She'd been resting on the large wrap-around porch of the hotel. Blankets were heaped on her lap and she was ensconced in a wicker-styled rocking chair. Not precisely awake, but not really sleeping either, she'd hovered in that vague, fugue-state that the medication often caused. The quaintness of the porch, the blankets, and the rocking chair had muddled her thoughts about the time and she felt as if she'd somehow traveled back to the beginning of the century.
The sight of a courier bringing in a bouquet of many-colored balloons to the hotel reception area reminded her of the true year, and of the fact that it was her birthday. She remembered her yearning for each new birthday as she grew up, each year bringing her closer and closer to the promises of adulthood and freedom. Her driver's license, the right to vote, and then the right to legally drink. That had been some birthday--her friends had taken her out on the town and when they were done, not a bit of it had been left unpainted.
They were all busy these days with husbands and children, or careers.
Only she had the foreknowledge that her lifespan wasn't destined to be very much longer. No children, no career. Maybe no husband, though the title of it didn't matter anymore now that she had Adam. He was her soul, whether they were married or not, and it was a precious blessing to her at this time in her life. She sometimes couldn't believe it had happened.
The second clue, after the balloons, was the hushed conversation behind her between two hotel employees.
"Where are you going?"
There was the rustle of paper. "The handwriting was too hard to read. The kitchen wants to know what kind of cake."
"You can't ask her, you idiot. It's supposed to be a surprise."
They moved away, still arguing, but it was enough. Now she knew that Adam was preparing a surprise dinner. She smiled and snuggled down under the blankets even more. How sweet and wonderful. She'd have to remember to act surprised for him; she didn't want to disappoint him. But she didn't mind that the surprise had been spoiled. Now she could enjoy the sensation of waiting for it all afternoon.
She must have fallen asleep because Adam was gently shaking her. He was smiling and had a thick felted coat in his arms. "Here, put this on."
She yawned and stood up, realizing that the air had turned very cool now that the sun was low in the sky. Had she really slept away the entire afternoon?
She noticed that Adam already had a warm wool coat on. He took her arm and led her to the front of the hotel. "I've a surprise for you."
"Really? What is it?"
"Just wait a moment."
Then a team of two horses pulling an open carriage came around the bend, a man in old fashioned clothes driving them. The horses were white as snow and carried themselves regally. Their tails were clipped short, but their manes were long. The man stopped the carriage right in front of them.
Adam helped her into the carriage and then arranged the blankets around her again, taking a minute to make sure they were just so. He pulled her tight against him, securing her snuggly as the carriage bounced along. She kept her hands tucked under the blankets to keep them warm and only her ears and face were cool as the horses pulled the carriage along.
It was too noisy to talk much, between the wheel-turning noises and the clopping of the horses' hooves. The city was beautiful in all its twilight splendor and Alexa thought she'd never seen the colors of dusk quite as lovely as they splashed over the buildings, people, and streets. Everything looked washed in gold and muted with pink and lavender.
The sky had darkened to sapphire and indigo by the time the carriage brought them back to the hotel. They were enticed inside by the blazing light and promised warmth of the inside of the hotel, and into the dining room where they were immediately given a table all by themselves in the corner. A dozen roses waited on the table in front of Alexa's spot.
She couldn't help but smile.
"A bit old fashioned," Adam said, "I know. But these roses are bred for their scent, not just to be pretty."
Alexa smelled them, and they were deeply scented, smelling of summer and gardens and promises of sunny days. She handed them off to a hotel worker who promised they'd be placed in a vase and delivered to their suite.
Dinner was delicious, and she hardly had room for the cake afterward--it turned out to be a white cake with a strawberry and cream filling, which was fabulous. She looked around.
Alexa flushed. She'd already been given a beautiful birthday--and here she was being greedy and interested in those silly balloons. "I thought I saw balloons earlier," she said as lightly as she could.
Adam grinned. "Those were for Mr. Rhinehart's retirement party this afternoon. You should have seen that--a roomful of sexagenarians all breathing in the helium from the balloons and talking in high squeaky voices. It sounded like a roomful of chipmunks."
Alexa laughed, and Adam helped her to her feet. "Tomorrow, I'll make sure you have a dozen balloons."
"Oh, no. That's not what I meant!"
"Yes, but maybe I want to hear what you sound like as a chipmunk." He guided her upstairs to their suite. On the bed were two wrapped presents.
"You're too good to me," Alexa said and tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. How could life be both so cruel and so wonderful to her? It boggled the mind.
"Well, one of the presents is a bit selfish," Adam admitted. "Wait until you see it before you jump to those conclusions of yours."
Alexa gave him a playful swat when the first present did reveal a luxurious peach and ecru colored lingerie set. The second gift was smaller and obviously jewelry. She unwrapped it slowly and opened the black velvet box. It held a dainty gold locket with three small diamonds gracing the front, and was on a thin gold chain. "It's beautiful. Thank you." Alexa threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "It's the most wonderful birthday I've ever had. I'll remember it always."
"You're welcome." Adam smiled, though it was an enigmatic smile that she couldn't quite decipher, somehow both warm and sad, and kissed her on the temple. "And I'll remember it always, too."