William loved the sound of Eliza’s laugh. Neither had many reasons to laugh in the past few months with all that had happened, especially her father’s death and Frank’s betrayal. She’d been busy building her business, and he’d been overwhelmed with too many cases in addition to breaking in a new detective and finding his way with a new superintendent.
He’d worked on Christmas Day, the day before. As an unmarried member of the Metropolitan Police, he’d often agreed to fill in on holidays, and Christmas was no exception. He sighed. Being with Eliza was a mix of agony and ecstasy. It reminded him of what he was missing and what he could have, what many others had: a family, love. The persistent ache in his chest seemed to grow each passing moment they were together.
And now today, Boxing Day, he’d woken to a heavy dusting of snow and clear sky. They’d arranged to meet for a walk at the local park with Agatha, Aggie for short, her Jack Russell puppy, and he was glad it was early because the snow would be a melting slush in another hour, dripping from the trees, creating mud everywhere. For right now, the world seemed almost like new again, a fresh, clean beginning. And maybe it was. Perhaps he should take a page from Mother Nature and start afresh too.
He smiled, hearing her laugh again. The sound hit him deep in the chest. He preferred that sound to almost anything in the world.
Aggie was sticking her nose in the snow and snorting, then racing in circles and sliding on its slippery surface. There were children in the park tossing the snow at each other, then chasing and running away. They stopped to laugh and point at Aggie’s antics.
Eliza’s cheeks were rosy red when she returned with Aggie to where he stood watching her, the laughter lingering on her lips as a smile.
He grinned at her. “Aggie likes her first snowfall.”
“Yes, she certainly does,” she said, and she laughed again, bending down to give the white dog with brown splotches a scratch behind her ears.
She lifted her head and took a deep breath. “It’s lovely out. The air feels cleaner this morning.”
“Hmmm.” He reached out for the leash as he waited for Eliza to grab his elbow. She shifted her handbag in her arms, gave him the leash, and he held it as they walked around the park, the only sound of their footsteps in the wet snow. He remained silent, not wanting to break the private bubble that the fresh snow had created. Apparently, neither did she.
He found a nearby cab stand when they returned to the street. He held out an arm for Eliza as she stepped up and into the chilly carriage. He lifted Aggie after her, and she tsked at the dog standing on the seat bench with her wet paws. She dried it off with her mittens as he sat next to her, much closer than proper. He was not in the least bothered. With Aggie curled up in his lap, the puppy was more than happy, as was he. Who knew? He smoothed her fur with his gloved hands. The three of them were becoming their own small family, with Ivy, of course. And Rupert. And Tilly. And even Moses. Although it still irked him, William was beginning to accept the man’s presence in her life.
As the carriage jerked forward, he turned to her. “You never told me how your day was yesterday.” His heart still hurt for her loss. He knew she desperately missed her father, and the holiday was bound to be difficult, her first Christmas without him. He missed Henry as much as she did, but his pain was layered with guilt because Henry’s murderer, Frank, had been his detective and partner.
She tilted her head back against the seat. “Ivy was at her mother’s. I had supper with Rupert, Tilly, Herr Hildegard, and Rupert’s mother.” She chuckled. “Rupert regaled us with stories of swimming in Hyde Park. His mother did not approve.” She laughed again. “Did you know that every Christmas morning the Serpentine Swimming Club swims 100 yards in ice-cold water? Why would anyone choose to do that?”
“Hmmm.” He reached for her hand and held it between his as he looked at it then up at her. He gave it a slight tug, waiting for her eyes to turn toward him before asking, “How was it really?”
Her lips dropped to a sad smile. She exhaled, her breath creating a visible puff, even in the relative warmth of the carriage. “Quiet. Hard.” She paused and then added, “Lonely.”
“For me, too.” He also leaned back against the seat but did not release her hand; he held it firmly within his. “Work distracted me, and that helped.” He could sense her watching him. When she squeezed his hand, he turned and smiled crookedly at her.
They were in their own bubble again, their breath mingling as the carriage bounced along on the rutted streets, jostling their shoulders together. Her eyes blinked back tears in acknowledgment of their shared pain. The walls of the carriage muted the chaos outside, and he ignored the sounds of horse hooves, wheels of passing carriages, shouts, cries, calls, and other city noises coming to life around them.
She sighed, released his hand, and then pulled a small item out of her handbag. “I didn’t open your gift yet. I wanted to open it when we were together.”
He was pleased that she’d waited, knowing how hard it was for her to be patient. He cleared his throat. “Actually, it’s not for you. It’s for Aggie.” He gave the puppy in his lap a scratch under her chin.
“Oh, well, then, in that case, let’s not wait any longer. Shall we, Aggie?” She removed the wrapping and lifted the lid to the box.
He was surprised she didn’t sound at all disappointed. Or wonder why he’d told her the gift was for Aggie. He wasn’t sure either, but since they came as a pair, it didn’t matter. The result would be the same.
“It’s a key.” She looked over at him as she held the small shiny metal item in her palm.
He shrugged. “You’ll have to help Aggie find out.”
She laughed, delighted, and clapped her hands. “A mystery?”
When he nodded, she nearly squealed. “Oooh. I love a challenge!”
He grinned, pleased that she liked it as much as he hoped she would. When he thought of all the twists and turns she’d go through to discover what the key was for, his grin widened. His future depended on whether both she and Aggie would like the key’s purpose even more.
“Thank you. We’ll begin immediately, won’t we, Aggie?” She gave the puppy a scratch and then laughed when Aggie began to chew on her mitten. Eliza carefully removed the wool out of the puppy’s sharp teeth. She then pulled a ragged piece of rawhide out of her handbag and gave it to her to chew.
“Yes, well, better this than my clothes,” she said. “She already chewed the heel off one of my boots,” she grumbled as William laughed. Her lips twitched as she smoothed Aggie’s fur and kissed her head. “You naughty dog.”
He loved watching Eliza with Aggie. Her obvious affection for the puppy gave him hope for the future, their future. She was capable of great love; he saw it every day, not just with Aggie but with many others. He reminded himself to be patient and sat on his hands to keep them from reaching out to her. Controlling himself was harder as each day passed.
Eliza placed her mittens on her lap and turned the key in her fingers, examining it closely. She glanced at him, her eyebrows high. “Will you give us a clue?”
“No,” he said, as he shook his head and curled a corner of his mouth. “Not yet, anyway.”
“We won’t need it, will we, Aggie?” She patted her. “You’ll see.” Eliza’s eyes twinkled as she tucked the key back in its box and closed the lid. She pulled out another small box from her bag before putting his gift away in its place.
She handed him this second box, more of a square shape than the one he’d given her. “I never gave you my gift.”
He chuckled, “I never expected anything from you. Certainly not something like an embroidered handkerchief.” He took the small package from her and held it up. It was the right size. “If that is what this is.”
She grinned, coloring slightly. “That is definitely not what it is. And yes, well, like cooking, sewing is not one of my stronger talents. Although, Miss Dawkins certainly tried.” She rubbed her hands together as if she was remembering the difficult needlework with fingers that would not cooperate.
He winced with her. “I’m sure she did.”
“Come on, open it and find out.” She paused to watch him unwrap it. “Ivy helped me pick it out.” She repositioned her legs, and her eyes darted away, appearing almost uncertain. “And since your gift was to Aggie, I’ll add that it’s Aggie approved as well.”
He folded open the box and laughed. It was also a key, but it was old, not new like what he had given to her, and attached to a large metal ring. He held it up. “Ivy helped you pick this out?”
“Well, no, it was my idea, but she agreed.”
“I already have a spare key to your office.”
“That’s not what it’s for.” She waited, staring at him with an expression he could not decipher. When she raised an eyebrow, and a corner of her mouth curved, her message became clearer.
The key was suspiciously like…
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he groaned, and his body started to tremble as he pocketed what could only be her house key. He gently placed Aggie in Eliza’s lap, swivelled over, and switched his position in the carriage so that he was opposite her, their knees linked. His patience long gone, he yanked off her wool hat, thankful he didn’t have to deal with hat pins and tossed it on the bench next to her. Her gloves, as well as his own gloves and hat, followed.
He watched, fascinated, as her eyes widened at his unexpected behavior. There was no shock or uncertainty. He saw only anticipation and flames, while her mouth slightly twitched in humor. They were all he needed to know. Her chilled cheeks, rosy from the cold, were now a brighter pink. This time she did not look away but watched as he leaned closer. He wrapped his hands around her cheeks, cupping her face gently. His thumbs slid just inside her mouth, leaving a trail of moisture as they traced her soft lips.
“Eliza,” he whispered, his lips almost touching hers. Was it a question? Or a prayer? Did she erase the sliver of space between them, or did he move toward her? It no longer mattered. She closed her eyes, and their lips met, gently at first, then rougher, as they both became more confident and demanding. Careful not to tip Aggie onto the floor, he gently tugged Eliza across the carriage and into his lap to hold her more firmly. Instead of stopping him as he feared, she grasped his shoulders to snuggle even closer.
They were nearly home. William wasn’t sure how he noticed the carriage slowing. Perhaps it was Aggie wiggling in between them, or the driver yelled out. He pulled back from devouring her, just enough to see her lips wet and swollen. He cursed. His breath came out in short spurts like he’d been sprinting after a suspect. She was gasping for air as well, and he watched her inhale deeply as her eyes opened. No mistaking their intent as he searched them. They were glowing.
He groaned and pounded on the ceiling with his fist, yelling for the cabby to drive on. Another ride around the block wouldn’t be enough but would have to do. For now, anyway.