“You have to leave before midnight.”
Emma Woodhouse blinked. “Why? I’m not Cinderella. I’d try shoving that advice at Elsa or Elinor.”
George snorted as she emphasized the first syllable of each of her friends’ names. “No, but you need at least eight hours of sleep to be pleasant during the day, and the only way that’s going to happen tonight is if you leave before midnight.”
“But this party is going to be fun.”
“Hey, look at this way. I’m not telling you to leave a New Year’s Eve party before midnight. I’m just telling you to leave Nora’s birthday party before midnight.”
Emma sighed. “It’s Nora’s party. It probably won’t last until midnight anyway.”
He shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“Sensible Nora has probably never stayed up until midnight voluntarily since grad school.” She paused for a minute. “Okay, she probably stays up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, but then she crawls into bed as quickly as she can.”
“You know what, Emma Woodhouse?” he replied. “Sometimes, you’re a brat. I love you, but you can be a real brat.”
She tossed her head with a smile. “That’s just part of my charm.”
“Some times, you’re more charming than others.”
Nora’s birthday was nine days before Christmas, and when she returned to Highbury after college, Elsa and Alice had taken to having a party before her so she didn’t get lost in the pre-holiday shuffle. The party was usually held at George’s house because he had, in most of his friends’ opinions, the best house for parties. It had a large living room (and a large patio and bonfire pit that were useful in the summer) and was usually clean due to George, Will, and Ed all being fairly neat people.
That particular year, her birthday fell on a Tuesday, but Ed had confided in Annie, Elsa, and Alice that he wanted to do something special with Nora on the actual day, so the party fell on the Saturday before Nora’s actual birthday.
The party centered on a potluck supper with cocktails designed by Chris. The meal culminated with an almond and orange cake filled with apricot jam and buttercream and topped with buttercream and fruit. “You’ve outdone yourself,” Chris told Elsa when she brought the cake into the kitchen.
She smiled. “It’s what she wanted. She saw it on Pinterest and thought it was gorgeous. So I had to make it for her.”
“Is it true that you’re making your own wedding cake?”
She nodded. “Am I crazy? Probably, but I’m doing it.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a very Elsa thing to do.”
She laughed. “That’s for sure, but I’m me, you know? I’d feel weird asking anyone else to make my cake.”
“Well, thankfully, you didn’t ask me. It wouldn’t have worked out well for everyone.”
Elsa shook her head. “Oh, I don’t know about that, Chris. I think that you’re getting to be a pretty good baker.”
“Well, I have a really great teacher.”
“And you’ve been practicing quite a bit,” she added.
Chris smiled slightly. “I still don’t think that I’m qualified to make your wedding cake.”
“Fair,” she replied. “But if you have any free time on the thirtieth, I’ll be working on my cake, and I’d love your help.”
“Are you sure that you want me to help you with your wedding cake?”
She shrugged. “I feel like you can handle mixing ingredients and crumb coating the cake. I won’t have you do the actual frosting and decorating.”
“Good, because if you did, I would ruin your wedding day,” he replied.
“I don’t know if you could ruin my wedding day.”
“Well, I’d ruin your cake. That’s for sure.”
She smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “I would never let you ruin my wedding cake. I’ve put too much time and energy into planning that thing to let anyone ruin it.”
“Out of curiosity, how much time have you spent planning it?”
“Oh man,” Elsa replied with a far-off look. “When we were kids, Gwen would sit around and plan her wedding while I would plan my wedding cake.”
“That’s one well-planned cake.”
She shrugged. “Gwen and the Great Mary Frances always said that I was nuts.”
“You are nuts,” her fiancé said as he walked into the kitchen. “You’ve been planning your wedding cake since you were eight years old.”
“Hey, give me two weeks, William,” she replied. “It’ll be the best damn cake you’ve ever eaten in your life.”
Will wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek. “I have no doubt about that. I’m just entertained by the fact that you’ve spent more than twenty years thinking about this cake.”
She leaned back against him. “Well, it’s changed a bit in the past twenty-odd years. When I started out, it was meant to be funfetti with pink frosting.”
“Well, thank the good lord that you outgrew that idea.”
Elsa laughed. “Or did I?”
“Ahh,” Emma moaned as she walked into the kitchen. “Christopher, my darling cousin, please tell me that you have a cocktail ready for me.”
Chris held up the drink shaker in his hand. “What’s the trouble?’
“Marianne’s grumpy. She wants when dinner’s going to start.”
“Soon,” Elsa replied.
Emma sighed. “That’s what I told her.”
“And that’s not good enough for her?’ Elsa queried.
“Apparently Grant didn’t want to come to this party because it would be too boring.”
“Bullshit,” Elsa muttered.
Emma raised her eyebrows before continuing. “So she wants to get through dinner and cake as soon as possible so she can go spend time with the world’s greatest boyfriend.”
“Grant Willoughby is the world’s great boyfriend?” Chris asked.
“Bullshit,” Elsa said again. “I can think of at least three other candidates for that title just off the top of my head.”
“And if she thought longer, she’d come up with more,” Will added.
“Whatever,” Emma sighed. “I just need something to take my mind off hearing about how perfect Grant is.”
“Give me a minute,” Chris replied.
“I’ll go sort out getting dinner on the table,” Elsa added. “We wouldn’t want to delay the fun part of Marianne’s evening any more than necessary.”
“Yes,” Emma said. “Heaven forefend that she have to eat dinner with her friends and enjoy her sister’s birthday party.”
Will Darcy shrugged in his usual way. “Hey, if she doesn’t want cake, that’s her loss.”
“She’d just better to leave my wedding without having some of that cake. That cake is going to be the stuff of dreams.”
“Again,” Will said. “If she doesn’t want cake, that’s her loss.”
“Forget cake for the moment,” Chris said. “I want to explore that butternut squash soup that Annie brought.”
Elsa’s eyes widened. “Oh man, yes, I’ve been smelling that all day.”
“Weren’t you working all day?” Emma asked.
“So how have you been smelling that soup all day?”
“She made it for the KW today too.”
“And you didn’t just eat some for lunch? I get lunch from the kitchen at the Vineyard all the time.”
“Oh,” Elsa replied. “I eat at the KW too, but I had the chicken noodle soup for lunch because I knew that I could have the squash soup this evening.”
Emma nodded. “Okay, that makes sense.”
“And I’m really excited about trying it with Erik’s bread that he made to go with it, and on that note, I’m going to go get the table sorted.”
George’s dining room table was completely extended. In the center of the table sat a large bouquet of ranunculus-Nora’s favorite flowers-courtesy of Emma. The rest of the table was a spread of dishes prepared by Nora’s friends. There was a large pot of butternut squash soup from Annie, a spicy chili from Ed, and a beef stew from George. Erik had made two loaves of hearty bread while Will had produced cornbread muffins. Marianne had made a very simple salad while Alice had made a salad with spinach, walnut, cranberries, and goat’s cheese. Alice and Oliver had also brought both roasted Brussels sprouts with and without bacon.
Nora grinned when she saw the table. “All of my favorite foods with all of my favorite people, what more could a girl ask for?”
Chris pressed a rocks glass into her hand. “How does an elder-fashioned sound to you?”
She looked at the glass in her hand and smiled. “That sounds delightful. Thanks, Chris.”
“My pleasure,” he replied with a smile. “Would anyone else like one?”
“None for you,” Oliver teased his pregnant wife.
Alice smiled. “I’ll just sneak sips from yours.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Alice,” Chris said. “I made you a mocktail. It’s in the kitchen.”
She laughed. “You’re a gem, Chris. Thanks.”
Nora took a sip of her drink and grinned. “This is seriously delightful.”
“I want to try it!” Emma enthused.
“What’s in it?” Marianne queried.
“Bourbon, elderflower liqueur, angostura bitters, and club soda,” Chris told her.
Marianne cringed. “Pass, do you have anything else?”
“Wine and beer in the kitchen?” George offered.
“White wine, please.”
“Anyone else want wine?” George queried as he turned towards the kitchen.
“I’ll take a glass of red,” Will said.
“Ditto,” Ed agreed.
“I want to try the elder-fashioned first,” Annie said. “But I’ll probably want a glass of white later.”
George nodded. “Sure thing.”
“I’m fine for the moment, but I’ll probably want straight whisky later,” Erik said.
“Oh, you know that I’ve got that here,” George chuckled.
“Excellent, I’ll look forward to raiding your stash later.”
Once everyone had a drink, Elsa raised her glass. “Before we eat, I’d like to make a toast to one of my favorite people on the planet. Nora, you’ve been a part of my life pretty much since forever, and I’m really grateful that I get to have your wit and your calm sense of reason in my life. You are one of the kindest, most patient, most humble people in this world, and I think that the world needs more people like you. I’m so lucky to call you my friend, and I hope that this is the best birthday yet followed by one of the best years ever. I love you, and hippo birdie two ewe.”
Nora burst out laughing as everyone around her raised their glasses in salute. Over the general cheers of “To Nora,” she could be heard laughing.
After taking a sip of his drink, Ed looked at his girlfriend. “What’s so funny?”
“Hippo birdie two ewe,” she said. “Elsa reads too much Sandra Boynton.”
“That’s why we love her.”
“That and the spectacular cake that’s sitting in the kitchen.”
He grinned. “You’re really excited about that, aren’t you?”
She took a sip of her drink. “Seriously, so excited.”
“Alright, kids,” George said holding up his glass. “Grab a seat, and let’s have dinner. Sit where you want as long as it’s at the table.”
Erik snorted. “Okay, Dad.”
“Should the guest of honor sit anywhere special?” Ed queried.
George thought for a moment. “The middle of the table would probably be best.”
“I don’t have to!” Nora protested. “I’m okay sitting wherever.”
“Hey, at least we’re not making you sit at the head of the table,” Ed offered.
“Thank the good lord,” she sighed. “I’ll sit down.”
Oliver and Elsa were in the middle of an argument about how Charles Dickens influenced Elizabeth Gaskell while Erik and George were squabbling over which brand of whisky was the best. “Look, let’s settle this here and now,” George said rising slowly from the table. “I’ll get all of my bottles out and we’ll figure it out tonight.”
“You’ve got a deal,” Erik returned.
“Hold on,” Marianne inserted. “What time is it?”
George looked at his watch. “It’s just past eight.”
She jumped up. “Oh lord, I have to go. I told Grant that I’d meet him at eight-thirty. Where’s my coat?”
“Front closet,” George replied.
Emma hopped to her feet. “I’ll get it. George, sort yourself out with Erik.”
“Marianne, you’re not staying for cake?” Nora asked.
“I can’t. I’m supposed to meet my boyfriend in less than half an hour. If you do the cake now, like really quickly, I could stay for that, but I really need to get going.”
Nora looked wordlessly around the table. Her friends were still eating other than Emma and George who were performing host duties. She locked eyes momentarily with George and he shrugged. She nodded in reply.
He spoke. “I’m sorry, Marianne, but I think we’re not ready for cake yet.”
“We’ll send a picture,” Elsa offered.
Marianne shrugged. “Yeah, that’s fine. Anyway, I’ve got to go. Grant will be waiting for me.”
Elsa waited until she could hear Emma and Marianne moving around the coat closet before saying, “No, he won’t. She might be running late for him, but that man is never on time for her. Never.”
Alice sighed. “She could do so much better than him, but she just doesn’t see it.”
“It’s her life, not ours,” Oliver offered with a shrug. “And we can’t tell her how to live it.”
“That’s life, isn’t it?” Emma said as she came back into the room. “People don’t always do what we think they should, and they rarely listen when we offer them wise advice for how to live their best lives.”
“Cripes, you’re getting philosophical,” Elsa sighed. “How much have you had to drink, Em?”
Emma snorted. “I had a glass of Chris’s excellent punch and a glass of wine. I’m fine like sunshine. But seriously, people’s unwillingness to do what I tell them to do with their lives is the bane of my existence. I keep telling Marianne that Grant’s no good for her.”
“You’ve got to stop that,” Nora warned her. “Marianne hates to be told what to do. If you want her to leave Grant, you can’t tell her that. It just pushes her closer to him.”
Emma furrowed her brow and shook her head. “Weird.”
Nora shrugged. “My sister is an interesting mix of free-spirited and just plain contrary. The best way to get her to do something is to encourage her to do the opposite.”
“So I should start supporting her relationship with Grant?” Emma squeaked as she settled herself back into her chair. “That goes against almost everything that I stand for.”
“And Lord alone knows if it would work.”
“Yeah,” Ed sighed. “There’s just too many variables in this situation.”
“Human beings,” Will Darcy sighed. “They’re the worst variables in the universe.”
Elsa pressed her lips together and nodded slowly. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m marrying that man in seventeen days. Just think. In seventeen days, I’m agreeing to spend the rest of my life with this misanthrope.”
“This charming misanthrope,” her fiancé amended. “Clearly, my dear, I’ve used my marvelous charm to win my way into your heart over the past three years.”
Elsa rolled her eyes. “Did you win your way into my heart or worm your way in?”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and smiled brightly. “Well, I like to think that I won my way in, but do let me know if you disagree with me.”
She leaned away from him so she could look into his blue eyes. “Well, we’re getting married in seventeen days, and I like to think that I had some pretty good reasons for agreeing to marry you. So, I’m going to say that you and your famous charm won your way into my cynical heart.”
“Well, I’m glad that your charm has finally been put to a practical use,” George remarked as he put a small glass of whisky in front of Will and another in front of Ed.
“For the tasting?” Nora queried.
“Where’s mine? It’s my birthday, and you know how I feel about whisky.”
Elsa leaned forward. “And if she gets in, I want in too.”
“You can share glasses with Ed and Will?” Emma suggested.
Nora started. “Do you know how I feel about whisky?”
“You like it?”
“It’s her favorite alcoholic beverage,” Chris said flatly. “That’s why bourbon was the base of the birthday cocktail.”
Erik set a tray holding four whisky bottles and an assortment of glasses on the table. “I’ll get more glasses. Annie, do you want one? Emma?”
Emma shook her head and reached for a bottle of wine. “Nah, I’ll stick to wine for the moment.”
“Annie?” George queried.
“I’m not much of a whisky girl, George,” Annie replied. “But thanks for the offer.”
“Can I get you anything else?” Chris offered.
She thought for a moment before saying, “Something with elderflower liqueur.”
He bounced to his feet. “I’ll make you something. You’ll like it.”
Alice slowly rose to her feet. “And I think that I will start clearing the table.”
“Just put everything in the dishwasher,” George told her.
“We can do cake after the whisky tasting?” Nora suggested.
“Or we can do it while we taste whisky,” Elsa told her.
“Or we could all clear the table now,” Ed suggested. “And then we can sing and do cake followed by whisky?”
Elsa pointed at him. “I like it.”
Fifteen minutes later, the dishwasher was full. Leftover were stashed in the fridge. Any dishes that weren’t dishwasher-safe had been hand-washed. Everyone was seated around table, and the cake sat in front of Nora. “It’s so pretty!” she exclaimed as Elsa lit the “3” and “2” candles that she’d nestled among the fruit atop the cake.
“I hope it tastes as good as it looks,” Elsa replied wrapped her purple sweater clad arms around her friend from behind.
Nora leaned her head against Elsa’s cheek and smiled. “I’m sure that it will be even better.”
Elsa blushed slightly as she squeezed her friend’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. She then took a step back to lean against Will. “Let’s sing now.”
It was Nora who blushed as her friends sang a very spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday.” At the end of the song, she closed her eyes tightly and clenched her fists for a moment. Then she opened her bright blue eyes, looked eyes with Ed, and smiled broadly before blowing out her candles. She plucked the candles out of the cake and licked the frosting off each of the candles.
“What did you wish for?” Oliver asked before taking a sip of whisky.
She smirked. “Like I would tell you, birthday wishes are meant to be kept secret.”
“Does that still hold now that we’re in our thirties?”
She tossed her head lightly. “Only if we want them to come to fruition.”
“Shall I cut the cake?” Elsa offered.
“Please,” her friend replied with a grin.
Once the cake was plated and everyone was seated with cake and appropriate beverages, George looked at the birthday girl. “So, what are your goals for this year, Miss Nora?”
“You sound like your dad,” Emma told him.
Her boyfriend shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with that. John Knightley is an excellent man, and I like thinking about goals for the coming year on my birthday.”
Nora thought for a minute. “I don’t have any major life goals or events that I really want to happen this year. But I want to spend time with my family and friends. I want to go on a vacation. I want to focus on finding joy in every day. And I want to be a better friend.”
“Yeah?” Oliver said.
“And I want to learn to sew.”
“Yeah?” Elsa asked.
“Yeah,” Nora said. “I guess that means that I’m going to need you to teach me.”
Elsa raised her eyebrows excitedly and smiled. “I’m so excited. This is going to be so much fun.”
“Obviously it can wait until after the wedding.”
“We’ll make it happen.”
Nora smiled before finally taking a bite of her cake. After slowly chewing and swallowing, she grinned. “Elsa, you’ve outdone yourself. This is seriously the best thing that you’ve ever made.”
“You like it? You really like it?”
She nodded. “It’s just so good. It’s the right amount of moisture, and the flavors are fantastic. It’s better than I expected. And remember, Else; I had high hopes for this cake from the beginning.”
Elsa smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”
“This really is a good birthday,” Nora said. “Good food and drink with some of the best people I know, I’m so lucky, you guys.”
“I tend to think that we’re pretty lucky to have you,” Emma told her.
The birthday girl blushed slightly but said nothing choosing to only lean her head against her boyfriend’s shoulder. Ed pressed his lips to the top of Nora’s head with a slight smile. “You really are the bee’s knees, Nora. We’re so lucky to have you in our lives.”
Erik raised his glass. “Here’s to you, Nora Jane. With your kindness and patience, you make us better.”
“It’s just part of your charm,” Emma added. “And we love you for it. To you, Nora!”
“How many toasts are you guys going to make to me?”
Emma shrugged. “It’s your birthday. It’s our one chance to say everything that we like about you.”
“Or we could just eat cake in peace,” Nora replied. “And you could just write the nice things that you want to say about me in my birthday cards.”
“But I like giving toasts!” Emma protested. It’s part of my charm.”
“Yeah, and part of my charm is that I don’t like being publicly praised. And since it’s my birthday,” Nora insisted. “I think that we should abide by my wishes.”
Emma slumped back in her chair and sighed. “Fine, I’ll send you an email.”
Nora grinned. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure it will be charming.”
Emma Woodhouse was home eleven minutes after eleven o’clock. She had fallen asleep on George’s couch. The guest of honor, Elsa, Annie, Erik, and Chris didn’t leave for another twenty minutes, but George had Alice and Oliver drive Em home when it became clear that she wasn’t going to stay awake. “I can’t believe that you’re making me go home early. I like parties.”
“You can’t stay awake, Em. Alice will drop you off at home. I’ll see you at Mass in the morning.”
“You’re mean,” she pouted.
He kissed her forehead. “I know. It’s part of my charm.”
Emma just rolled her eyes.
The End...for now.