Many thanks to EsmeL for editing help!
The ice-cold rain dripped down the back of Eliza’s neck. She shivered and picked up her pace. She’d left the house that morning to a gray sky but was gone longer than she expected, and she’d not brought an umbrella. Throughout the day, the sky became increasingly ominous. It was now late afternoon and nearly dark, and the low clouds began to unload their moisture as she left her office. The large drops were clear in the halo of light around the gas lamps lining the streets. Her thick wool cloak kept most of her top dry, but her hat and blonde hair were fully soaked, and she tripped on her wet skirts as she climbed the stone steps to her house half an hour later. She pushed at the strands of wet curls that dragged around her face and then let herself in the heavy door.
Ivy appeared as she shut the door behind her. She leaned against it and sighed, relieved to be home.
“Stop right there, Lizzie. You will make a mess of my clean floor.”
“Yes. Boots off. Cloak off.”
Eliza obeyed, too tired and cold to argue. She shivered again and hung up her hat. She removed and handed Ivy her dripping cloak.
Ivy turned Eliza toward the stairs. “Now upstairs for you. Go change your clothes. I will leave your tea in the drawing room. You’ll need it to warm you.”
Eliza mumbled her thanks, abandoned her muddy and sodden boots, and climbed the stairs to change, her wet stockings slapping loudly and leaving a trail of prints on each of the steps as she climbed. The upstairs was colder than the downstairs and she moved quickly toward her room, looking forward to a hot drink. The thought of adding a splash of something more hastened her steps still further.
When she entered the drawing room ten minutes later, wearing dry clothes, her hair neatly twisted and pinned, she was still shivering. Ivy had lit the coal in the fireplace, and she walked past the waiting tea straight toward it and held her cold hands up to the heat.
“It’s as cold as ice in here. Are you running low on coal?” The deep male voice from behind startled her, and she spun around to see William standing near the window, his arms crossed at his chest, his black wool vest tight on his shoulders. She wasn’t sure how she missed him when she entered the room. Or missed seeing his hat and coat hanging by the front door. He filled a room with his large presence, proving she really was exhausted. His dark hair and beard were neatly trimmed and well-combed, but his eyes glittered with some emotion she could not identify. Was it anger? Annoyance?
She peered toward the entrance. “How did you…?”
“I arrived right after you did. Ivy opened the door for me.”
She squinted at him, suspicious. “How…I didn’t…” Why wouldn’t her mouth work? The cold and dampness were affecting her thinking too.
He moved toward her and picked up one of the knitted blankets hanging on the back of the sofa. He wrapped the soft wool around her shoulders and faced her, pulling the fringed edges tight under her chin. He lifted both of her hands and rubbed them together in between his. She watched his hands as they worked but otherwise remained still under his gentle care.
He took a half step closer as he blew on her hands. His voice was rough and low. “I noticed you have a tree.”
“Mmmhmm.” Her shiver wasn’t from the cold this time. She glanced over at the small Christmas tree in the corner of the room. “It was a gift from Rupert. He bought an extra for me,” she explained and added, “Ivy and I decorated it yesterday.” He did not say anything but released her hands and grasped the edges of the blanket again to prevent it from slipping off her shoulders. When he still did not respond, she continued, “My father and I used to decorate the tree together.” She cleared her throat. “My mother made the ornaments.” Was she starting to babble?
He didn’t take his eyes off her face, just leaned in closer. “They’re lovely.” He was so close she could see green flecks in his brown eyes. She looked at him then glanced away, their intensity too much. She could feel her face start to flush and felt his warm breath on her cheek. He pursed his lips and blew at an escaped strand of her now dry hair. She wanted to smooth it back into place, but she held her breath instead. She was mesmerized as he released the blanket with one hand. His fingers played with the curl, then tucked it behind her ear and lingered there.
“You didn’t answer my question. Are you running low on coal?” He lifted an eyebrow and waited.
The sound of his gruff voice startled her. A trail of fire burned where he’d touched her. She tried to take a step back, but he did not release his hold on the blanket, and the fireplace behind her did not give her much space. She rolled her eyes, placed her hands on her hips, and forced herself to respond. He knew just what to say to annoy her. “Are you implying that I cannot afford to buy coal?”
He shrugged. “I can help.”
“I don’t need your help. I have a new case. That is why I was out so late this afternoon.” She didn’t like the implication that she could not take care of herself or her household.
He opened his mouth, looked up and away, like he was about to protest but stopped himself.
She was prepared for him to ask about the case and likely argue with her about it. She was surprised when his only response was a tightening of his jaw. She wondered at the extreme effort it took for him not to comment.
“I see you have gifts,” he said instead, his eyebrows furrowed, looking even more irritated than she felt.
She shrugged. She had placed the small collection of presents under the tree the day before after she and Ivy had finished their efforts. When she didn’t say anything, his hands dropped from the blanket, and he stepped back. He began to turn away. She became chilled immediately, and she wrapped her arms around herself to hold the blanket on her shoulders.
He said something under his breath that she couldn’t hear.
She rubbed her arms to find warmth and asked, “William, what is it? What is bothering you?”
He stopped and returned to stand in front of her in one giant step. He picked up one of her hands with both of his. He scanned her face, searching. What did he see when he looked at her? Did he see her uncertainty, notice her insecurity? She blinked. His eyes flicked to her lips. He then lifted her hand to his mouth and touched his warm lips to the back of it. He kissed it.
The feel of his soft lips and the tickle of his beard on her skin ignited heat within her body. After caressing the spot with his thumb, he flipped her hand over and kissed her palm. She didn’t know what to say. Her breath came out in short pants. She wondered if he could hear her heart pounding. He’d likely see it beating if the blanket hadn’t been in the way.
He bent close and growled into her ear, “Just remember who makes you feel…this way.”
She seemed to have lost the capacity to respond, unusual for her. He squeezed her hand and released it, then stroked her cheek, his thumb almost touching her lips as he stepped back again. He nodded to her and turned toward the door. This time he did not turn back.
She waited there, frozen, as the sound of his steps grew quieter until she heard the outside door close behind him.
What was that about? Something about the tree and the gifts were bothering him. Why did he intentionally try to annoy her? It wasn’t just that she was low on coal, which she was, it was the way he mentioned it.
The back and front of her hand tingled where his lips kissed it. She pulled the blanket closer and rubbed her hands together as she revived herself. She touched the spot where he’d caressed her cheek and then closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. The feeling of loss settled into her bones.
She walked over to the tree and studied it. The gifts were in different positions under the tree than when she’d left that morning. While he waited for her, he must have inspected them. She scanned the colorful display of papers and festive ribbons, absorbing what he had seen: there was a small box from Moses wrapped in newsprint, another from Rupert covered in tissue paper, a third from Ivy with brown paper, and another three from other neighbors and friends in a variety of papers.
Oh, William. She closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and sighed. What was she going to do? Yes, he made her feel, but feel what exactly? Some emotion that she’d never experienced before? An emotion that she could not quite identify for herself? And if so, so what? Was the ache she felt when she was with him enough? Enough for her to give up her freedom, a freedom she’d worked so hard to achieve?
As she considered her own needs and desires, she noticed an item tucked in the branches of the tree that hadn’t been there before. A small box was hidden among the ornaments, colorful ribbons, and candles that she and Ivy had added.
She picked up the box and cupped it in the palm of her hand, the same hand he’d kissed just moments before. It could only be from William. She stared at it, wondering what he had given her. As curious as she was, she wanted to open it when they were together. She returned the box to its hiding spot in the tree knowing a gift was highly inappropriate from an unmarried man, but it seemed she had a small pile of inappropriate gifts. He’d obviously noticed. It bothered him. Truly bothered him.
Like the burst of flame that appeared when she turned on one of her gas lights, she suddenly understood why he was behaving so oddly. His irritation with her was not what it seemed. She knew that he resented her connection with Rupert and Moses, but his emotions went deeper than that. He was jealous!
She wanted to smack her forehead. For someone who prided herself on her intuition and ability to follow subtle clues, it took her far too long to realize what he’d been telling her, not just with words but with actions. He didn’t just want to be a visitor in her home. He wanted to be the one to whom she turned when she needed coal. He wanted to be the one giving her gifts. He wanted to help her decorate her tree. He wanted to create new memories with her. Happy memories. And why did that new awareness give her such pleasure? The gas light was fully lit now. She knew exactly why.
Her mouth curved into a wide smile. She held up her hand to look at where he’d kissed her palm, where it still tingled. She kissed the same spot and laughed. The tea was cold by the time she drank it. She didn’t bother adding sugar – it was the sweetest she’d ever tasted.