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Xmas in Connecticut

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As I look out the window of our 18th-century farmhouse, at the rolling hills thickly blanketed with white snow, I am all the more grateful for our broad, old-fashioned fireplace. The logs blaze merrily, and I hear their snapping as I begin preparing the pheasant for roasting –

“You’d have begun preparing the bird a long time ago,” Charles said, reading over his sister’s shoulder. “Plucking, then brining.”

Raven glanced away from her typewriter just long enough to stick her tongue out at him. “They’ll know what I mean.”

“Don’t be so certain! Remember the oranges.” One time, Raven had neglected to write about peeling the oranges before using them in the muffins, and she’d gotten no end of letters about it.

She sighed. “True. Should I add detail about the logs? Cedar? Oak? What kind of trees turn into logs?”

“… all of them, I expect. If you’ve got a saw.”

As Raven began typing Xs over her past few words, Charles took a seat in one of the rocking chairs crammed into her tiny apartment, next to the hissing radiator that stood in for that imaginary fire. The lunch rush was over at Greymalkin’s, and he didn’t feel like going downstairs to prepare for the Greenwich Village dinner crowd just yet. He could just as easily have rested in his apartment – just across the hallway, the mirror image of Raven’s, and by now equipped with its own dozen rocking chairs. But her radiator worked better, and this was one of the days when his bad knee needed heat.

Besides, this way he got to work with her, and create yet another column from “Rebecca Lawrence.”

Virtually anyone in the United States in 1944 knew and adored Rebecca Lawrence. Her column, “Hearth and Home,” was one of the most-read in the nation. Her recipes were tried by every aspiring cook; her idyllic life in the countryside was envied by anyone in a cramped house or walk-up apartment. Two months ago, Rebecca Lawrence had written about searching high and low for an antique rocking chair just like her grandmother’s. Who could have guessed that so many readers would love her enough to send rocking chairs through the mail? (Charles and Raven now had three rocking chairs apiece in their apartments, and had given them out as Christmas presents to their friends.) Men read the column and thought of their mother's home recipes. Women read the column and aspired to make their homes equally as perfect. Old people wrote fan letters about how Rebecca Lawrence was bringing back traditional virtues; children wrote fan letters to thank her for cookie recipes their parents had baked. The only constant was that every reader seemed to love her completely.

Of course, the readers didn’t know that the beloved, perfect housewife “Rebecca Lawrence” didn’t exist.

Really, she was a combination of two things: Charles’ knack for cookery and Raven’s way with words. Raven had originally suggested Charles write the column himself. “You’re the one who knows all about food,” she said, “I’m hopeless.” Given that she mostly lived on leftovers from Greymalkin’s, plus the occasional cocktail, he had to agree. But he was equally hopeless about writing. Every time he tried, even the recipes came out plodding and dull. It was Raven who had a knack for memorable sentences, and the details that brought an article to life.  

Now Rebecca Lawrence was a household name, “Hearth and Home” was the centerpiece of American Housekeeping magazine, which sold nearly as many copies as the Saturday Evening post. Raven’s checks from the magazine nicely supplemented his modest profits at the restaurant. Some days, Charles even thought of them as … safe. After that horrible night more than four years ago, he’d thought he would never feel safe again. It was nice to be proved wrong.

Though, of course, the scars lingered. He glanced at the photos of Mum and Dad on the wall, then closed his eyes as he flexed his knee, hoping for the heat to take away some of the old pain.

The buzzer sounded, startling them both. Raven looked at him over her typewriter. “If it’s another rocking chair, I swear I’ll break it up for firewood.”

“Not much good without a fireplace,” Charles pointed out, but she wasn’t listening.

As she rose, he studied his younger sister; someone farther removed from “America’s Most Beloved Homemaker” was difficult to imagine. With her black turtleneck, bangle earrings and the brilliantly patterned scarf in her hair, she looked every inch the bohemian. Then again, did he fit the part any better? Certainly nobody expected cozy domesticity from a bachelor in shabby old cardigans – much less a homosexual.

Good thing the articles are illustrated, he thought. If they wanted photographs, we’d be sunk.

Charles was relieved to see that the delivery was only a telegram. It might well be her editor, reporting on letters about her column in the December issue. (The oddities of magazine publishing meant she always worked months ahead; at the moment, she was writing for March.) But when Raven opened the envelope, her jaw slowly dropped. Charles grabbed his walking stick and got to his feet. “What is it?”

“It’s Miss Frost,” she whispered.

“Miss Frost? As in, your publisher? The woman who owns the magazine?” When Raven nodded, Charles felt confused. “Then what’s the matter? You make tons of money for her, so the telegram can’t be – ” An idea struck him so strongly that he gaped. “Oh, no. She hasn’t found out about Rebecca Lawrence, has she?”

The editor of American Housekeeping, Moira McTaggart, kept secret the famous Mrs. Lawrence’s fictional nature, even within the magazine itself. This deception had seemed a harmless lark back when the column began; now it was a sword hanging over both their heads.

But Raven shook her head. “It’s worse than that. So much worse.”

“What?”

Raven held the telegram out to Charles. “She wants to talk about Christmas dinner!”

 

**

 

That night, Greymalkin’s was not only the single best place to eat in Greenwich Village, but also the site of an important, last-minute publishing meeting.

Charles made the rounds as best he could, greeting the guests, checking on things in the kitchen. Most nights, he took a deep pleasure in running his restaurant; Greymalkin’s was an unpretentious, homey place with red-checked tablecloths and candles in wine bottles. His menu featured comfort food, as satisfying as he could make it while working with war rations: roast beef, potatoes, chicken soup, chocolate cake. During wartime, people longed for simple pleasures, Charles no less than anyone else. It satisfied him to be able to provide that, even in a very modest way, for the few hours people were in Greymalkin’s.

Tonight, however, he could only concentrate on the booth where Raven sat with her editor, the formidable Moira McTaggart. Two women more different were hard to imagine. Raven’s curls flowed down her back, defiant of fashion like her peasant blouse; Moira was every inch the lady editor, in a tailored navy suit and hat, her lips penciled in stylish dark red. However, they had one thing in common – both of them looked appalled, and they’d gone through nearly a bottle of white wine.

If this is bad enough to worry Moira, Charles thought, then it’s very bad indeed.

As soon as he had a moment, Charles made his way to their table. “Cheer up,” he said, trying to smile. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”

“It can,” Raven said, staring down at her wineglass.

“Well, I had a thought.” Charles had been working on this most of the evening. “Why not invite Miss Frost here for Christmas dinner? Say you’re spending it with your brother in Manhattan. That way she won’t wonder about the country house and husband and baby you – don’t have.” Wouldn’t a husband and a baby be at Christmas dinner? There were ways around that too. “That fellow who’s been pestering you so much lately, the scientist – get him to play the part of the husband. He’d be thrilled.”

“No doubt Hank would love that,” Raven said. “But you don’t understand. Miss Frost hasn’t invited herself to dinner. She’s invited someone else.”

Charles frowned. “What do you mean?”

Moira picked up the thread here. “What she means, Charles, is that Emma Frost has decided that her top columnist should perform her patriotic duty by providing the perfect, American countryside Christmas for a war hero.”

With that she held up a newspaper and tapped a story headlined, LEHNSHERR SAFE ON AMERICAN SOIL.

“Erik Lehnsherr? I’ve heard of him.” Charles took the newspaper and looked down at the picture; he hadn’t thought Lehnsherr would be so … devastatingly handsome. But he’d never thought of what the man looked like at all. He was a hero in every sense of the word: A Jewish man from Germany who had escaped the persecution there – and instead of saving his own skin, had turned intelligence agent for the Allies, risking his life time and again. His exploits had become known only after he had been captured in France, then liberated a month later by Allied troops.

Apparently, afterward, Lehnsherr had been hospitalized for a few weeks. Charles tried to imagine what Nazi interrogators might have done to the man, then resolved not to imagine it ever again. As he looked down at the picture, he felt a wave of empathy –

--and then astonishment. “Wait. This man is coming to spend Christmas at Rebecca Lawrence’s imaginary house? With her imaginary family?”

Moira nodded, miserably. “It can’t be Lehnsherr’s idea. I mean, the man’s Jewish. What does he care about Christmas? But Frost’s father is high up in the diplomatic ranks, and somehow the two of them cooked this plan up together, and here we are.”

“We have to get out of this,” Raven said. “That’s all there is to it. But how?”

“Can’t we say the house doesn’t have room?” Charles ventured.

“Are you kidding? I already said the house has six bedrooms. The October column, remember?”

Moira said, “We really need to map this imaginary house sometime.”

Charles looked down at the portrait in the newspaper and felt a pang. Surely a courageous man like Erik Lehnsherr deserved a better welcome to the United States than an imaginary house. Did he have any friends in this country? Any surviving family? It was hard to think of anyone being so lonely during the holidays.  

Still, he had to protect Raven first of all. What could possibly be reason enough to keep a war hero away at Christmas?

He thought of the imaginary baby, and inspiration struck. “Whooping cough!”

Raven and Moira looked up at him, hope dawning. Raven whispered, “The baby has whooping cough. No one should come into the house who doesn’t have to be there!”

“It’s perfect.” Moira brought her hands together. “Impossible for anyone to take offense. And it will make Rebecca Lawrence look even more like the ideal mother than before.”

Charles smiled. “So all we have to do is send Emma Frost a telegram saying so.”

Moira’s face fell. “Actually – for something like this – I’d think a face-to-face meeting is the only way to go.”

“You mean, you’ll go meet with her?” Then Raven sat up straighter. “That’s not what you mean, is it?”

“Hold on,” Charles said, shaking his head. “Let me get myself a wine glass. I need to join you in that bottle.”

 

**

 

On the Erie Railroad upstate the next day, Charles and Raven kept rehearsing. “Poor darling baby – you can understand my feelings,” Raven said, putting one hand over her heart.

“Not so melodramatic,” Charles said. He’d put on his best gray suit for the occasion; they’d mutually decided he should come along. All right, it wasn’t likely that anyone would ask questions about food – but if these questions came up, somebody had to answer them. “You’re worried, not auditioning for a part on Broadway.”

Raven leaned back in her seat. “Why not? As long as I’m wearing a costume.”

She had on a dark green suit she’d borrowed from Moira, which fit her beautifully, and her best pair of heels. The hat was another of Moira’s loans; although it was stylish and attractive, a neat little trapezoid nestled in Raven’s curls, it was the sort of thing Raven would never wear on her own. She favored daring slacks, wide-skirted black dresses, soft flats – the sort of outfit seen in the Village, not upstate new York.

But one element of her outfit was clearly neither her own nor Moira’s. Charles asked, “Where on earth did you get the stole?”

“Oh, this.” Raven shrugged, so that the brown fur moved with her. “Hank sent it over as a gift this morning. I’m going to return it, of course - it's much too extravagant -  but I thought I might as well use it to save our hides.” Then she frowned. “Ironic, seeing as how the minks didn’t save their own hides. Oh, gosh. Maybe it’s cursed.”

“Why are you so down on that Hank McCoy, anyway? He’s intelligent, he’s handsome, and he thinks the world of you.”

“I know,” Raven said miserably. “But he’s – conventional. I mean, he's a science professor at Columbia. You know, he’ll want a wife who doesn’t work, and intends to have four or five children, and puts on an evening dress for dinner at the club one night a week. He likes my face and my figure, but he wouldn’t know what to do with me.”  

Charles put his arm around her shoulders. “It’s a shame. That’s all.”

She looked up at him, her smile strange and sad. “We got dealt each other’s cards, didn’t we?”

They had made this joke between themselves before. Raven was the daring one; Charles the domestic one. Raven craved excitement; Charles craved home life. Children delighted him and unnerved her; the artistic set of friends Raven adored struck Charles as affected, even shallow.

And while Raven would happily have spent her whole life unmarried – unthinkable for a proper young girl – Charles would happily have settled down the moment he found a man to love. Which was, of course, not only impossible but also unspeakable.

“We did indeed,” Charles murmured as the railroad. “That, or we both got the jokers in the deck.”

 

**

 

They were ushered into Emma Frost’s imposing mansion by a butler – a real, true butler! – but kept their nerve even when they first saw the woman herself. Regal as she was with her snowy white suit and cool, elegant beauty, nothing would stop Raven from giving her very good excuse and getting them out of this mess.

Nothing except Emma Frost herself.

“Is the child’s life in danger?” she asked. “How long has he been ill?”

“Oh, no, his life’s not in danger,” Raven said. Behind Emma’s back, Charles nodded at her; the last thing they wanted to write into the Rebecca Lawrence column was a funeral. “He’s just – he’s been sick for – for six weeks! So you can see how worried I’ve been.”

“Only natural!” Miss Frost patted Raven’s shoulder. “But at six weeks, the disease has run its course. Why, your little darling will be back to normal in no time. Any day now! Certainly in time for Mr. Lehnsherr’s visit.”

Why didn’t we look up whooping cough? Charles thought in despair. Maybe I should pretend to come down with it right now.

Even as he was wondering just what whooping cough sounded like, Miss Frost continued on, brisk as ever. “How delightful that you brought your brother here to meet me. I would have thought your husband would accompany you, but I suppose his work keeps him away.”

“Oh, yes,” Raven said. “And Charles and I are tremendously close.”

“How is it that he has an English accent when you don’t?” Miss Frost wheeled on Charles then; she was like a force of nature, unstoppable. “Did you spend time in England before the war?”

“We grew up there, Miss Frost. My sister has just worked harder to lose her English accent than I have.” Charles said from his seat by her fireplace. “We emigrated just after the Blitz began. You see, our house was destroyed in one of the first air raids. That was when we lost our parents, and when I – ” He avoided calling attention to this, but there was no way around it, so he gestured toward his walking stick. “Let’s just say, it’s when I became ineligible for military service.”

“Terrible. Simply terrible.” Miss Frost’s sympathy seemed sincere, but it didn’t slow down the bulldozer. “All the more reason why you should host Mr. Lehnsherr this holiday season. You’ve truly experienced the horrors of this war in a way few Americans can understand. He might feel – patronized by someone else. The two of you, why, you can relate to him.”

Charles wasn’t sure that their situations were so similar, but he couldn’t think of how to stop Miss Frost any more than Raven could. Desperately, he tried, “But won’t Mr. Lehnsherr prefer to celebrate the Jewish holidays? Perhaps with a prominent Jewish family?”

Miss Frost considered that for one-tenth of a second – longer than she’d paused at any other point in the meeting, and just long enough to give them a moment’s hope – but then said, “I think not. Chanukah is already over, meaning Lehnsherr’s missed it already. As long as you don’t intend to proselytize to the man, I should imagine he’d appreciate having some sort of holiday cheer, even if it is late. No doubt he could use it. So there we go! I’ve already sent word to the Embassy. Mr. Lehnsherr’s ship will arrive on the evening of December 23rd. So I’ll make arrangements for him to be brought to your Connecticut farm on Christmas Eve. Around lunchtime, I’d think. Splendid. Simply splendid! Don’t forget to give the farm’s address to my secretary.”

Numbly, Raven and Charles started for the door. She looked utterly pale; he had to lean on his stick more heavily than usual. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered. “We’re doomed. We’re all doomed.”

“Keep walking,” he whispered. Surely they’d think of something. But what? Maybe the imaginary house could be destroyed by an imaginary fire –

Raven stopped. She squared her shoulders and set her chin. “There’s no way out but the truth.”

“Oh, Raven, no.”

“Yes.” By now she had her courage again. “I’m going to walk back in there and come clean. Miss Frost might be angry – ”

“Might? Her top column, all about the perfect American wife in the perfect American home, is complete fiction, and you think she might be angry?”

But Raven was undaunted. “She might respect me for telling the truth now. And at least she’ll find somewhere for poor Mr. Lehnsherr to spend Christmas.”

Charles stopped. He hadn’t thought about that before – that if Erik Lehnsherr didn’t get advance notice that the farm he was being brought to was imaginary, he might well wind up in some dreary hotel on December 25. The thought was too much to bear. “All right. Go ahead.”

Raven marched back toward Miss Frost’s office, feathers fluttering in her hat – but in the instant before she raised her hand to knock, Miss Frost opened the door. At the sight of Raven, Miss Frost smiled. “Well, well. Great minds think alike.”

“They do?” Raven said.

“I know exactly what you’re about to say!”

“You do?” Raven glanced back at Charles, who shrugged.

Miss Frost put her hands on Raven’s shoulders. “You’re going to invite me to Christmas dinner too! You’ve no doubt read about the divorce, and … well, normally I don’t pay much attention to the holidays, but this would be a fine year for me to try something different. How clever of you to see it. But I wouldn’t expect anything less from ‘America’s Most Beloved Homemaker.’ You celebrate home and hearth and family and everything that makes this country good. Everything we all need to believe in, during such difficult times.”

“I sure do,” Raven said weakly. It was all Charles could do to stay on his feet.

“So that’s all settled!” Miss Frost beamed at them both. “I’ll arrive along with Mr. Lehnsherr on Christmas Eve!”

She shut the door to her office without another word. Raven slowly turned around, her face a mask of horror.

That’s it, Charles thought. We’re done for.

 

**

 

After the dinner rush that night, Charles let a few guests linger in one of the booths. 

“Cheer up,” said Hank McCoy, patting Raven’s shoulder. “Maybe you can still come clean, the way you meant to.”

“It won’t help now.” Raven’s head rested in one of her hands; she’d scarcely looked up in the past thirty minutes. “The way she looked at me! Like coming to my house was the most important thing to her in the world. We’re absolutely stuck.”

“I’ll be fired before the New Year. Well, maybe I can go to a book publisher and advertise my expertise in fiction.” Moira took another sip of her wine.

“It’s not as bad as all that,” Charles ventured. “Moira, you’ll surely get another job in no time. Raven can go back to work on her novel, and the restaurant makes enough money now for us to live on.”

“Barely,” Raven shot back. She was right.

So he took a deep breath and finally said what he’d been thinking since that morning. “We could sublet our apartments, and take a place somewhere else in the city. Someplace cheaper.”

Raven looked up at that, eyes wide with alarm. “Charles, no. If you had to travel to work – it’s too hard for you.”

“I could manage,” Charles said, though the thought of navigating the subway every single day was daunting. They’d spent their entire inheritance on buying this building on West 11th Street; no doubt someday the place would be worth quite a lot, but prices remained low due to the war. Even so, property tax was crushing. There were only the two little apartments upstairs, but maybe those were a luxury they could no longer afford. His leg ached, anticipatory pain at the thought of struggling onto the subway with his walking stick day in and day out. Yet he wouldn’t have Raven worrying about him. “You’ll see. It won’t be any trouble. I’ll manage.”

Hank, clearly the odd one out in this gathering, had been wanting to say something for a while now – that was obvious – but finally he got up the nerve. “It’s a shame you can’t just show them my place in Connecticut. It fits the bill well enough. Built in the late 18th century, big fireplaces, the works.”

Moira slowly turned toward him. “Wait. You have a farmhouse in Connecticut?”

“I inherited it from my grandmother,” Hank said. “I spend most of my time here in the city, of course. But it’s a nice old place. I expect I'll live there someday.”

With a grin, Moira took Hank’s hand and put it atop Raven’s. “I now pronounce you man and wife.”

“Wait – you aren’t thinking – you are,” Charles said. His head had begun to spin.

Raven looked around wildly as she caught on. “You want us to pretend to be married?”

“Why not?” Moira said, like this was a great idea instead of utterly demented. “It’s just for Christmas! You go up there, you put on a few housedresses, Hank smokes a pipe and pretends to be the man of the house. Charles can come along, and we’ll sneak him in the kitchen to do the actual cooking. On December 26th, Emma Frost and Mr. Lehnsherr leave again, and nobody’s the wiser. Raven still has a column, and I still have a job. I’m very enthusiastic about that last part.”

“This is madness,” Charles said, which was true. But Moira was right. This might be their only way out. “Well – I was shutting the restaurant for the holiday anyway.”

“I don’t know.” Raven glanced up at Hank, whose hand still rested on hers. Clearly he enjoyed the idea of playing Raven’s husband for a couple of days. Just as clearly, it was going to be awkward as hell. “Are you sure you’d be all right with it, Hank? It’s a big favor.”

“It would be a pleasure to spend the holidays with you.” Hank’s cheeks flushed. “Not that I – I mean, it’s just a favor. No. A Christmas gift. No strings attached.”

Raven leaned back, thumping her head against the wooden back of the booth. “Are we really doing this?”

“We are,” Charles said. “Is it too late to take acting lessons?”

 

**

 

His misgivings endured until early in the morning of Christmas Eve. Hank met them at the station; they’d taken the very first train in so they’d have time to get ready for their guests. (They’d already decided to do the big dinner the night of Christmas Eve, the better to disguise the real chef by doing plenty of cooking before Emma Frost and Erik Lehnsherr even arrived.) Charles hadn’t been considering anything beyond the complexities of preparing the turkey until the moment they walked inside Hank’s country home.

A lifelong city dweller, Charles hadn’t spent much time in the countryside. The drive from the station had been dazzling enough. From the road, the house had looked like something out of a Christmas card: white with green shutters, a red-brick chimney sending grey smoke into a sunny blue sky. But inside – inside a fire blazed in the fireplace. The enormous sitting room held a few chintz sofas, a phonograph machine, an old plank floor and even a piano. Heavy wooden beams stretched along the ceiling, which was high enough to still feel open and bright. Beyond the large picture window stretched endless snowy fields. “This is beautiful,” Charles breathed.  

“Glad you like it,” Hank said, turning to Raven. “What do you think?”

“It looks just like the one in the articles.” Raven’s interest was solely tactical. She was wearing a prim sea-green housedress borrowed from Moira, and had gotten her hair set in fashionable rolls; she looked lovely and yet not a bit like herself. “Are there six bedrooms?”

“Only five, I’m afraid. But – don’t worry – there’s one for everybody.” Hank flushed again; no doubt he’d have liked it if Raven shared his bedroom.

“Don’t worry,” Charles said. “I doubt anyone’s going to count the doors. What about the baby?”

“All taken care of.” With a flourish, Hank pushed open the door to the kitchen, where a middle-aged woman was scrubbing the counters, and a child of perhaps eight months sat on the floor, playing with pot lids. “Nora here keeps the house for me, and she’s been minding little Robert here for one of the women in town who works at the munitions plant.”

“All of us have to do our part for the war work,” Nora said. “Now who’s this man taking over my kitchen?”

“That would be me, I’m afraid.” Charles gave her his most winning smile; if anything, Nora only scowled more. He decided to win her over the old-fashioned way. “What say we get started on some plum pudding?”

As they began working together in the kitchen – finding a rhythm easily enough as she showed him where everything was to be found, tearing the loaf of bread into cubes – Charles indulged in a little eavesdropping. (At least, when baby Robert stopped throwing lids around and a hush fell.) In the living room, Hank was saying, “I bought us wedding rings. Nothing fancy! At the pawn shop, if you want to know the truth. But I thought your publisher would wonder why we weren’t wearing them.”

“Good thinking,” Raven said. In her tone of voice, Charles could sense her dismay as clearly as if he could see her face. How awkward did it have to be, accepting a wedding ring from a man she didn’t even want to date? And how much worse for Hank, who was bright enough to know where he stood. Raven continued, more briskly, “This house is beautiful, Hank. I can see why you want to live here. Why haven’t you moved already?”

“Oh, I love it here – but I wouldn’t want to move to the country yet. This is only for weekends, now; this is more the place where I’d retire, I think." He sounded apologetic as he added, "I know most women hope to have a big home of their own right away, but I can't help feeling like city life is much more fun.”

“I agree completely.” Raven sounded slightly surprised, Charles thought.

They made their way upstairs, Hank no doubt lugging their bags into their respective rooms. Just as they got up there, though, Charles heard the crunch of tires on snow out front. Apparently the guests had arrived.

With a nod to Nora, Charles headed to the door. He could manage without his stick well enough for this short distance, and he wanted to make a good impression on –

--he opened the door to reveal a man in a black coat and hat –

--on the single most handsome man Charles had ever seen.

He’d thought Erik Lehnsherr attractive just from his photograph, but that flat, black and white image hadn’t captured those pale blue eyes, or the perfect lines of his body, or the sheer magnetism of the man.  The way he stood there, dark clothes contrasting with the snow-white countryside, filling the doorway as if he were the only man in the world …

Charles realized he was staring, and that his guest was staring back. It was Erik who spoke first. “Are we at the right house? Rebecca Lawrence’s house?”

“Yes! Yes, you’re in the right place. I’m her brother, Charles. Won’t you come in, Mr. Lehnsherr?”

Erik stepped inside, but warily, as though he thought there might be booby traps ready to spring. Just behind him came Emma Frost, turned out in a white fur coat and a turban. “Splendid,” she said. “Simply splendid. Just as all our readers will have envisioned it. Really, when reproduction for photographs gets just a little easier – I can’t wait to feature it!” She held up her hands, forming a square like a photographer’s frame. “’The Perfect American Home.’”

Charles fervently hoped photography would remain expensive for some time to come. He made some pleasant chit-chat as he tried to take their coats, but at the last minute, Lehnsherr paused. “You shouldn’t have to deal with these. Your leg – ”

“I can manage,” Charles insisted. While his hip ached a bit, surely he could hang a couple of coats in the hall closet.

… did this house have a hall closet?

Just then, Raven appeared at the top of the stairs, Hank just behind her. “Welcome to our home!” she said, sounding so sweet and conventional and completely unlike herself that Charles was barely able to keep from laughing.

“This is lovely. Simply lovely.” Emma already had command of the room. Her fashionably short hair was set into tight little curls, as rigid as the lines of her white suit. “The sort of homey simplicity we’ve gotten too far from these days. Don’t you agree, Mr. Lawrence?”

“It’s Mr. McCoy,” Hank managed to slip in. “Rebecca Lawrence is a pen name.”

“We wanted to preserve our privacy,” Raven said.

“Very wise,” Emma said. Thank goodness she was in a mood to be pleased. “It’s good to touch base with basic, decent values again. Don’t you agree, Mr. Lehnsherr?”

Charles didn’t hear Erik’s response; he was too busy stuffing the coats into what might actually have been a broom closet but would just have to do. Then he got back into the kitchen, where Nora was untying her apron. “Thank goodness you’re back,” she said. “Sounds like the cow’s got out again.”

“There’s a cow?” Charles had spent most of his life in London, the past few years in Manhattan, and absolutely none of that experience remotely prepared him for cows. He rarely dealt with domesticated animals larger than, say, a schnauzer. But sure enough, in the distance, a cowbell clanked dully.

Nora didn’t seem to notice his discomfiture. “I’ll get her tied up again. You watch little Robert there, and mind the stove.”

It was a relief to turn back to the familiarity of his kitchen – to smell the cinnamon and nutmeg, and enjoy the relative silence – until the moment the door swung open. Mr. Lehnsherr strode through, then halted, obviously taken aback. “Excuse me,” he said. “I meant to – collect myself.”

His skin was pale; his breathing quick. Charles realized with a jolt that Mr. Lehnsherr was on the verge of panic.

He knew the reason, or rather, that there was no reason. And he knew that Lehnsherr needed help.

“Sit down,” Charles said, gesturing to a chair. “Right away. Just sit down and take deep breaths.”

Although it looked as though Mr. Lehnsherr would like to argue, he sat. Charles quickly poured him a bit of the cooking brandy, hoped it was fit for drinking, and took the glass to the table. “Here. Take a sip. If you want to talk, you can talk. If you’d rather be distracted, I can think of something. And if you’d like to be left alone – well, this plum pudding won’t make itself.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, Mr. Lehnsherr.”

“Erik, please.” For a few minutes, Charles busied himself folding in the cubes of bread and the remaining spices. The only sounds were the clanking of pans as baby Robert kept playing on the floor, oblivious to the rest. Only after Charles had spooned the plum pudding into a baking dish did Erik say, “Thank you for not asking why.”

“I know why.” Charles opened the oven, felt the glow of heat as he pushed the dish inside. “After our London house was bombed, my sister and I had attacks like that for – oh, months. More than a year, I think. Anything could set us off.”

Their trauma, great as it had been, had only lasted one horrible hour, more or less. How much worse must it be for Erik Lehnsherr, whose suffering had lasted for years?

Erik stared down at the table as he says, “I keep telling myself I’m back in the ‘real world’ now. But the war is as real as this house. The danger is as real as the safety. After you’ve seen it fall apart once – it’s hard to believe it can ever last, anywhere.”

“I still expect the ceiling to cave in,” Charles confessed. “I still listen for the sirens. But, you know, for once the cold hard facts can comfort us. The Germans aren’t here, and the way the war is going, they’re not likely to ever show up.”

That won him a quick, razor-straight smile. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“We can’t know the future. Only today. And today, you’re warm and safe and in a house where everyone is honored to have you.” Was honored too formal? He rushed on, trying to lighten the mood: “I realize Christmas isn’t your holiday. I’m surprised the Frosts were able to talk you into this.”

Erik stared down at the glass in his hands, and Charles realized he’d blundered even before Erik said, “I let them talk me into it. You see, I’ve no place else to go. No one waiting. Might as well spend a few days here as anywhere else.”

After only a few minutes’ acquaintance, Charles already knew the worst thing he could do would be to pity Erik. So he continued, “We’re not terribly religious, so don’t expect an overly preachy holiday. Just turkey, and plum pudding, and evenings by the fire. Surely everyone enjoys good food and happy company.”

“I’ve had too little of either lately.” Erik looked steadier now. “Thank you.”

“It’s just the cooking brandy.”

“I didn’t mean the brandy. I meant – when I get the shakes, people either pretend it’s not happening or treat me like some invalid. You knew how to handle it. I appreciate that.” 

The warmth blossoming in Charles’ chest made him feel as though he was melting. Erik’s eyes met his, held his gaze a moment longer than most people did, just long enough for Charles to wonder, He isn’t – he couldn’t be –

This was the moment Robert chose to began wailing.

“Oh, no.” Charles had no more experience with babies than he did with cows. He’d rather have dealt with the cow. But this was supposed to be his nephew. Shouldn’t he do something?

Just then, however, Emma Frost marched in, Raven right behind her, looking terrified. “Poor little fellow,” Emma said. “So adorable. Never had children of my own. Aren’t you lucky to have the perfect mother, little one?”

The “perfect mother” shot Charles a terrified look as she walked to baby Robert and picked him up, holding him out from her body as though she thought he might stain her borrowed housedress … and to judge from the stink now wafting from the baby’s diaper, she might be right. Raven swallowed hard and said, “I think it needs changing.”

Had Raven ever changed a diaper in her life? Charles hadn’t either. He looked out the back door, wishing Nora would return. How long could it take to find a cow?

Then Erik surprised them all. “I’ll change him.”

“You will?” Raven beamed with relief, before remembering that she was playing hostess. “But surely you don’t want to – ”

“I like babies,” Erik said. “Here, let me have him.” He took Robert from her arms, deftly scooping him onto one hip. “Where are the baby’s things?”

Thank goodness Nora had mentioned this. “I’ll show you,” Charles offered.

Which was how he found himself in the downstairs guest bedroom, watching Erik Lehnsherr change a baby’s diaper.

“You’re good at this.” Charles laughed softly as he watched Erik folding the square of white cloth into a triangle, then doubled that triangle on itself.

Erik’s next words astonished him. “I had a daughter.”

The past tense was the most horrible thing Charles had ever heard. “Oh, Erik. I’m so sorry.”

Erik glanced back at him, as if surprised by the depth of emotion in Charles’ voice. His smile was sad, yet he smiled all the same. “I lost my wife and daughter many years ago. I’ve hardly been near a child since. It’s … good.” He looked down at baby Robert then as he lifted his feet, the better to slide the diaper beneath him. “There you go, little man. That’s better, isn’t it?”

Charles felt that melting sensation again.

Which was a very stupid way to feel. Potentially a dangerous one, if Erik realized what was going on. For a moment, when their eyes had met in the kitchen, Charles had dared to hope that Erik might be –

But he wasn’t. Wife and child meant heterosexual, most of the time.

(Not all of the time. Charles realized that. Still, after less than an hour’s acquaintance with Erik Lehnsherr, he suspected a life of pretense wasn’t for him.)

It wasn’t as though Charles were a virgin. An older boy had satisfied his curiosity at school, and he’d fallen in with a man he very much liked at university. However, Geoffrey’s upper-crust family had detected what was really going on and set an ultimatum: It was Charles or the inheritance, and the inheritance had won out. Charles had almost managed to convince himself that he didn’t blame Geoffrey, really. His family had a castle. One might do any number of things for a castle.

He’d nursed his heartbreak for a while afterward, only thinking he was ready to look for love again in the months before the Blitz began. Then he’d learned what heartbreak really was. Between looking after Raven, grieving their parents, recovering from his injuries and arranging their move to New York, he’d scarcely had time to think about love.

New York City had to be one of the easiest places to be homosexual in the world. You could be arrested if you were caught, but the police were fairly lazy about enforcement, at least during wartime when everyone was spread so thin. Raven’s literary set contained several “queens,” as they called themselves, but Charles didn’t fit in. Once he'd been much like them - cocky, arrogant, self-satisfied in the extreme. But the bombing had transformed his mind as much as his body, and now he had no interest in that type. Not that he'd had any opportunity to turn them down. None of these men were short of potential boyfriends, which meant a shabby Englishman with a bad leg and a cane and a restaurant that kept him busy six nights a week – well, he wasn’t their first choice. Or their third. Or their tenth.

Honestly, Charles didn’t mind it much. That scene with all its glitter and flash wasn’t what he wanted, not really. No, his type would be someone … steady. Substantial. With depth to match his discretion. Sensitive and yet strong –

In other words, someone very like Erik Lehnsherr.

Except homosexual.

Charles sighed and got back to making dinner.

 

**

 

By that night, as they all decorated the tree together, Charles had passed through “initial awe” and was well on his way to “hopelessly infatuated.”

Emphasis on hopeless. But still. It was amazing just to feel this way.

“I thought Christians always put a star atop the tree,” Erik said as Raven teetered on the ladder in high heels.

“Angels work too!” Raven sounded breathless. At the foot of the ladder, Hank clung to the frame, attempting to provide some steadiness and clearly ready to catch Raven if necessary. As she nudged the angel into place, she added, “We’ve always liked angels. In our family, I mean.”

“Room for individuality even within tradition,” Emma Frost said from her place by the fire, where she was darting a needle through popcorn and cranberries as though for spite. “That would be a good theme for a column, wouldn’t it, Rebecca?”

It still took Raven a few seconds to respond to that name. “Oh, yes. Wonderful.” Carefully she made her way down the ladder.

Charles was helping Erik hang ornaments on the tree. Most of them were old-fashioned, hand-carved, not like the shiny metal baubles in stores now. They must have belonged to Hank’s parents. Slowly he turned a little hand-painted snowman over in his hand. He and Raven had never done much for Christmas since their parents’ deaths; really, they ought to change that.

“I’m hanging the baby Jesus on the tree,” Erik said wryly. “I already put up the Three Wise Men and a herald angel. Meanwhile you get all the snowmen and elves.”

“I really should give you the secular ones, shouldn’t I?”

“Actually, I like the irony.” Erik and Charles exchanged smiles, just long enough for Charles’ heart to turn over, before Erik turned back to the tree.

Then Hank sat down at the piano and started to play. Charles glanced over at Raven, who looked as surprised as he felt. They’d both assumed Hank McCoy was an egghead without an artistic bone in his body. Oblivious to their astonishment, Hank began playing something unexpected – jazz, from the sound of it. After a moment, Charles realized the music was from the Nutcracker, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, to be exact. But the arrangement was unexpected and brilliant.

When Raven recognized it too, she smiled. “Hank, did you come up with this on your own?”

“Me? Gosh, no.” Hank kept playing easily as he spoke. “It’s an arrangement by Duke Ellington – I’ve heard him play it in the clubs. He keeps saying he’s going to do an entire jazz album of the Nutcracker Suite, eventually. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“Wonderful.” Raven actually walked behind Hank and put her hands on his shoulders. Apparently Hank should have tried paying the piano much earlier in their courtship.

What are we going to do about presents? Charles had brought his for Raven, just as she’d brought hers for him. They’d spent nearly all their discretionary income for the month on stately, proper gifts for Emma Frost and Erik Lehnsherr – a leather-bound address book for her, and a black turtleneck sweater for him. (Charles had protested the turtleneck as too bohemian, but Raven had already lost the receipt.) Now the present for Erik felt horribly impersonal.

Then Charles brightened. He’d brought his favorite book along on this trip, for reading on the train. All right, it was used – but it was a vintage copy, leather-bound and handsome. Surely it would be an acceptable gift, and he thought it might be just the kind of story Erik Lehnsherr needed right now.

Hank’s song trailed off, and both Emma and Raven applauded. Emma said, “I enjoy traditional music, myself, but that was – well, it was delightful.”

Raven chimed in, “I had no idea you liked jazz so much.”

“I love it. If you ask me, Duke Ellington's the Mozart of the 20th century. But ... I hadn’t thought you would approve. You know, going to clubs in Harlem, that sort of thing,” Hank admitted.

“Are you crazy? I’d love to do that sometime.” Raven was smiling open-mouthed. Unfortunately, she and Hank were acting too much like the dating couple they were, instead of the happily married parents they were supposed to be. Thankfully Emma Frost hadn’t noticed – yet. Charles was going to request some Christmas carols to hurry the conversation along, until, in the momentary hush, he heard a distant bell ringing.

The same bell from the afternoon …

“The cow’s got loose again,” he said.

Raven turned to him, wide-eyed. Even Hank, who owned this farm, seemed to be at a loss. “Oh,” he said. “Well. The cow. We’d better – fetch her, then.”

“Do they come when you call?” Raven whispered. Charles shook his head no.

“I grew up in farm country,” Erik said. “I wouldn’t mind going after her. Besides, I’d like to take a look around the grounds.”

“I’ll go with you,” Charles said, without thinking. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he felt stupid.

Raven said what they were all wondering. “Can you manage with your stick?”

He affected courage he didn’t feel. “We’ll see, won’t we?”

“If you lose your footing,” Erik said, very lightly, “you can always lean on me.”

Remember to stumble. Definitely stumble at least once. Maybe even fall, if you think he’ll catch you.

But the snow was only a few inches thick, and fluffy, not yet having turned to ice at the edges. Charles found he was able to manage reasonably well as he and Erik worked their way across the broad, rolling grounds. He only wobbled once – but Erik noticed and immediately offered Charles his arm.

Hang pride. Charles took it, relishing the warmth of Erik’s body close to his.

“There she is,” Erik said, pointing toward the far fence and a dark shape just visible near it. “Does she have a name?”

She did; Nora had told Charles that afternoon. But it was so ridiculous that he blushed. “Macushla.”

“Macushla? What kind of name is that?” Erik laughed. “It sounds Serbian. Or Hungarian?”

Charles had to grin. “She already had the name when we got her.” As in, this morning. “The mystery may never be solved.”

Did cows charge, or was that only bulls? Erik didn’t seem to be worried, and Charles took his cues from him. Sure enough, Macushla waited patiently for them as though they’d had an appointment; when Erik took hold of the loose rope around her neck, she fell into step beside them.

Thank goodness the stable was obvious. Charles would not have wanted to have wound up with a cow and no idea where to put it.

“You know, you haven’t yet told me what you do for a living,” Erik said. “It’s refreshing. Most men are more interested in telling you their profession than their name.”

“I run a restaurant in Manhattan.”

“Very chic, or a cozy neighborhood place?”

“Cozy, even though the neighborhood is in Manhattan.”

“So culinary talent runs in the family.”

It took Charles a moment to realize what Erik was talking about. “Oh, right! Yes. Absolutely.”

It’s a good thing he’s leaving the day after Christmas, Charles thought as they walked into the stable. Otherwise I’m sure I’d make a fool of myself over him.

Erik guided Macushla into her stall, petting her side to soothe her. He had beautiful hands, really – long-fingered and strong –

Talk before you make a fool of yourself now. “What will you do? For a living, I meant, though I suppose it must apply to everything, now.”

“Do you know, you’re the only person outside the military who’s bothered to ask?” Erik held his arm out for Charles again, even though their path back to the house was a smooth walkway, shoveled clear. After the briefest pause, Charles threaded his hand through the crook of Erik’s elbow. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve been fighting this war most of my adult life. For Jews in Germany, it began in the early 1930s. Now I only know … code-breaking. Ciphers. How to get through barbed wire. All very useful on the front, none of them particularly handy in regular life.”

Nor could Erik return to a career in intelligence, Charles realized. His cover had been blown spectacularly; his name and face were now known to Axis and Allies alike. “I feel sure you could master anything you set your mind to.”

“You’re kind. Really I’d like to work with immigrants, refugees. After the war, there will be thousands upon thousands of them. They’ll need to know how to resettle in the United States. Maybe I could be someone who helps them.”

“You’d be brilliant at it,” Charles said, meaning every word. Was he imagining it, or was Erik guiding them back inside very, very slowly? “It’s a difficult transition. Raven and I had the advantages of speaking the language and being U.S. citizens – ”

“You’re citizens?”

“We were born here, before the family moved back to England,” Charles explained. “Anyway, even with those advantages, the transition was rough going, and I think it would have been even if – even under happier circumstances. That would be an excellent thing for you to do, I think.”

Erik paused. By now they stood just a couple feet away from the front door. “I’ve got a transition of my own to navigate first. Probably I’ll settle in Washington, D.C., but I plan to see New York. Maybe visit once in a while. Don’t suppose I could look you up sometime?” His eyes looked deeply into Charles’; for his part, Charles felt as though he could hardly breathe. “For – a meal?”

“A meal! Right. Absolutely. Yes. I’d love to treat you to a dinner at Greymalkin’s, any day you like.” He was babbling now but couldn’t stop himself. “And any other help you might need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I won’t,” Erik said.

Was this good? This seemed very good. Very very good. But maybe Erik just meant to look Charles up as a friend. Wife and child, remember?

Maybe the next words out of Erik’s mouth would resolve things. Yet as Charles looked up at him, Erik said, “I think this holiday was just what I needed. A time that’s peaceful. Calm. Honest.”

Honest. The word landed on Charles like a weight, almost crushing. Whatever Erik felt for him – which was probably, almost certainly, just friendship, but even friendship meant so much – all of it was based on the fiction of Rebecca Lawrence, America’s Most Beloved Homemaker.

On lies.

Before Charles could think of anything else to say, the door swung open wide. “You found the cow?” Emma Frost said, almost majestically, as though they’d been on the grandest errand of all time. “Well done! How I enjoy this simple farm life.” She still wore diamond earrings.

Charles managed to smile as he came inside. “Erik helped me past the rough spots,” he said quickly, in case Emma had noticed their joined arms. “It wasn’t bad at all.”

“Wonderful,” Raven said, beaming at him from her place on the piano bench, right next to Hank. Legs touching. Interesting, Charles thought.

Then Emma Frost said, “You know, Rebecca, you must make me a promise for the morning.”

After a beat, Raven realized she was being spoken to. “Oh, anything!”

“In your wonderful Christmas column last year, you talked about making everyone a large breakfast to share together before opening the gifts.” Emma smiled. “And you flip the pancakes yourself! I’ve never had the knack for that. Promise you’ll flip some for me in the morning.”

Raven’s jaw dropped in open horror, but fortunately Emma wasn’t looking directly at her. “I – sure. Of course.”

Charles mouthed, Why did you say that? She shrugged. Flipping pancakes in the air wasn’t easy, and Raven could hardly manage to load bread in a toaster. He stifled a groan as he made a note to set his alarm clock for an ungodly early hour. Tomorrow morning he’d be teaching a crash course in pancakes.

They hadn’t made it through this weekend yet. 

Chapter Text

“So you think Erik might be – ” Raven hesitated, skillet in both hands, before using the euphemism she and Charles had chosen a few years ago for conversations anywhere outside their apartments. “—‘ambidextrous’?”

“Maybe. Probably not. But maybe. And watch the batter!”

Charles had known it wouldn’t be easy to teach Raven to flip pancakes, but he’d thought it would go better than this. He’d already had to scrape the burned remains of two potential pancakes into the garbage.

“Okay – it’s a little brown around the edges – is this where I work it with the spatula?” Raven glanced at Charles, who nodded. As she started that, she said, “I don’t think the family means he’s not ambidextrous. Lots of – ambidextrous people are pressured into marriage. Or just want children. That kind of thing.”

“But plenty of ambidextrous people never marry.” Charles hadn’t, at any rate. “If he’s not ambidextrous, and he realized I am – that could be awful.”

Raven’s eyes were sympathetic, until they became panicked; the time for pancake flipping had come. Charles nodded encouragingly, and she popped the skillet upward – only a bit, just enough to fold the pancake in on itself and send it half-over the edge. As batter dripped down onto the stove, she winced. “We made it through Hitler’s Blitz and an ocean crossing over an Atlantic filled with U-boats, and we’re going to be done in by a pancake.”

“Stay calm,” Charles said, as he used his own spatula to scoop the ruined pancake into the garbage, then scrape the skillet clean. “Let’s try this again. More energy next time.” She looked so discouraged as she poured the batter in that he decided to change the subject. Maybe if she stopped overthinking this, her technique would improve. “You and Hank looked very cozy last night.”

To his surprise, his brash sister’s cheeks pinked. “He’s not at all the kind of man I thought he was. Hank always wears those suits and talks about his academic research – and I know it’s not his fault his eyesight keeps him out of the war – but I always thought he was so tame. So ordinary. Instead, he loves the city as much as I do. He’s been to more jazz clubs than I have!”

“Watch the batter,” Charles repeated, heart sinking.

With determination, Raven started working with the spatula again. “Well, I still don’t know whether Henry would want me to change. Because I won’t. As for you, we have to figure out whether our houseguest is ambidextrous.”

“Erik’s been through enough,” Charles said. “Let him be. Okay, now.”

Raven bit her lower lip and flung the skillet upward with all the gusto she’d lacked before. Far too much gusto. The pancake flipped up into the air until the batter side made sticky contact with the ceiling, and stuck there.

The two of them stood there, staring upward at the pancake as it slowly began to peel loose, in silence until Raven finally said, “We’re doomed.”

“We’re not doomed.” Charles took a broom from the corner and began trying to hurry the pancake’s descent. “We just have to keep at it a while – ”

“Good morning!” Emma Frost called from the staircase. “Merry Christmas!”

Raven’s eyes went wide, but she still managed to hold out the skillet to catch the fallen pancake. Charles just had enough time to stow the broom in the corner; Raven tossed the latest victim into the trash just before Emma strode in, again in perfect white.

“Smells delicious.” Emma beamed. She was looking forward to this so much that Charles almost felt bad for her.

“We’re – just getting started,” Raven said weakly. She turned back to stirring the batter, a stalling technique. Meanwhile, Charles began to wonder if they could still get out of this if he managed to set the kitchen on fire.

Then the kitchen door swung open again to reveal Erik, and for a moment, Charles forgot all about pancakes, Emma Frost, or fires. He could only stare. How had the man become better looking overnight? How was that even possible?

“Good morning,” Erik said, then caught himself. “And Merry Christmas. Where’s your little boy?”

Baby Robert was, of course, spending Christmas morning with his real parents. However, Charles had already thought of an explanation. “He’s had a bit of a relapse this morning; he’s just getting over whooping cough, you know. He’ll be fine, but we shouldn’t expose him to our germs too much today. Nora’s watching him for now. Rav – my sister and her husband will be able to visit him. The rest of us should probably wait a day.”

Although Erik nodded, Charles could tell he’d wasn’t entirely listening … not entirely here. Erik’s thoughts were elsewhere. But he tried to be polite, sniffing the air. “Smells delicious. I can’t remember the last time I had pancakes.”

“Actually, I was going to make them for us,” Charles said in a rush. “Because, ah, I’m thinking of opening my restaurant for breakfast hours too. So I really need the practice, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine with me,” Erik said as he took a seat. His gaze was slightly distant as he looked out at the snowy white field behind the house. The shadows still lingered; Charles suspected they always would. At least he could make the man a decent breakfast.

Emma sighed. “I suppose.” Raven grinned, and it was all Charles could do not to turn around and hug her in relief. Instead he poured more batter into the skillet. But then Emma added, “You’ll flip just one pancake for me, though, won’t you, Rebecca? Teach me this mysterious feminine art. I’d like to see how a real homemaker does it, just once.”

Once would be more than enough to sink them. Yet Emma had left them no way out.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Hank called as he walked into the kitchen. When he saw Raven standing there, skillet in her hands, his happy grin dissolved into a look of pure horror. “Oh, goodness.”

Watch the batter,” Charles whispered.

“Here we go,” Raven said, working the spatula a little too fast. “Here we go!”

She flung the pancake upward, cringing – Charles fought the urge to protect his head with his hands – but the pancake landed neatly in the skillet, batter side down.

“Bullseye!” He looked at his sister, who seemed even more amazed than we has, and they both laughed out loud. Hank sagged against the wall.

Fortunately Emma Frost didn’t notice their reaction. She simply applauded. “Bravo, Rebecca. Absolutely perfect.” Erik just nodded and smiled, obviously wanting to mind his manners but not terribly interested in breakfast preparation. Emma continued, “Now I suppose your brother can get his practice in.”

“Don’t worry, Charles,” Raven said blithely, as she set down the skillet and turned the handle in his direction. “You’ll get the hang of it in no time.”

 

**

 

After pancakes and hot chocolate had been had by all and sundry, they went to the tree. Hank put on a record of Christmas music, and as a chorus sang “Green Grows the Holly,” they set about opening gifts. Emma approved of her address book, and Erik, surprisingly, seemed to like the black turtleneck sweater. That was a relief – but mostly, Charles was glad their guests were too distracted to pay attention to the gifts the rest of them gave each other. 

“I gave you a tie,” Raven said apologetically to Hank. “It seemed like you at the time, but now it doesn’t seem right for you at all.”

Hank was probably the most polite man in the world. “It’s a great tie. But you – you don’t think yours is too unusual?”

“Are you kidding? This is amazing.” Raven’s fingers traced just over the canvas of the small unframed painting he’d given her – something extremely modern and minimalist, in fact mostly fields of color so far as Charles could tell. “Who painted it?”

“A man named Rothko. He’s been doing surrealist work the past many years, but his work has become more and more abstract. The critics hate his new stuff, but I like it, and, well, it seemed like the sort of thing you’d like too.”

Raven’s sly, sideways smile was reserved for people she truly trusted; Charles was pretty sure Hank had never seen it before, to judge by the way he blushed. “You were right. I could look at it all day. Every day.”

“I could look at you looking at it all day, every day.” That was as close as Hank McCoy ever came to a line.

However, it seemed to work. Raven took hold of his tie – then paused. “Ah, we should go … visit our baby! We definitely want to spend time with little Robert on Christmas. An hour or two.”

Hank’s eyes widened, and Charles had to conceal his smile. But Emma simply waved them off. “Of course. I wouldn’t expect anything else from such devoted parents. And I suppose I should – I ought to call my parents. Don’t worry, I’ll reverse the charges.”

Oughtn’t her parents have offered to call her here at the house, since she was a guest? It struck Charles for the first time that Emma was here alone, on Christmas Day. When she’d invited herself along on this weekend, she’d mentioned a divorce. Maybe she hadn’t come here just to observe the war hero’s welcome and write about it in a future issue of the magazine; maybe Emma was here because she otherwise would have spent the day by herself.

He had no chance to empathize, though; Emma was already striding toward the study where the phone was installed. This left Charles alone with Erik, who was staring out the window, his black sweater on his lap.

Charles offered help and companionship in the time-honored English way: “Could you do with a cup of tea?”

“Oh.” Erik looked over at him, but his smile wouldn’t stay on his tense face. “Sorry. Lost in thought.”

“I repeat my offer. I can distract you, I can listen, or I can shuffle off and give you some peace and quiet. And tea. Whatever you need.”

Erik hesitated so long that Charles felt fairly sure he was going to be asked to shuffle off. He hadn’t even got around to giving Erik his present. Even though he’d stayed up past midnight last night to wrap it, he’d felt too shy. Maybe it had been a bad idea; maybe he should just unwrap the book and bring it back home.

But then Erik spoke. “Peace and quiet. That’s the whole problem.”

Charles took his walking stick in hand – he was sore today, from all the activity yesterday – and made his way to the window seat. He took a seat on one of the low, flat plaid cushions, just across from Erik. The enormous Christmas tree blocked their view of most of the living room; they were close enough to smell the pine. “Most people wouldn’t think peace and quiet was a problem.”

“I slept well last night. For hours. I didn’t wake up once. I don’t remember any dreams.” Erik’s hand against the cushion flexed, then pressed flat again. “That’s the first time that’s happened in years.”

“I’m sure you needed the rest.” How much would it take for a man to come back from what Erik had been through? Charles couldn’t begin to imagine.

“You don’t understand,” Erik said. “People are still suffering through horrors beyond description. My daughter, my wife, my parents – they died and I said I wouldn’t stop until I’d avenged them. I did everything I could, everything, but the Nazis are still there. Most of the camps are still there. What right do I have to sleep in a soft warm bed?” His voice had become husky. “I dreamed of them every night, until last night. Nightmares, nice dreams, everything in between – but last night I just slept. I’m leaving something behind that I have no right to leave behind.”

Charles didn’t answer right away. It had cost Erik, getting those words out, and he wanted to respect them. Only when Erik’s breathing had steadied again did Charles speak. “The tide of the war has turned. The Nazis may still be here today, but I bet by next Christmas – Chanukah – it will be a different story.”

“They can’t fall fast enough.”

“Agreed. But you fought for years, as bravely as anyone could have. You did everything in your power to avenge your family, and you have.” Charles took a deep breath. “Now you have to ask yourself what all of us are fighting for.”

This got Erik to look directly at him. The intensity in his blue eyes was shattering. Charles knew he could go terribly wrong here, but he had to try something.

“I remember the first day I didn’t think about my parents’ deaths at all. Well. I remember the day I realized I hadn’t thought of them. When it struck me – I felt like the most heartless bastard on the face of the earth, you know? Like I had no right to keep breathing if I wasn’t … if I wasn’t carrying them forward with me.”

Erik nodded.

“But my sister said something I’ve never forgotten. She asked me to imagine that I’d died in the bombing too. And that I was looking down on her that day, watching her live her life and feel happy, and I realized she hadn’t mourned for me that day too, like the three hundred before it. Would I have blamed her for that? I knew I wouldn’t have. I would have understood it was natural. We die or we heal. Those are the only two choices.”

“Not everyone heals completely,” Erik said.

“I should know.” Charles lightly thumped his stick against the floor.

Instantly Erik looked horrified. “What a tactless thing to say. I’m sorry.”

“No, no! It’s all right. I knew what you meant, and that’s completely true. I think most of us heal a little more bent than before. It’s just more obvious in my case.” Charles managed to smile – never easy, when thinking about the pain he dealt with nearly every day.  Still, he never let people see that if he could help it. “I know what happened to me doesn't compare with what you've been through. All I mean is, the Nazis tried to kill you. They wanted you to die. So if you heal – if you go on from here, if you walk away from their war and find peace, and quiet, and a warm soft bed – then that’s your final victory. That’s the last thing you can do to the bloody Germans. You can keep them from destroying you. You can lead the life they tried to take away.”

Erik considered that for a while. Finally he said, “I know you’re right. I just wish I could feel that you’re right.”

“Give it time,” Charles said - then, more airily, “Eventually everyone realizes I’m right about everything.”

It worked; Erik laughed. “We’ll see.”

Go ahead, do it now before you chicken out. “I have another present for you, actually. One just from me.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I have my ways.” Standing up hurt more than usual, but he tried not to grimace; he hated to be pitied, and Erik’s pity would be too much for him to bear. Charles made his way to the far table, where he’d stashed the small wrapped gift so that it might pass as a decoration, if he hadn’t wound up giving it to Erik after all.

Erik got up behind him – maybe he’d noticed Charles’ discomfort – and held out his hands. With a careless smile, or what Charles hoped looked careless, he handed over the present. “Just something I thought you’d like. Might while away a few hours on trains.”

Charles was a ripper of wrapping paper, tearing into it with gusto. However, Erik was one of the ones who untied ribbon, carefully unfolded the paper as though he mightbe expected to rewrap the gift again later. So it took him a moment to reveal A Room With A View.

Hastily, Charles explained. “E.M. Forster – he’s little old-fashioned, I guess, but something about the way he writes speaks to me. And it’s light – very funny – but wiser about the world than it looks on first blush. There’s so much there about English inability to understand the Continent, or more precisely about our failure even to try … but now I’m making it sound political when it’s not. It’s a love story.”

At that, Erik’s blue eyes locked with his, only for a second, but it crackled between them like static electricity.

The words rushed out of Charles, trying to cover up that moment before either of them could ask what it meant. “Tremendously witty, though. And even though the Italy he describes is completely gone now, I find it … poignant, I suppose. To look at the beauty that was there, and might be again.” 

Once Charles had thought of himself as being much like George Emerson: Young, romantic, filled with unbounded optimism and hope and potential. Now he knew he would be, at best, Aunt Charlotte: Always over to one side, the fifth wheel, far beyond the reach of love but maybe, just maybe, able to help someone else find the way.

He cast a glance toward the ceiling, knowing Hank and Raven would have sneaked up the back stair. It was doubtful his sister would actually make him her lover today – but he suspected they were enjoying themselves well enough.

Erik said, “This is a book that means a great deal to you.”

“Yes,” Charles said. He felt as if he’d handed Erik a peek into his own mind at age 16, without quite realizing that was what he was doing.

And yet – as he saw Erik smile again, more naturally this time – Charles was glad he’d done it.

“Then I’m sure it will mean a great deal to me as well. Thank you.”

The words were formal. The tone was not.

 

**

 

Apparently Emma Frost wanted to work, even on Christmas Day, so she commandeered the study all afternoon. Hank and Raven reappeared, not one bit rumpled but all smiles, and yet they were so distracted by their new knowledge of each other that Charles suspected they would have paid little more attention to him and Erik if they’d stripped naked and painted themselves purple.

This meant he and Erik had the afternoon to sit in the living room, either by themselves or invisible to a besotted Hank and Raven. They helped themselves to cups of cocoa or mulled wine, sat in front of the fire, and talked. For hours. About virtually everything.

By 1 p.m., Charles had told Erik everything about Oxford – save for the boyfriend he’d had there. He’d described the Bodleian so vividly that Erik swore he could smell the books, which pleased Charles no end.

By 2 p.m., Erik had told Charles about celebrating Chanukah. It began as a simple explanation of the holiday to an interested but ignorant gentile, but over time it turned into reminiscence. Apparently Erik had not dwelled on the happy moments of his childhood for some time. When he described lighting the menorah as his parents stood behind him, a single tear traced along his cheek. Charles first thought he should avert his eyes, but Erik wasn’t embarrassed by it, and he decided not to be either.

By 3 p.m. they were arguing about whether a new, improved version of the League of Nations should or should not come to be. “How can you not support international cooperation and consensus?” Charles said. “After the past several years, I should think the need for an international authority would be more clear than ever.”

Erik smiled more when he was arguing, and he did so now. “I should think it would be clear that there’s no hope that the entire world will ever learn its lesson and work together. If World War I didn’t teach us that – so strange, calling it that – but if didn’t, nothing can. Not even this.”

By 4 p.m., they were in the kitchen, snacking on leftovers from last night’s turkey dinner while Erik explained the complexities of a kosher kitchen. “I don’t keep kosher any longer,” Erik said. “I haven’t had the luxury of choosing what to eat or how it would be made, these past few years. But my parents always did.”

“It’s the dairy prohibitions that I can’t get over. Why would the Good Lord in His wisdom deny us the chance to put butter on everything we can?”

Then he thought, oh, dear, is that offensive? But Erik just laughed, and Charles did too.

By 5 p.m., Charles was in love.

He’d been infatuated since the moment he first saw Erik; there was no denying that. And he knew how ridiculous it sounded, claiming to have fallen in love, real love, within 36 hours of meeting someone.

Didn’t matter. This was love, and he was more certain of it than he had been of anything in a very long time.

Charles had laughed and joked with Erik all afternoon. He could have spent an entire day sharing the deepest secrets of his soul and hearing Erik’s in return. He could even have argued with the man for hours and relished every second.

There were other pastimes that would let them while away hours together. How would Erik kiss? Had he been with a man before? Would he ever want to again? If he did – if he would –

But he might not. Probably he didn’t. Already Charles knew how deeply Erik had loved Magda; theirs had been no marriage of convenience. Erik’s loyalties ran deep, so Charles suspected that he had been faithful to her. If Erik had been happy being faithfully married to a woman, then most likely he had no interest in men.

Yet there was that undeniable electricity whenever their eyes met for that moment too long …

Ultimately, Charles knew he wouldn’t approach Erik, even tacitly. If his affection wasn’t welcome, the repercussions wouldn’t be pleasant. By now he sensed Erik wouldn’t be one of the heterosexual men who turned violent – he’d had a terrible encounter with one of those in London, and counted himself lucky to have escaped with nothing more than a black eye. But whether Erik went cold or turned him down politely, the result would inevitably be the cooling of their friendship. Charles already knew this friendship was one he wanted to cherish for a very long time.

So. Friends. Good friends. Charles could accept that. He’d do his pining on his own, get over it in ... a year or two at most, and find a place in his life for Erik as his friend.

Only when a neighbor arrived in the early evening did the entire group come together again. It was Hank who spoke to him, and who announced, “Mr. Lewis reminded me there’s a gathering at the town hall tonight.”

“Town hall?” Erik frowned as he looked at Charles, who knew no more about it than he did.

Hank said, “Apparently there’s a local tradition where nearly everyone in town goes to the town hall on Christmas night. The kids play with their new toys in the back room, and in the front, there’s cider and folk dancing.” Then his eyes fell on Charles, and his smile vanished, instantly. “Oh – I wasn’t thinking. We don’t have to go. Maybe we should just stay in.”

“Not on my account!” Charles insisted. Again he felt self-conscious, as he did whenever his injury became the focus of attention. “We have to go, and you’ve all got to dance the whole night long. I insist. Trust me, I’ll enjoy the cider, and watching my sister try to folk dance.”

Raven laughed; obviously the idea of dancing the night away with Hank appealed to her. Hank’s misgivings seemed to have vanished too. Emma Frost chimed in, “What a beautiful old custom. Just the sort of thing we’re losing touch with, especially in our big cities. This is the best of America, Mr. Lehnsherr. I’m glad you’re able to experience it, and that the rest of us can be reminded.”

Laying it on a bit thick, Charles thought, though he supposed a few years of magazine editing could do that to you.

Then Emma held out her arm to Erik. “Looks like we’ll be dance partners tonight.”

Erik took it, like any gentlemen would, and then Charles hated Christmas.

 

**

 

To most of the revelers at the town hall, that night cast the perfect Christmas spell. The air was cold but not biting; the wind fell still. Snow began falling again, but only in the tiniest, most crystalline flakes. As the landscape was freshly covered, erasing every footprint or tire track or bit of dust, the whiteness even glittered.

The town hall was an even older building than Hank’s farmhouse – a long, slender building with oak-plank floors and whitewashed walls, hung with homemade garlands of pine and holly, tied with red-and-ivory plaid cloth bows. Various townspeople – a motley assortment, from a long-faced teenage boy with a banjo to a plump, grandmotherly woman at the piano – were playing together, banging out bouncy versions of Christmas songs that people could dance to.

And virtually everyone was dancing … from children of nine and ten determined to act like grownups, to the gray-haired and geriatric. From Raven and Hank, spinning through a traditional dance at the caller’s directions (Swing your partners! Promenade!) and laughing together at something she might have scorned two days ago. To Emma Frost, glamorous and beautiful big-city editor, and her partner, Erik Lehnsherr, who was going through the steps with – not enthusiasm, but at least energy.

Charles sat in the corner.

Sitting in the corner had been his idea. He’d laughed off the others’ protests, insisted he wanted to be close to the fruitcake, and said that he’d have a good view of all their mistakes. So Charles couldn’t exactly blame them for the way he felt now.

Who was to blame? Hitler, really, but given what that man had done and was doing to the world, it felt rather petty to sit there angry at Adolf Hitler for ruining Charles’ evening at the Christmas dance.

It’s not as though you could have danced with Erik anyway, he reminded himself.  This was no consolation at all.

The fact that there was no evident spark between Emma and Erik was a tad more heartening, but mostly Charles felt like a fool for studying them so closely, resenting every time their hands touched in the dance.

Envy never helped, he knew. So while the dance was especially lively, so that no one from his party would notice, Charles took his stick and slipped out the front door.

Luckily there were only three steps down, and he was able to manage those well enough. Charles took a deep breath of the cool air – refreshing after the town hall, where the atmosphere was warmed by people aglow from dancing. Around him were parked people’s cars and even a couple of horse-drawn sleighs. The horses stood there in harness, patiently waiting, even as snow dusted their manes. Charles made his way around the back of the hall, hearing the fiddling and foot-stomping from inside all the while. The windows beamed rectangles of golden light out into the darkened field. He’d had some idea of walking a long distance out, until he couldn’t hear the music any longer, but already Charles realized that was foolish. Because the snow was deeper now, compensating for his limp was more difficult. So he’d have to stay put. With a sigh, Charles leaned against the trunk of the nearest tree, a leafless oak with bare branches that didn’t shield him from the lightly falling snow.

He remained standing there for a while, concentrating so hard on not listening to the revelry behind him that he was startled to hear, “There you are.”

Charles turned to see Erik, standing there in his overcoat and scarf. “Oh, hullo.” His smile was genuine – it was delightful to think of Erik searching for him – but inside he felt the usual shiver of discomfort at the thought of being pitied. “You shouldn’t have left the party on my account. I’m just getting a breath of fresh air. And you seemed to be having fun.”

“You didn’t,” Erik said flatly.

Such blunt honesty caught Charles off-guard. “I said I didn’t mind if anyone else danced, and I meant it.”

“Doesn’t mean you enjoyed having to sit alone while we did it. I’d made up my mind to come sit with you for a while, but the song ended and you were gone.”

Charles shrugged. “Well, if you’d rather we went back inside, we can.”

Erik made no move to return to the party. “You know, it’s all right to say that you’re uncomfortable. It’s all right to say that you need company, or attention. We don’t have to pretend you’re not – “

“Lame.” The word was harsh in Charles’ mouth. He said it so seldom. “I don’t pretend.”

“No. But you want us to pretend. That’s not fair to you.”

Despite the cold, Charles felt his cheeks flushing warm. “It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of you to say you couldn’t go to the dance.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Erik agreed. “If you wanted everything to revolve around you, that would be selfish. But it’s not selfish to ask that we don’t leave you alone the whole night, which is obviously what you expected us to do.”

His discomfort complete, Charles said, “I hate calling attention to myself.”

“I doubt that. When you have a joke to make or a dish to serve or facts to share, I think you enjoy showing off. And you probably enjoy it a lot.”

Charles would liked to have protested this, but he honestly couldn’t.

Erik continued, “What you don’t want to call attention to is this.”

His hand rested on the top of Charles’ walking stick. Which also meant his hand was atop Charles’ hand, for one moment that nearly distracted Charles from everything else going on.

Yet now that Erik had spoken truthfully, Charles wanted to do the same. “I hate it when people think they have to worry about me. Or when they feel sorry for me. Sometimes – in restaurants or shops – they’ll talk to Raven instead of me. As though the fact that I’ve got a limp makes me incapable of speaking, or thinking.”

“This world is filled with cruel people,” Erik said.

Charles glanced at him. “I don’t believe that’s true. But it is filled with – thoughtless ones. With people who fail to see each other’s humanity.”

Erik tilted his head, like he wanted to consider that, but then he said, “You shouldn’t let people like that hold you back. When you don’t stand up for yourself, you’re letting them do exactly that.”

Somehow he had never thought of it this way before. Always Charles had thought of it as avoiding attention, or not needing sympathy. He’d thought of it as being independent. But maybe – maybe Erik was on to something about standing up for himself.

It really would be all right to get Raven to carry more of the shopping, or to ask one of their other friends to go along with him to help with parcels and bags. He didn’t have to hide his walking stick so often at the restaurant; the regulars there knew about his injury and were used to it, so what was he so ashamed of?

Erik asked, “Did you enjoy dancing? Before?”

“Honestly, no. I was terrible at it. Always felt like a complete git.” Charles smiled as he shook his head. “But you’re right. I might not have minded missing the dance, but I did mind being alone.”  

“You're not alone now,” Erik said, and just like that, all the awkwardness melted. Charles smiled softly, newly aware of the heat of Erik’s hand over his. After a moment Erik pulled his hand back, but only to offer Charles his arm. “Come on.”

Charles took it; even the most suspicious neighbor was unlikely to think anything untoward about one man helping another with a walking stick. Surely Erik had intended to take them back inside, but instead he paused at the bottom of the steps, looking toward the many vehicles out front. Charles asked, “What is it?”

“You know – nobody’s tied up that green sleigh.”

Nobody had. The sleigh was at the very edge of the field, and the horse was so well-trained that its reins had not been tethered to anything. Yet there it stood.

“You aren’t suggesting that we steal a sleigh,” Charles said. “… are you?”

“Not steal. Sit in, perhaps. Isn’t that a Christmas sort of thing to do?” Erik’s expression suggested that there was no telling what idiocy gentiles might get up to on Christmas, but he was willing to deal with it. 

But sitting in a sleigh really was a Christmasy sort of thing to do. Who could possibly mind if they just sat inside for a few moments?

So they went to the sleigh – it wasn’t too far, particularly given that Charles got to walk arm in arm with Erik a while longer. Then Erik helped him into the seat, and slid in next to him. They laughed, simultaneously self-conscious, aware that they were being silly … and, perhaps, more, though Charles couldn’t think about that at the moment. “One-horse open sleigh,” he said. “Check.”

With that he patted the front of the sleigh – and the horse started walking.

“Oh, no,” Charles said.

“It’s all right,” Erik insisted. He took the reins in one hand; obviously he’d had some experience with animals, somewhere along the line. “We’ll bring it right back.”

Wasn’t it still stealing then? Maybe not. Charles was unsure of the precise rules against sleigh thievery. But – if they weren’t caught – why not ride together, side by side?

Shoulders touching, thighs brushing –

The snow had fallen off enough that only the occasional flake still glittered downward. It was as though they were sliding smoothly across a field of frosted glass. The horse, perhaps used to heavier burdens, tracked along easily as if sure of their destination. Probably they were headed back to its owner’s home. But Charles didn’t think he cared if they were headed straight for the river.

Because it occurred to him – and surely had occurred to Erik – that they were now really, truly alone.

Now the field stretched out around them for many feet in every direction. Nobody would be able to see them as much beyond a shadow against the distant pines.

And it was hard to imagine that Erik hadn’t wanted it exactly this way.

The hope Charles had tried to tamp down the past two days dawned again, brighter than before. They had both fallen silent, and – was it Charles’ imagination? Surely it wasn’t; for the first time between them, there was a real tension. Was it them wanting each other, or was it Charles wanting Erik, and Erik afraid that his new friendship was being seen as something more?

Just when the silence had gone on so long that Charles was about to start rattling on about anything, just to break it, Erik said, “You must be cold. You came out without your muffler or gloves.”  I’m all right, Charles was going to say, but that was when Erik slid one arm around his shoulders. “There. That’s better, isn’t it?”

“Yes. That’s – great.”

Surely that was it. Surely that was the signal. But a risk like this – nobody took it easily. The danger was as real as the promise. Erik had taken one step out on the limb; now Charles had to follow.

So, going very slowly, he lowered his head onto Erik’s shoulder. At first it could be no more than his being tired – a move he could disavow or play off as nothing – but as Erik shifted, welcoming the weight, Charles leaned against him, all but snuggling.

For a few moments they remained like this, curled together, and Charles could hardly think of anything farther away than the rise and fall of Erik’s chest with each breath. The sleigh slid on through the snow; the only sound was the soft crunching of hooves. Then Erik slid his free hand across his lap, seeking Charles’ hand in turn; Charles caught his fingers, wishing Erik hadn’t worn gloves.

Finally Charles looked up to see Erik looking down intently at him, clearly equal parts eager and afraid. But for this moment, surely, they had nothing to be afraid of any longer. They knew. 

Erik leaned down and, very gently, kissed Charles’ lips.

It was astonishing, and yet it felt completely natural, almost inevitable. Charles both could hardly believe this was happening, and hardly believe it had taken them this long to acknowledge what he’d known since the moment they met. But he had no time to wonder, no need, while Erik was pulling him closer and kissing him again.

Charles slid his hands around Erik’s neck, and Erik embraced him more completely until they were completely intertwined. Finally, they gave into it utterly. Each kiss was a contrast of winter-chilled cheeks and noses with hot, open mouths. They could have stayed like this for hours. They could have stayed like this forever.

Finally, just as Charles was beginning to wonder whether it was possible to have sex in a sleigh, Erik pulled back. They each gasped in a few quick breaths, then laughed for pure delight.

“That’s all right?” Erik said, though he could have had no doubt.

“That’s lovely.” Charles quickly kissed Erik again, just a peck. They had to straighten themselves up before anyone saw them, and of course return to the dance. Yet he waited a few moments, reveling in Erik’s embrace, and the unexpected softness in Erik’s face when he was really, truly happy. It was that softness that made him take the next leap. “You know – I’m sleeping in the downstairs bedroom.”

Erik’s eyes were drinking him in as he traced his fingers along Charles’ cheek. “Do you happen to know which of the stairs creak? So I know which ones not to step on.”

“Haven’t a clue,” Charles whispered. “You’ll have to walk lightly.”

“And quickly.” Erik grinned. “Because I can’t wait.”

How was it possible to be this happy? Charles felt as though he ought to pop, like a Christmas cracker. He fisted his hands in the lapels of Erik’s overcoat, ready to start kissing him all over again – until he sat upright so quickly that Erik startled.

“Charles? What is it?”

“It’s just –“ Charles glanced around in every direction. “—where are we?”

 

**

 

In the end they were able to retrace the sleigh tracks most of the way; the snow didn’t start falling again until a few minutes later, which meant that by the time the tracks had been erased, Charles and Erik were within sight of the town hall. Although several people had left or were leaving – and they drew a few curious glances, probably from people who knew the sleigh’s real owner – this owner didn’t seem to have noticed his horse-drawn ride home had been temporarily missing. They put the sleigh back roughly where they’d found it, and Charles gave the horse a friendly pat on the neck. “Thanks,” he whispered, and it whickered softly, as though the horse had planned this from the beginning.

The ride back in Hank’s black Studebaker seemed to take hours, though really Charles knew it couldn’t have been even ten minutes. Emma sat between him and Erik in the back seat, blithely unaware of the sexual energy around her. “Such a beautiful evening. Rebecca, how kind of you to ask me here.”

Raven laughed. “Don’t mention it.” Hank’s sidelong glance at her was as loving as any husband’s could be, and even amid his own happiness, Charles could be glad that Raven had discovered the real man behind Hank’s proper exterior.

How many people will be tiptoeing through the house tonight? I hope Erik and Hank don’t trip over each other.

They crept in, already whispering, so as not to “wake the baby,” who supposedly was being watched by Nora. Charles said goodnight easily enough, despite the fact that his pulse thrummed through him as quick and insistent as a military drumbeat. He made his way to his bedroom and began to undress, folding everything neatly with hands that shook slightly with anticipation.

Once he was down to his boxers, Charles stood in front of the dresser mirror for a moment. Not too bad – except for the ugly, deep scars along his leg. Even four years later they were still livid. Anyone could see where he’d been torn apart and sewn back together.

Always, before, when Charles had imagined taking a lover, he’d been afraid of what someone would think when he saw these scars. He wasn’t afraid now.

A soft rap on the door made Charles gasp, not with surprise but with hope. “Come in,” he said, very quietly. It felt like he was welcoming the rest of his life back in.

Erik stepped in, the pad of his bare feet just audible on the rag rug. He wore blue and white pajamas, unbelievably crisp, still with creases in the legs.

“Are these fresh from the package?” Charles whispered as they drew close.

“Brand new.” Erik’s mouth met his.

When Charles could speak again, his lips almost touching Erik's - “Shame to crumple your nice new pajamas on the floor.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Mmm.” A hand on Erik’s newly exposed belly, sliding lower. “And what about your briefs? Ahh. Just as new.”

“Let’s break them in.” An open-mouthed kiss. “So how do we do this?”

“Oh. Oh. Have you not – with a man, I mean – ?”

“I have.” A firm stroke that made Charles gasp, and proved Erik was telling the truth. “I meant, do we need to be careful? I don’t want to hurt you.”

“It’s all right.” Another kiss, two naked bodies pressed together, and Erik’s arms around Charles, keeping him steady. “We’ll figure it out.” 

It had been so long, too long, for both of them, and they had to learn what positions were best for Charles, and of course they had to remain as silent as possible. But Charles wouldn’t have changed one kiss, one touch. In all their awkwardness and whispering and laughter, it was perfect.

Once Erik had crept back to his own room, Charles lay awake for a long time, gazing out the window, wondering how he could ever have stopped enjoying snow. In London, then in New York, the white so quickly turned gray and dingy. The drifts were shoveled aside or tramped down within hours. It had got to the point where, when he saw snowflakes start to fall, he groaned. But here, lying beneath a patchwork quilt, the echoes of lips and tongue and teeth still warm on his body, Charles felt like snow had been made new for him again.

How had he ever forgotten that it could be beautiful?

 

**

 

Their guests were due to depart at noon. By now Charles knew he would be seeing Erik again, and sooner rather than later, but there was still a pang in his heart as he scrambled eggs in the kitchen. Why did they ever have to leave this place? He would happily have stayed at Hank’s country house forever.

The kitchen door swung open, and Charles beamed. “Good morning.”

“Good morning." Erik, leaned in for a quick kiss; Nora hadn’t yet come to work, and nobody else seemed to be up and around yet, so it was safe. “You really are serious about breakfast.”

“We need to eat, don’t we?” Charles said, laughing.

Erik shrugged as he helped himself to one of the triangles of toast Charles had already prepared. “The whole way here, Emma kept telling me about the wonderful meals ‘America’s Most Beloved Homemaker’ would prepare for me. And instead, her brother did all the cooking.”

Charles’ hand went still, the whisk motionless in the ceramic bowl. Oh, my God. Erik still doesn’t know.

The lies they’d told to protect Raven’s column: Now they were lies Erik believed in. While Charles knew he’d been honest about the important things, the matters that lay closest to the heart, he also knew that Erik valued the truth. Given everything he’d already been through, how would Erik react to hearing that – during all their intimate chats, even during their lovemaking – Charles had hidden some very basic facts about his life?

Before Charles could think what to say, Erik leaned in and whispered, “I don’t mind, by the way. Not given what an exceptional … chef you are.” He didn’t mean chef.

Charles couldn’t help smiling, but the quiver of fear remained. “Erik? There’s something we ought to talk about.”

“Good morning!” Raven came through the door, which swung behind her. Erik pulled back to the point of the decency before she saw, because he didn’t even yet know that Raven wouldn’t disapprove. Oh, no, Charles thought. Erik doesn’t even know her real name. This is very, very bad. Oblivious, Raven continued, “That smells delicious, Charles.”

“Omelets for everyone,” Charles said, somewhat weakly.

“And you’re wearing your turtleneck!” The glance Raven threw Charles was triumphant; she'd won a point for bohemian fashion, even on a day when she was wearing lipstick and a blue housedress at 8 a.m. “I thought you’d like it.”

Erik grinned at them both, at ease in a way that should have been a joy to behold. “It’s wonderful, thank you. Why don’t I bring in the paper?”

As soon as Erik went out the door that had scarcely stopped swinging, Raven whispered, “I think I’m in love.”

“Hank’s not so square after all?”

“Not one little bit. He just looks that way because they expect him to at Columbia. I was never myself around him, and he was never himself around me – which is an incredibly silly way to live.” Raven leaned against the refrigerator, her head tilted to one side as a dreamy expression crossed her face. But she shook it off. “I’m being sugary, aren’t I? How are you?”

“Marvelous, actually.” Charles continued working at the stove, so Raven wouldn’t see just how flushed his cheeks had become. “It turns out Erik’s ambidextrous.”

“He is?” Raven clapped, bouncing up and down on her heels. “Really?”

“Both hands. The most beautiful handwriting you’ve ever seen.” When she laughed out loud for delight, Charles wanted to join in, but couldn’t. Was anyone coming? He couldn’t hear any footsteps – so Charles turned and whispered, “I need to tell him the truth.”

Raven frowned. “About what? Oh! You mean this. I keep thinking we’re home free. But you’re going to see him again?”

“I hope so. When I do, I’m going to have to explain a few things.”

“Why not? By then Emma will be long out of his life, and I’m sure he’ll understand, once we tell him the whole story.”

Would he? Charles wished he could feel as certain. But now there were footsteps on the back walk, and Nora was walking up with the baby in her arms. Raven dashed to the back door to let them in, muttering, “I’ll be glad to get out of these stupid housedresses.”

“Good morning,” Nora said cheerfully. A little too cheerfully. “I see you’ve gotten to work without me?”

No trouble at all, Charles wanted to say, but when he took a good look at Nora, every other thought went out of his head. “That’s not the same baby.”

“Isn’t it?” Raven peered at the child swaddled in a yellow blanket on Nora’s hip. “It looks about right.”

“This child is at least two or three months younger,” Charles said. “And has no hair! The one two days ago had hair! Are we supposed to tell everyone we shaved his head?”

Raven shrugged. “It’s still a baby.”

Nora lifted her chin, as though the matter was already settled. “The family I usually babysit for has their gran with them for the holiday, so they don’t need help today. But their neighbor asked if I could fill in today with her little one, as she’s got an early shift at the plant, and I said, one’s as good as the other.”

This woman is doing something very kind for war workers, and helping with the ruse is purely extra, Charles reminded himself. “Of course, thank you, Nora. We’ll just – put a hat on him and hope nobody notices.”

There was a little knitted cap in the baby’s things, which Nora tugged on the child right away, and just in time, as Emma was the next to set the door swinging. “Good morning, all. Another delicious breakfast from you, Charles? I predict that your restaurant will be a sensation for the New York mornings.”

As though anything seemed sensational to New Yorkers before noon, besides coffee. But Charles smiled and nodded. “Omelets. I hope you’ll enjoy.”

He got back to chopping peppers, just as Emma said, “And the little one is feeling better, I see.”

“It’s much better,” Raven agreed. Emma didn’t seem to have noticed the baby switch. Well, that was a relief.

Of course, the baby chose that moment to begin wailing. The poor little thing was probably completely confused to find himself in a house filled with strangers. Nora fussed with him a moment and said, “Wet already! Well, we can fix that, can’t we?”

“I see I’m back on diaper duty.” Erik came through the door, a light dusting of snow in his hair, to drop a thick copy of the New York Times on the broad oak kitchen table. “Come here, little fella.”

Charles froze. Uh-oh.

Sure enough, just as Erik took the child in his arms, he paused. “I could have sworn he was bigger.”

“Oh, you know how it is!” Charles said lightly, or what he hoped was lightly. He might have sounded slightly crazed. “Yesterday the baby was smaller than you expected, so you thought he was big, and now you think he’s small, because you were remembering him bigger than he really is.”

Erik’s brow furrowed as he tried to parse that out, but he was more concerned with the baby. “Come on, buddy. Let’s get you changed.”

Although Nora looked wary, Raven seemed relieved, convinced nobody else could pay any more attention to babies than she did. So they’d just have to let Erik do it. Otherwise they might tip off Emma that something odd was going on, and Charles wanted her to stay just as she was right now, smiling benevolently at the Ideal Family Scene. Erik walked in the same direction he’d gone to change the baby yesterday – then paused. “Why are the baby things kept in your bedroom, Charles?”

Please don’t let him figure it out on his own! I need a chance to explain. Charles hastily said, “You know, they’re just spares. For the ground floor, so we don’t have to go up and down every single time Robert needs a new diaper.”

“Makes sense,” Erik said with a nod. Charles began to believe he was very good at improvisation on short notice.

Just as Erik walked out the side door with the baby, Hank came through the main one, smiling broadly as he embraced his “wife.” His Christmas necktie was already neatly knotted at the collar of his crisp shirt. He said, “Good morning, darling.”

“Good morning, dearest.” Raven smiled at him, both of them clearly enjoying their act as the ideal bourgeois husband and wife. As they rubbed noses – oh, for Pete’s sake, really! – Charles began to relax a bit. However over the top Raven and Hank might seem, Emma was eating it up, and they really were just one breakfast away from getting off scot-free. And Erik? Well, he’d explain everything to Erik when he next visited New York. Surely Erik would understand.

“Such a delightful time we’ve had here,” Emma declared as she took her seat at the kitchen table. “I would call this the perfect Christmas, wouldn’t you?”

Which was the moment Erik shouted, “Call the police!”

Charles’ heart sank. Raven tottered forward on her high heels, clearly at a loss, and said, “… is everything all right?”

Erik called, “This is not your son! Someone’s – swapped them! Kidnapped the baby!”

“A kidnapping!” Emma leapt up, pale with genuine terror. “How horrible! Yes, call the police. Call the FBI!”

“Wait, wait.” Hank tried to smooth things over. “I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding. Erik doesn’t know little Robert that well.”

But Erik burst back through the door, naked baby in his hands, and held it out. The baby, pleased to be naked and the center of attention, laughed.

Everyone stared, and Hank tried, “I meant … little Roberta?”

“Forget it,” Raven said. Her shoulders slumped. “We’re done for.”

“What do you mean, forget it? America’s Most Beloved Homemaker has lost her child, and she’s not even concerned?” Emma’s bewilderment bordered on anger. “What can you be – no. She’s in shock. Hank, get her to lie down. I’m calling the FBI and sending out a press bulletin that will go all over this country. No one will rest until the baby is recovered!”

Raven held out her hands as she walked toward Emma. “That’s not my baby!” 

“Exactly!” Erik said.

Charles wished he had the cooking brandy. He sagged against the counter, unable to believe it was all unraveling so quickly.

“Listen to me!” Raven slammed her hands down on the table. “This is not my baby. The baby two days ago wasn’t my baby either. Just like Hank isn’t my husband, and this isn’t my house, and my name is not Rebecca Lawrence! It’s all a big fat lie!”

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved, until Nora went to take the baby from Erik, who handed it over as though numb.

Finally Emma said, “I beg your pardon?”

“Rebecca Lawrence is an invention.” The truth poured out of Raven, and even though it was ruining both their lives, it was obviously a relief to just say it. “Moira needed a good writer for a homemaker column. But she couldn’t find someone who had the cooking expertise and the writing skill. Well, I had the writing skill, and Charles here had the cooking thing down pat.” When Raven pointed at him, Charles raised one hand in a wave, then felt enormously stupid for having done so. But nobody seemed to much notice as Raven went on. “The country house, the marriage – those were all inventions. When you said you wanted to bring Erik for Christmas dinner, we panicked. Then Hank – my boyfriend – he owns this house, and he agreed to let us use it. He pretended to be my husband, and Charles came along to cook, and the babies are the children of war workers. Nora looks after them. We thought we could pretend, but we couldn’t. Charles and I are city dwellers, and neither of us knows anything about the country life whatsoever. So here we are, and now you know.”

Mentally Charles tried to do the math for their budget. How were they going to get by without Raven’s salary? He didn’t think they could do it, without moving.

Emma drew herself upright, suddenly as frosty as her name. “America’s Most Beloved Homemaker is … a fraud?”

So we’ll move, Charles thought, trying to be brave for Raven’s sake. But then he thought again of how hard it would be to commute to the restaurant with his leg. How much he needed that apartment. And after talking to Erik last night, Charles felt like he had the right to fight for it.

“The recipes are delicious, aren’t they?” Raven’s hands went to her hips. “People enjoy the articles. What else matters?”

“The integrity of American Housekeeping Magazine matters!” Emma’s ire had chilled the entire room by now. “Which to my mind is the same as the integrity of the American family itself!”

“Oh, the hell it is,” Charles said.

Everyone turned to stare at him, but Charles didn’t care. He only had one crack at this, and he intended to take it.  

“Emma, you know as well as the rest of us that the ideal American family is a fiction.” Charles took his stick and walked into the middle of the kitchen. “Forgive my mentioning it, but you just went through a divorce. You ought to know that living a conventional life isn't the key to happiness. Ultimately, don’t you get more satisfaction from your successful career than you did from marriage? It isn’t the solution for everyone’s life. The perfect American family – I don’t think it exists.”

Emma stared at him. Everyone else did too.

Charles kept going. “What you have here are a brother and sister who have started over in the United States, together. You have the young man who’s courting her, and who did everything he could to help both of us out, and to make sure Erik had someplace nice to spend Christmas. And in the next room, you have Nora, who looks after the babies of war workers, even though she’s got a job of her own. Personally, I think we’re as good an American family as you’re likely to find. Am I less of a man because I like to cook? Is Raven less of a woman because she likes to write? Are you, because you’re a publishing titan instead of a housewife? I don’t think so, and you shouldn’t either.”

A long silence followed before Emma said, “… Raven?”

“My real name,” Raven said. “Rebecca Lawrence is a pen name.”

Emma was softening, wasn’t she? Charles pressed his advantage. “You wouldn’t want to take away your single most popular column overnight, with no explanation, would you?”

“How could we ever explain?” Emma sagged against the counter, but already she looked less angry, more thoughtful. “Since the divorce, well, I’ve been telling myself that if I’d been home more, it would’ve worked out. If I’d been the housewife he was expecting. But why did he expect that? He knew I was a publisher before he married me, and he shouldn’t have expected me to change. It’s not as though I asked him to quit his job.”

“Exactly!” Raven said.

“And this picture-perfect postcard is all a charade?” Emma's face remained still for a few moments longer - until she laughed out loud.

Charles knew why she was so amused. “So there’s no point in being angry with yourself for not having it. No one has a home like this in real life!”

“I do, actually,” Hank said, but Raven elbowed him in the ribs.

“We’ll have to slowly change the tone of the column.” Emma folded her arms, eyes focusing on future issues yet to be printed. “Make it less slice-of-life, more abstract. If we do that gradually enough over the next few years, people will hardly notice when Rebecca Lawrence stops detailing her own home and starts giving more general advice.”

Next few years? Charles and Raven’s eyes met with glee. Not only was Raven keeping her job, but she was also guaranteed employment for the next long while. That was long enough to establish Greymalkin’s, to have turned more of a profit, and to make their lives much more stable. He could keep his apartment, and his fulfilling, productive life. He could keep rebuilding his world.

“I need to take notes,” Emma said, and she hurried out, obviously going for the study. Hank swept Raven into his arms as they both laughed.

“Oh, Charles, that was perfect!” Raven disentangled herself from Hank’s embrace just long enough to kiss her brother’s cheek, then cuddled Hank all over again. “I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for days.”

This was more or less exactly how Charles felt, because Erik stood at the far end of the kitchen, totally silent. He knew he’d been lied to. Was he furious? Hurt? Their love affair was so new – could this have torn it apart already?

“I should go brainstorm with Emma,” Raven said. “Make the new and improved Rebecca Lawrence a mutual effort. I’ll go over the notes with you later, all right, Charles? And, oh, I’m going to change out of this housedress and into some slacks!”

While Raven hurried out, Hank pointed toward the downstairs bedroom. “I should help Nora. She’s put up with enough from us the past few days.”

Charles nodded, not thinking of poor Nora but desperate to get Hank out of the room. As Hank went through the door, Charles finally dared to look Erik straight in the face. Erik said nothing.

“So,” Charles said. “Now you know.”

Still Erik didn’t reply. He kept staring at Charles’ face like he’d never seen him before.

“I never lied about anything that really mattered. Nothing important. Nothing between us. You know that, right? If I let you down – if you feel like I don’t deserve your trust – let me make it up to you. I can, I swear.”

Erik took one step toward Charles, his expression unreadable, as he said, “You went out –” The words broke off as Erik began to laugh. “You went out in the field after a cow.”

“… well, yes.”

By now Erik was shaking with laughter. “Had you ever seen a cow before in your life?”

“I had!” Charles said indignantly. “Well. At a distance.”

That made Erik double over, and then Charles began laughing too – less at the ridiculousness of it all, and more in the sheer relief of knowing Erik understood. When Erik could talk again, he said, “You’re America’s Most Beloved Housewife.”

“Half of her, anyway. The half that cooks good food.”

“All the better for me.” And Erik stepped forward to sweep Charles into a kiss.

At first Charles thought that was too daring – but then he realized, no, they had a moment when this kitchen, this warm and cozy scene, could be entirely theirs. As he smiled up at Erik, he said, “You really don’t mind?”

“Like you said, you told me the truth about everything that matters. You’ve been more honest with me than anyone else has been in a long time, when it comes to the important things. And you've given me back - so much that I haven't had in a very long while.” Erik’s smile broadened. “So I can forgive some playacting to save your sister’s job.”

“I would’ve told you everything the next time we saw each other.”

“It wouldn’t have been long, then,” Erik murmured, brushing Charles’ hair back from his face.  

The warmth of that caress made Charles brave once more. “You know – ”

“Yes?”

“Immigrants don’t usually come through Washington, D.C. Usually they come through New York.”

In suspense, Charles watched Erik’s expression change as he figured out why Charles was saying that. “You think I should reconsider moving to D.C.?”

“I can think of lots of reasons you might be happier in New York.”

“Lots of reasons, hmm?”

Charles pulled Erik down to him so that their foreheads nearly touched, as he whispered, “I can give you dozens.”

Gently Erik whispered, “I think I can be convinced.”

 

THE END