“Evening, Weng,” Willie Garvin said, as he paused in the foyer of the penthouse to remove his snow-covered coat. “It's a bit parky out there!”
“It is indeed rather chilly, Mr Garvin,” Weng agreed urbanely, relieving Willie of his coat as he wrestled out of his soggy wet scarf and gloves. “I wasn't aware it was snowing that heavily?”
“Had a snowball fight in Hyde Park again, Willie love?” Modesty emerged from her bedroom, pausing to take in Willie's somewhat bedraggled appearance.
“I was ganged up on! There was at least a dozen of the little perishers! Some of them were quite old, about ten.”
Laughter sparkled in Modesty's eyes as she went over to the bar. “When will you learn? At least they didn't bury you up to your neck this year.”
“Only because I turned tail and ran. I 'ad to 'ide be'ind two policemen for safety.”
“Lord, Willie, tell me you're kidding?” Modesty paused in the act of pouring two brandies to stare at him open mouthed.
“Nope, they were patrolling near the gates and they were killing themselves laughing at me. So I said they could do their duty and protect me from the vicious gangs running wild in the park. They very solemnly said they would walk me to the gates and make sure I didn't come to any 'arm from any vicious packs of juvenile delinquents. Or snowball throwing ten year olds.”
Modesty giggled as she poured the brandies and passed a glass over to Willie. “Never mind, get that inside you and you'll feel all better. You'll have to tell Diana and Steve that story when they're here tomorrow. Steve will do a twenty minute routine at least.”
Willie laughed and sat down to enjoy the astonishing brandy. “I suspect he'll get mileage out of that right over Christmas.”
“Probably,” Modesty agreed as she joined him on the sofa.
In a corner of the long lounge, a large Christmas tree twinkled, covered in tinsel, baubles and fairy lights. Gaily wrapped presents were stacked under the tree, watched over by what looked like a stuffed toy with antlers. Willie squinted at it dubiously. “Is that a reindeer or a moose, Princess?”
Modesty grinned wickedly and got up to bring it over so Willie could take a closer look. “I got this to outrage Steve – I wanted a reindeer but couldn't find one. I figured as Diana's Canadian, a moose would do just as well. Press the button just behind the antlers.”
Willie did and at once the moose started singing “Jingle Bell Rock”, his head moving to the music along with his antlers, which flapped and twisted in time to the song. Willie stared at it for a second and then hooted with laughter. “I think you've saved me snowball story from dominating Christmas, Princess. Steve will have apoplexy over this!”
The moose continued to boogie to “Jingle Bell Rock”, provoking increasing mirth from Willie and Modesty until the last note sounded. Willie got up and put the moose back on his spot under the tree, looking at the gorgeously wrapped parcels with mild surprise. “You did a fabulous job wrapping the parcels this year, 'ave you been taking lessons?”
“Oh god, if they look presentable it's only because Weng bailed me out. Wrapping parcels is definitely not my forte – I went through two rolls of wrapping paper and barely managed to cover three parcels. Badly. I thought Weng was going to have the vapours so I graciously let him take over.”
“You're a very generous woman,” Willie said, amused. “So this means I won't 'ave to break out me knives this year so we can open the presents?”
“Oh hush, it was just on that one parcel for Diana two years ago! You're as bad as Steve!”
“Well it was pretty spectacular, wrapping a box in what looked like an entire roll of packing tape.”
“It worked, the ornament didn't get broken!”
“It would 'ave taken dynamite to do that, Princess!”
Weng emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray from which delicious smells wafted. “The mince pies are ready, Miss Blaise. Would you and Mr Garvin like to try them?”
“Gladly, Weng! And thank you for all the preparation. Don't make yourself late for your flight though.”
“I will be leaving promptly, I can assure you, Miss Blaise. Are you sure you will be all right over Christmas?”
“Don't worry, I promise not to let Mr Collier anywhere near the cooker. And Willie's already promised you never to attempt toffee making again, so your kitchen will be shiny and intact when you return.”
“I appreciate it Miss Blaise. If there's nothing else, I will be leaving for Heathrow. Please will you give my regards to Mr and Mrs Collier when they arrive and say I said “Merry Christmas?”
“I will. Have a wonderful time in Gstaad. Don't break any bones on the slopes and try not to swindle too many ladies at bridge of an evening.”
“'Ave a good time, see you next week,” Willie grinned. “Remember, you're an International Man of Mystery, the ladies will love that.”
“I have packed my tuxedo to ensure I look the part, Mr Garvin. James Bond will eat his heart out!”
When he'd left, Willie looked at Modesty with amusement. “I can almost feel sorry for the high society types at Gstaad. Weng will dazzle them and they'll have no idea they're wining and dining your houseboy.”
“I know. I keep trying to get Weng to set himself up as a gentleman of leisure but he won't. He won't even let me officially call him my butler or personal assistant. Says he doesn't want to take on airs and graces.”
“Serve him right if he gets swept off his feet by an 'igh society lady and whisked away to a life of married luxury.”
“I'm never entirely sure how he manages not to get snared. Have you been giving him tips?”
Willie adopted an entirely innocent look, which didn't fool Modesty for a second. “'oo me? I 'ave no idea what you mean, Princess!”
“Well you've managed to avoid it all these years somehow, Willie love. And I'm sure there have been close shaves!”
“I don't think I've ever really been close except for Diana.”
“Like me with Steve.”
There was a companionable silence as the two of them enjoyed the brandy and mince pies, each lost in their own thoughts.
“Do you ever..?”
“'Ave you ever...?”
They laughed as they both spoke at once. “Clearly, we've still got the old psychic links working,” Willie said. “After you, ladies first.”
“Do you ever wonder what could have happened if things had turned out differently between you and me, all those years ago?”
“I was just going to ask you the same thing...”
Sunset in Morocco during summer was always a glorious relief. Temperatures dropped as the sun slowly slid down in a blaze of reds and oranges that turned the white buildings of the city a rose pink. Willie Garvin normally loved sunset, but today he didn't see a single bit of the glorious scenery as he navigated the long driveway that led up to Modesty's villa. Nervously, he wiped a palm dry, manoeuvring the car smoothly around the last curve and pulled up gently outside the main doors. It took him a few seconds to release the death grip he had on the steering wheel, but finally he forced himself to shift into park and turn the engine off. He saw a shadow at a window and knew that he'd been seen. Too late to turn back now, old son, he thought. Go on, get your cowardly arse out of the car. Picking up the flowers and wine, he made it to the front door without tripping or dropping anything.
Light spilled across the driveway as the front door opened wide, Modesty standing there smiling in welcome. She took his breath away as she always did, dressed simply but looking like a million quid. She was looking puzzled and he realised he was just standing there gawping.
“Are you coming in, Willie?” she asked, half-laughing at him.
“Oh err, yes, yes. Sorry, Princess.” He walked up the low steps towards her, stopped when they were face to face. “I brought you these, I 'ope you like them.” He handed her the huge bunch of flowers that he'd spent an agonising amount of time choosing earlier that day, to the point where the florist had threatened to throw him out if he didn't make up his mind.
Modesty blinked at the bouquet, which was very large and a little overdone. Clearly Willie still needed more time with Danny Chevasse, she thought, not all of Danny's subtlety had rubbed off yet. “Thank you, it's lovely. Come on in. It's a glorious evening so I've had Moulay set up supper on the patio.”
“It is? I mean, yeh, it's stunning,” Willie said. “I must 'ave been 'ere too long, I'm starting not to notice.”
“Shame on you,” Modesty told him. “If you're that jaded already, I'll have to start sending you abroad more often. Iceland, maybe, or the Artic Circle!”
Panic swept through him for a minute at the thought of being sent away before his brain managed to get the message through that she was teasing, albeit rather clumsily. “I'll 'ave to make sure I get unjaded right quick then!” he managed.
Modesty stopped at the door to the patio and looked back at him. “Willie, what's wrong? If I didn't know better I'd say you were nervous as hell. Is there something I should know?”
It was amazing how dry your throat went when you were panicking, Willie thought as he attempted to speak and only managed a croak. Coughing, he tried again. “Nothing's wrong, Princess, I'm just worried I'll screw this up.”
“Screw this up...?” Modesty stared at him, baffled for a minute, attempting to put the pieces together. Gradually the light dawned – flowers, wine, nervous man. “Willie, this isn't a date! I'm sorry, did I give you the wrong impression?”
Willie stared at her, mortified. “It's not? But..just you and me, supper, your place?”
“Oh Willie, I am sorry. I never thought you'd see it that way! I just wanted to talk to you away from the office, and it seemed harsh to make you starve while we talked.”
“I've been a right burke, I'm sorry, Princess, I didn't mean to make assumptions an' insult you like this. I...I'd best go.”
“No, wait!” She moved forward to catch his arm gently, stopping him from leaving. “I'm not insulted, Willie. Come, please sit down for a bit.” She tugged him gently out onto the patio and steered him into a waiting chair. She took the bottle of wine from his grasp and put it on the table – he seemed to have forgotten he was holding it – and turned to call Moulay.
“Moulay, please take this to chill and can you bring us a two brandies at once please?”
“Yes, mam'selle.” Moulay disappeared and reappeared bearing two glasses of brandy with his usual calm efficiency.
“Thank you. Can you hold supper for a few more minutes, please?”
When he'd gone, Modesty smiled at Willie and said “Now, drink that brandy and stop feeling stupid. These things happen, I'm not going to hold it against you. I just thought you didn't feel that way about me and so it never occurred to me that you'd see this as something it wasn't.”
“I don't feel that way about you. I mean, it's not because you're not attractive or anything, you're stunning, a Princess. I just never thought I was in your league and so I've never thought about it.”
“Well I'm glad you don't think I'm ugly,” Modesty said and then forestalled his protests. “No, I know what you meant. In some respects, Willie Garvin, you're out of MY league. You have talents and knowledge that I don't, so don't put yourself down. I wasn't born into a life of wealth you know, I was a street rat in a dozen DP camps growing up. So don't go thinking I'm royalty or something, because I'm not”
“You'll always be my Princess,” Willie said simply. “But I'll be 'onest, I'm kind of relieved this isn't a date. I was worried it might change things, that we'd stop being,” he hesitated, unsure if he was overstepping the mark but decided to take the plunge, “friends.”
Modesty didn't react as if he'd said something wildly silly, much to his relief. Instead she looked very thoughtful.
“Friendship is a dicey thing in this business. The old saying about honour amongst thieves is a load of rubbish. I have a core of men around me whom I trust but it's a fine line to call them all friends. Only Garcia has really been that to me since I started The Network. And now I have you.” She met his bewildered gaze and held it. “Never underestimate the gift of friendship you've given me, Willie Garvin. To have someone I can trust implicitly and relax around is a prize beyond priceless. I invited you here as a friend and a confidante. If that's asking too much or if that's not something you're comfortable with, please tell me now.”
“Oh no, Princess, never! I am honoured you think that way, I really am. Can we pretend I didn't turn up 'ere bearing flowers and wine and just start over?”
“I think that can be arranged.” She smiled suddenly, a rare smile and he realised that he never saw her do that at work, that it was something reserved for him alone. A great wave of happiness swept over him and he relaxed for the first time that night. It was going to be just fine.
“I think we got it right,” Willie said, softly. “I've been 'appier than I can say since I met you and I've never wished things were different. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
"I'll drink to that, Willie love.” She raised her glass to him and flashed him that smile, the one that lit up her eyes and came from the depths of her soul. Matching her toast, he thought that the relationship they had was far, far richer than anything they could have had if they had taken a more romantic path and he would be forever grateful for that.
“So, changing the subject, 'ow do you want to spring the surprise trip to Bermuda on Diana and Steve?”
“Well I was thinking...”
And they were off, plotting and planning once more, minds meshing together to concoct a surprise for their dear friends.