Melly’s way? For a moment, Melly wished she were a carefree fifteen again, watching her first Stillwater ball from the safety of the curtained alcove in the parlor, her frail body unable to waltz around the room under the scrutiny of the public even had she wanted to do so. Malcolm had kept her company then, and so had Rene, and there had not been the slightest hint of tension or outside forces being brought to bear. Life had been simpler then — she had been free to love Malcolm disinterestedly, if not strictly fraternally, before Alys Winter had come to Stillwater.
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and Malcolm himself appeared. Seeing Melly in their familiar haunt by the stained glass window, he grinned and joined her, and they both sat bathed in colored light on the stairs, leaning on the low sill as they had done so many times over the years.
“I might have known I’d find you here,” he said. “I was just going to look for you.”
“Were you?” She smiled back at him, enjoying the warmth of his presence. “You must have known I had to talk to you. I need your advice.”
She nudged the blue box toward him. “Look at this.”
Malcolm whistled quietly as he surveyed the bracelet and earrings. “What bank did you rob?”
“Alys gave them to me.”
“For the ball?”
“For keeps. But in honor of the ball, yes. I was going to ask her for something to borrow, but before I could do that, she offered me these.”
Malcolm’s eyes were turned toward the jewelry, but his gaze was soft and distant, and when he spoke, his voice was warm with approval. “Did she really? That was gracious of her.” For a moment they were both quiet. Melly gazed unseeing out the window for a moment, and when she turned back, he had focused on her. “These will look nice on you.”
“I don’t know if I can wear them.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Why? Are you opposed to people thinking you look nice?”
“No!” She twisted her hands, trying to frame her objections in a way that he could understand. “I think these are beautiful, and I’m so grateful to Alys. But… Ian gave them to her. I don’t want to take her brother’s gift.”
“Alys and Ian seem to be on the same page most of the time. You don’t think she would have given it you to if she’d thought it would offend him, do you?”
This was so diametrically opposed to Melly’s actual suspicions that all she could do was to shake her head. “I was thinking that I should give them back.”
“No, don’t do that!” Malcolm pressed the box into her hands, holding it securely there with his own. “They’re almost worthy of you, Melly, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see that Alys understands that, that she’s made a sincere effort to show how much she values you. We have to honor that, to encourage her to keep opening up. The last thing you should do is give her any excuse to lapse back into cynicism by rejecting her generosity. How can I make you understand, Melly? You don’t have a cynical bone in your body. Everything you do is genuine and kind. You’re the best model for Alys — don’t give her any reason to reject your example. She needs you, and I need your help.”
He was kneeling on the step before her, his hands clasped over hers, his hazel eyes fixed pleadingly on her own — Alys had once remarked on remarked on how similar Malcolm’s eyes were to Melly’s, and she wondered now, drawn deep into his gaze, if she was looking at a reflection of her own soul in his face, or merely a fraternal approximation.
“I’ll wear them,” she whispered at last. He flopped down on the step next to her, seized her in a one-armed squeeze, and sighed happily, and she closed her eyes, trying to push past the ache to find what was lovely and familiar between them.
“You’re the best,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
She contemplated the jewelry again to avoid thinking about that question. He had been fumbling in his pocket, and now he pulled something out and held it out to her, taking Alys’s open box and setting it on the stair below her.
“I had something too that I wanted to give you before the ball. That’s why I was looking for you. I wanted you to have this before Saturday.”
She found herself holding a small jeweler’s box. The red glow of the colored pane disguised her sudden flush, and the wild beating of her heart pounded in her ears. A shy glance at his face seemed to reveal no more than a pleased anticipation, so with bolder fingers, she threw open the top.
Settled snugly on a soft cloud of padding, Rene’s crucifix gleamed, repaired, polished, and threaded on a new gold chain. Melly gasped, and tears stung her eyes.
“It wasn’t lost,” she said softly, lifting it from the box. “I didn’t lose it.”
“I’m really sorry about sneaking into your room, Melly,” said Malcolm, suddenly anxious. “I didn’t know if they’d have it ready by the ball, and I wanted to surprise you, but I should have through about how upset you’d be if you found it missing. I hope you’re not angry.”
He was almost knocked over by a fierce hug.
“Angry? How could I be angry?” What he could see of her tear-stained face was glowing. “This is the only thing I wanted! I’d rather have this than all the opals or tiaras in the world. If I hadn’t promised you I’d wear them, I’d throw them out the window now.”
“Settle down, Melly!” he laughed, taking her by the shoulders and holding her steady. “Don’t go that far! You promised, remember?”
“Fine, I promised,” she agreed recklessly. “But I’ll always always like the crucifix better because it reminds me of Rene and of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Malcolm relaxed and leaned his elbows on his knees. “It’s a pleasure to do anything for you, Melly. You accept everything so openly, and you’re honestly grateful.” He sighed. “What a relief it is to do something for someone who’s not interested in playing emotional games.”
A bellow from below made them both jump. Rene was bounding up the stairs, shielding his eyes dramatically.
“Good Lord, cher, look at those gew-gaws! You planning to open a bijouterie?”
Malcolm laughed as Melly explained how she’d acquired her new-found wealth.
“Sheesh, I’d have sold it,” was his considered response, “but I guess she don’t need the money.”
“I’d rather just wear the crucifix you gave me to the ball, but Malcolm says I have to wear the opals too.”
He shrugged. “Hey, deck the halls!”
“But the styles won’t match!”
Rene snorted. “Want to know a secret? My cufflinks don’t match! What, are we supposed to be all matchy-matchy now?”
“I wish I had the confidence to wear two different cufflinks,” Malcolm said enviously. “Where did you get them?”
“Goodwill,” Rene answered, continuing on up the stairs toward his room. “Put that stuff away, sugar, before the help gets any ideas.”