As I look out the window of our 18th-century farmhouse, at the rolling hills thickly blanketed with white snow, I am all the more grateful for our broad, old-fashioned fireplace. The logs blaze merrily, and I hear their snapping as I begin preparing the pheasant for roasting –
“You’d have begun preparing the bird a long time ago,” Charles said, reading over his sister’s shoulder. “Plucking, then brining.”
Raven glanced away from her typewriter just long enough to stick her tongue out at him. “They’ll know what I mean.”
“Don’t be so certain! Remember the oranges.” One time, Raven had neglected to write about peeling the oranges before using them in the muffins, and she’d gotten no end of letters about it.
She sighed. “True. Should I add detail about the logs? Cedar? Oak? What kind of trees turn into logs?”
“… all of them, I expect. If you’ve got a saw.”
As Raven began typing Xs over her past few words, Charles took a seat in one of the rocking chairs crammed into her tiny apartment, next to the hissing radiator that stood in for that imaginary fire. The lunch rush was over at Greymalkin’s, and he didn’t feel like going downstairs to prepare for the Greenwich Village dinner crowd just yet. He could just as easily have rested in his apartment – just across the hallway, the mirror image of Raven’s, and by now equipped with its own dozen rocking chairs. But her radiator worked better, and this was one of the days when his bad knee needed heat.
Besides, this way he got to work with her, and create yet another column from “Rebecca Lawrence.”
Virtually anyone in the United States in 1944 knew and adored Rebecca Lawrence. Her column, “Hearth and Home,” was one of the most-read in the nation. Her recipes were tried by every aspiring cook; her idyllic life in the countryside was envied by anyone in a cramped house or walk-up apartment. Two months ago, Rebecca Lawrence had written about searching high and low for an antique rocking chair just like her grandmother’s. Who could have guessed that so many readers would love her enough to send rocking chairs through the mail? (Charles and Raven now had three rocking chairs apiece in their apartments, and had given them out as Christmas presents to their friends.) Men read the column and thought of their mother's home recipes. Women read the column and aspired to make their homes equally as perfect. Old people wrote fan letters about how Rebecca Lawrence was bringing back traditional virtues; children wrote fan letters to thank her for cookie recipes their parents had baked. The only constant was that every reader seemed to love her completely.
Of course, the readers didn’t know that the beloved, perfect housewife “Rebecca Lawrence” didn’t exist.
Really, she was a combination of two things: Charles’ knack for cookery and Raven’s way with words. Raven had originally suggested Charles write the column himself. “You’re the one who knows all about food,” she said, “I’m hopeless.” Given that she mostly lived on leftovers from Greymalkin’s, plus the occasional cocktail, he had to agree. But he was equally hopeless about writing. Every time he tried, even the recipes came out plodding and dull. It was Raven who had a knack for memorable sentences, and the details that brought an article to life.
Now Rebecca Lawrence was a household name, “Hearth and Home” was the centerpiece of American Housekeeping magazine, which sold nearly as many copies as the Saturday Evening post. Raven’s checks from the magazine nicely supplemented his modest profits at the restaurant. Some days, Charles even thought of them as … safe. After that horrible night more than four years ago, he’d thought he would never feel safe again. It was nice to be proved wrong.
Though, of course, the scars lingered. He glanced at the photos of Mum and Dad on the wall, then closed his eyes as he flexed his knee, hoping for the heat to take away some of the old pain.
The buzzer sounded, startling them both. Raven looked at him over her typewriter. “If it’s another rocking chair, I swear I’ll break it up for firewood.”
“Not much good without a fireplace,” Charles pointed out, but she wasn’t listening.
As she rose, he studied his younger sister; someone farther removed from “America’s Most Beloved Homemaker” was difficult to imagine. With her black turtleneck, bangle earrings and the brilliantly patterned scarf in her hair, she looked every inch the bohemian. Then again, did he fit the part any better? Certainly nobody expected cozy domesticity from a bachelor in shabby old cardigans – much less a homosexual.
Good thing the articles are illustrated, he thought. If they wanted photographs, we’d be sunk.
Charles was relieved to see that the delivery was only a telegram. It might well be her editor, reporting on letters about her column in the December issue. (The oddities of magazine publishing meant she always worked months ahead; at the moment, she was writing for March.) But when Raven opened the envelope, her jaw slowly dropped. Charles grabbed his walking stick and got to his feet. “What is it?”
“It’s Miss Frost,” she whispered.
“Miss Frost? As in, your publisher? The woman who owns the magazine?” When Raven nodded, Charles felt confused. “Then what’s the matter? You make tons of money for her, so the telegram can’t be – ” An idea struck him so strongly that he gaped. “Oh, no. She hasn’t found out about Rebecca Lawrence, has she?”
The editor of American Housekeeping, Moira McTaggart, kept secret the famous Mrs. Lawrence’s fictional nature, even within the magazine itself. This deception had seemed a harmless lark back when the column began; now it was a sword hanging over both their heads.
But Raven shook her head. “It’s worse than that. So much worse.”
Raven held the telegram out to Charles. “She wants to talk about Christmas dinner!”
That night, Greymalkin’s was not only the single best place to eat in Greenwich Village, but also the site of an important, last-minute publishing meeting.
Charles made the rounds as best he could, greeting the guests, checking on things in the kitchen. Most nights, he took a deep pleasure in running his restaurant; Greymalkin’s was an unpretentious, homey place with red-checked tablecloths and candles in wine bottles. His menu featured comfort food, as satisfying as he could make it while working with war rations: roast beef, potatoes, chicken soup, chocolate cake. During wartime, people longed for simple pleasures, Charles no less than anyone else. It satisfied him to be able to provide that, even in a very modest way, for the few hours people were in Greymalkin’s.
Tonight, however, he could only concentrate on the booth where Raven sat with her editor, the formidable Moira McTaggart. Two women more different were hard to imagine. Raven’s curls flowed down her back, defiant of fashion like her peasant blouse; Moira was every inch the lady editor, in a tailored navy suit and hat, her lips penciled in stylish dark red. However, they had one thing in common – both of them looked appalled, and they’d gone through nearly a bottle of white wine.
If this is bad enough to worry Moira, Charles thought, then it’s very bad indeed.
As soon as he had a moment, Charles made his way to their table. “Cheer up,” he said, trying to smile. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”
“It can,” Raven said, staring down at her wineglass.
“Well, I had a thought.” Charles had been working on this most of the evening. “Why not invite Miss Frost here for Christmas dinner? Say you’re spending it with your brother in Manhattan. That way she won’t wonder about the country house and husband and baby you – don’t have.” Wouldn’t a husband and a baby be at Christmas dinner? There were ways around that too. “That fellow who’s been pestering you so much lately, the scientist – get him to play the part of the husband. He’d be thrilled.”
“No doubt Hank would love that,” Raven said. “But you don’t understand. Miss Frost hasn’t invited herself to dinner. She’s invited someone else.”
Charles frowned. “What do you mean?”
Moira picked up the thread here. “What she means, Charles, is that Emma Frost has decided that her top columnist should perform her patriotic duty by providing the perfect, American countryside Christmas for a war hero.”
With that she held up a newspaper and tapped a story headlined, LEHNSHERR SAFE ON AMERICAN SOIL.
“Erik Lehnsherr? I’ve heard of him.” Charles took the newspaper and looked down at the picture; he hadn’t thought Lehnsherr would be so … devastatingly handsome. But he’d never thought of what the man looked like at all. He was a hero in every sense of the word: A Jewish man from Germany who had escaped the persecution there – and instead of saving his own skin, had turned intelligence agent for the Allies, risking his life time and again. His exploits had become known only after he had been captured in France, then liberated a month later by Allied troops.
Apparently, afterward, Lehnsherr had been hospitalized for a few weeks. Charles tried to imagine what Nazi interrogators might have done to the man, then resolved not to imagine it ever again. As he looked down at the picture, he felt a wave of empathy –
--and then astonishment. “Wait. This man is coming to spend Christmas at Rebecca Lawrence’s imaginary house? With her imaginary family?”
Moira nodded, miserably. “It can’t be Lehnsherr’s idea. I mean, the man’s Jewish. What does he care about Christmas? But Frost’s father is high up in the diplomatic ranks, and somehow the two of them cooked this plan up together, and here we are.”
“We have to get out of this,” Raven said. “That’s all there is to it. But how?”
“Can’t we say the house doesn’t have room?” Charles ventured.
“Are you kidding? I already said the house has six bedrooms. The October column, remember?”
Moira said, “We really need to map this imaginary house sometime.”
Charles looked down at the portrait in the newspaper and felt a pang. Surely a courageous man like Erik Lehnsherr deserved a better welcome to the United States than an imaginary house. Did he have any friends in this country? Any surviving family? It was hard to think of anyone being so lonely during the holidays.
Still, he had to protect Raven first of all. What could possibly be reason enough to keep a war hero away at Christmas?
He thought of the imaginary baby, and inspiration struck. “Whooping cough!”
Raven and Moira looked up at him, hope dawning. Raven whispered, “The baby has whooping cough. No one should come into the house who doesn’t have to be there!”
“It’s perfect.” Moira brought her hands together. “Impossible for anyone to take offense. And it will make Rebecca Lawrence look even more like the ideal mother than before.”
Charles smiled. “So all we have to do is send Emma Frost a telegram saying so.”
Moira’s face fell. “Actually – for something like this – I’d think a face-to-face meeting is the only way to go.”
“You mean, you’ll go meet with her?” Then Raven sat up straighter. “That’s not what you mean, is it?”
“Hold on,” Charles said, shaking his head. “Let me get myself a wine glass. I need to join you in that bottle.”
On the Erie Railroad upstate the next day, Charles and Raven kept rehearsing. “Poor darling baby – you can understand my feelings,” Raven said, putting one hand over her heart.
“Not so melodramatic,” Charles said. He’d put on his best gray suit for the occasion; they’d mutually decided he should come along. All right, it wasn’t likely that anyone would ask questions about food – but if these questions came up, somebody had to answer them. “You’re worried, not auditioning for a part on Broadway.”
Raven leaned back in her seat. “Why not? As long as I’m wearing a costume.”
She had on a dark green suit she’d borrowed from Moira, which fit her beautifully, and her best pair of heels. The hat was another of Moira’s loans; although it was stylish and attractive, a neat little trapezoid nestled in Raven’s curls, it was the sort of thing Raven would never wear on her own. She favored daring slacks, wide-skirted black dresses, soft flats – the sort of outfit seen in the Village, not upstate new York.
But one element of her outfit was clearly neither her own nor Moira’s. Charles asked, “Where on earth did you get the stole?”
“Oh, this.” Raven shrugged, so that the brown fur moved with her. “Hank sent it over as a gift this morning. I’m going to return it, of course - it's much too extravagant - but I thought I might as well use it to save our hides.” Then she frowned. “Ironic, seeing as how the minks didn’t save their own hides. Oh, gosh. Maybe it’s cursed.”
“Why are you so down on that Hank McCoy, anyway? He’s intelligent, he’s handsome, and he thinks the world of you.”
“I know,” Raven said miserably. “But he’s – conventional. I mean, he's a science professor at Columbia. You know, he’ll want a wife who doesn’t work, and intends to have four or five children, and puts on an evening dress for dinner at the club one night a week. He likes my face and my figure, but he wouldn’t know what to do with me.”
Charles put his arm around her shoulders. “It’s a shame. That’s all.”
She looked up at him, her smile strange and sad. “We got dealt each other’s cards, didn’t we?”
They had made this joke between themselves before. Raven was the daring one; Charles the domestic one. Raven craved excitement; Charles craved home life. Children delighted him and unnerved her; the artistic set of friends Raven adored struck Charles as affected, even shallow.
And while Raven would happily have spent her whole life unmarried – unthinkable for a proper young girl – Charles would happily have settled down the moment he found a man to love. Which was, of course, not only impossible but also unspeakable.
“We did indeed,” Charles murmured as the railroad. “That, or we both got the jokers in the deck.”
They were ushered into Emma Frost’s imposing mansion by a butler – a real, true butler! – but kept their nerve even when they first saw the woman herself. Regal as she was with her snowy white suit and cool, elegant beauty, nothing would stop Raven from giving her very good excuse and getting them out of this mess.
Nothing except Emma Frost herself.
“Is the child’s life in danger?” she asked. “How long has he been ill?”
“Oh, no, his life’s not in danger,” Raven said. Behind Emma’s back, Charles nodded at her; the last thing they wanted to write into the Rebecca Lawrence column was a funeral. “He’s just – he’s been sick for – for six weeks! So you can see how worried I’ve been.”
“Only natural!” Miss Frost patted Raven’s shoulder. “But at six weeks, the disease has run its course. Why, your little darling will be back to normal in no time. Any day now! Certainly in time for Mr. Lehnsherr’s visit.”
Why didn’t we look up whooping cough? Charles thought in despair. Maybe I should pretend to come down with it right now.
Even as he was wondering just what whooping cough sounded like, Miss Frost continued on, brisk as ever. “How delightful that you brought your brother here to meet me. I would have thought your husband would accompany you, but I suppose his work keeps him away.”
“Oh, yes,” Raven said. “And Charles and I are tremendously close.”
“How is it that he has an English accent when you don’t?” Miss Frost wheeled on Charles then; she was like a force of nature, unstoppable. “Did you spend time in England before the war?”
“We grew up there, Miss Frost. My sister has just worked harder to lose her English accent than I have.” Charles said from his seat by her fireplace. “We emigrated just after the Blitz began. You see, our house was destroyed in one of the first air raids. That was when we lost our parents, and when I – ” He avoided calling attention to this, but there was no way around it, so he gestured toward his walking stick. “Let’s just say, it’s when I became ineligible for military service.”
“Terrible. Simply terrible.” Miss Frost’s sympathy seemed sincere, but it didn’t slow down the bulldozer. “All the more reason why you should host Mr. Lehnsherr this holiday season. You’ve truly experienced the horrors of this war in a way few Americans can understand. He might feel – patronized by someone else. The two of you, why, you can relate to him.”
Charles wasn’t sure that their situations were so similar, but he couldn’t think of how to stop Miss Frost any more than Raven could. Desperately, he tried, “But won’t Mr. Lehnsherr prefer to celebrate the Jewish holidays? Perhaps with a prominent Jewish family?”
Miss Frost considered that for one-tenth of a second – longer than she’d paused at any other point in the meeting, and just long enough to give them a moment’s hope – but then said, “I think not. Chanukah is already over, meaning Lehnsherr’s missed it already. As long as you don’t intend to proselytize to the man, I should imagine he’d appreciate having some sort of holiday cheer, even if it is late. No doubt he could use it. So there we go! I’ve already sent word to the Embassy. Mr. Lehnsherr’s ship will arrive on the evening of December 23rd. So I’ll make arrangements for him to be brought to your Connecticut farm on Christmas Eve. Around lunchtime, I’d think. Splendid. Simply splendid! Don’t forget to give the farm’s address to my secretary.”
Numbly, Raven and Charles started for the door. She looked utterly pale; he had to lean on his stick more heavily than usual. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered. “We’re doomed. We’re all doomed.”
“Keep walking,” he whispered. Surely they’d think of something. But what? Maybe the imaginary house could be destroyed by an imaginary fire –
Raven stopped. She squared her shoulders and set her chin. “There’s no way out but the truth.”
“Oh, Raven, no.”
“Yes.” By now she had her courage again. “I’m going to walk back in there and come clean. Miss Frost might be angry – ”
“Might? Her top column, all about the perfect American wife in the perfect American home, is complete fiction, and you think she might be angry?”
But Raven was undaunted. “She might respect me for telling the truth now. And at least she’ll find somewhere for poor Mr. Lehnsherr to spend Christmas.”
Charles stopped. He hadn’t thought about that before – that if Erik Lehnsherr didn’t get advance notice that the farm he was being brought to was imaginary, he might well wind up in some dreary hotel on December 25. The thought was too much to bear. “All right. Go ahead.”
Raven marched back toward Miss Frost’s office, feathers fluttering in her hat – but in the instant before she raised her hand to knock, Miss Frost opened the door. At the sight of Raven, Miss Frost smiled. “Well, well. Great minds think alike.”
“They do?” Raven said.
“I know exactly what you’re about to say!”
“You do?” Raven glanced back at Charles, who shrugged.
Miss Frost put her hands on Raven’s shoulders. “You’re going to invite me to Christmas dinner too! You’ve no doubt read about the divorce, and … well, normally I don’t pay much attention to the holidays, but this would be a fine year for me to try something different. How clever of you to see it. But I wouldn’t expect anything less from ‘America’s Most Beloved Homemaker.’ You celebrate home and hearth and family and everything that makes this country good. Everything we all need to believe in, during such difficult times.”
“I sure do,” Raven said weakly. It was all Charles could do to stay on his feet.
“So that’s all settled!” Miss Frost beamed at them both. “I’ll arrive along with Mr. Lehnsherr on Christmas Eve!”
She shut the door to her office without another word. Raven slowly turned around, her face a mask of horror.
That’s it, Charles thought. We’re done for.
After the dinner rush that night, Charles let a few guests linger in one of the booths.
“Cheer up,” said Hank McCoy, patting Raven’s shoulder. “Maybe you can still come clean, the way you meant to.”
“It won’t help now.” Raven’s head rested in one of her hands; she’d scarcely looked up in the past thirty minutes. “The way she looked at me! Like coming to my house was the most important thing to her in the world. We’re absolutely stuck.”
“I’ll be fired before the New Year. Well, maybe I can go to a book publisher and advertise my expertise in fiction.” Moira took another sip of her wine.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Charles ventured. “Moira, you’ll surely get another job in no time. Raven can go back to work on her novel, and the restaurant makes enough money now for us to live on.”
“Barely,” Raven shot back. She was right.
So he took a deep breath and finally said what he’d been thinking since that morning. “We could sublet our apartments, and take a place somewhere else in the city. Someplace cheaper.”
Raven looked up at that, eyes wide with alarm. “Charles, no. If you had to travel to work – it’s too hard for you.”
“I could manage,” Charles said, though the thought of navigating the subway every single day was daunting. They’d spent their entire inheritance on buying this building on West 11th Street; no doubt someday the place would be worth quite a lot, but prices remained low due to the war. Even so, property tax was crushing. There were only the two little apartments upstairs, but maybe those were a luxury they could no longer afford. His leg ached, anticipatory pain at the thought of struggling onto the subway with his walking stick day in and day out. Yet he wouldn’t have Raven worrying about him. “You’ll see. It won’t be any trouble. I’ll manage.”
Hank, clearly the odd one out in this gathering, had been wanting to say something for a while now – that was obvious – but finally he got up the nerve. “It’s a shame you can’t just show them my place in Connecticut. It fits the bill well enough. Built in the late 18th century, big fireplaces, the works.”
Moira slowly turned toward him. “Wait. You have a farmhouse in Connecticut?”
“I inherited it from my grandmother,” Hank said. “I spend most of my time here in the city, of course. But it’s a nice old place. I expect I'll live there someday.”
With a grin, Moira took Hank’s hand and put it atop Raven’s. “I now pronounce you man and wife.”
“Wait – you aren’t thinking – you are,” Charles said. His head had begun to spin.
Raven looked around wildly as she caught on. “You want us to pretend to be married?”
“Why not?” Moira said, like this was a great idea instead of utterly demented. “It’s just for Christmas! You go up there, you put on a few housedresses, Hank smokes a pipe and pretends to be the man of the house. Charles can come along, and we’ll sneak him in the kitchen to do the actual cooking. On December 26th, Emma Frost and Mr. Lehnsherr leave again, and nobody’s the wiser. Raven still has a column, and I still have a job. I’m very enthusiastic about that last part.”
“This is madness,” Charles said, which was true. But Moira was right. This might be their only way out. “Well – I was shutting the restaurant for the holiday anyway.”
“I don’t know.” Raven glanced up at Hank, whose hand still rested on hers. Clearly he enjoyed the idea of playing Raven’s husband for a couple of days. Just as clearly, it was going to be awkward as hell. “Are you sure you’d be all right with it, Hank? It’s a big favor.”
“It would be a pleasure to spend the holidays with you.” Hank’s cheeks flushed. “Not that I – I mean, it’s just a favor. No. A Christmas gift. No strings attached.”
Raven leaned back, thumping her head against the wooden back of the booth. “Are we really doing this?”
“We are,” Charles said. “Is it too late to take acting lessons?”
His misgivings endured until early in the morning of Christmas Eve. Hank met them at the station; they’d taken the very first train in so they’d have time to get ready for their guests. (They’d already decided to do the big dinner the night of Christmas Eve, the better to disguise the real chef by doing plenty of cooking before Emma Frost and Erik Lehnsherr even arrived.) Charles hadn’t been considering anything beyond the complexities of preparing the turkey until the moment they walked inside Hank’s country home.
A lifelong city dweller, Charles hadn’t spent much time in the countryside. The drive from the station had been dazzling enough. From the road, the house had looked like something out of a Christmas card: white with green shutters, a red-brick chimney sending grey smoke into a sunny blue sky. But inside – inside a fire blazed in the fireplace. The enormous sitting room held a few chintz sofas, a phonograph machine, an old plank floor and even a piano. Heavy wooden beams stretched along the ceiling, which was high enough to still feel open and bright. Beyond the large picture window stretched endless snowy fields. “This is beautiful,” Charles breathed.
“Glad you like it,” Hank said, turning to Raven. “What do you think?”
“It looks just like the one in the articles.” Raven’s interest was solely tactical. She was wearing a prim sea-green housedress borrowed from Moira, and had gotten her hair set in fashionable rolls; she looked lovely and yet not a bit like herself. “Are there six bedrooms?”
“Only five, I’m afraid. But – don’t worry – there’s one for everybody.” Hank flushed again; no doubt he’d have liked it if Raven shared his bedroom.
“Don’t worry,” Charles said. “I doubt anyone’s going to count the doors. What about the baby?”
“All taken care of.” With a flourish, Hank pushed open the door to the kitchen, where a middle-aged woman was scrubbing the counters, and a child of perhaps eight months sat on the floor, playing with pot lids. “Nora here keeps the house for me, and she’s been minding little Robert here for one of the women in town who works at the munitions plant.”
“All of us have to do our part for the war work,” Nora said. “Now who’s this man taking over my kitchen?”
“That would be me, I’m afraid.” Charles gave her his most winning smile; if anything, Nora only scowled more. He decided to win her over the old-fashioned way. “What say we get started on some plum pudding?”
As they began working together in the kitchen – finding a rhythm easily enough as she showed him where everything was to be found, tearing the loaf of bread into cubes – Charles indulged in a little eavesdropping. (At least, when baby Robert stopped throwing lids around and a hush fell.) In the living room, Hank was saying, “I bought us wedding rings. Nothing fancy! At the pawn shop, if you want to know the truth. But I thought your publisher would wonder why we weren’t wearing them.”
“Good thinking,” Raven said. In her tone of voice, Charles could sense her dismay as clearly as if he could see her face. How awkward did it have to be, accepting a wedding ring from a man she didn’t even want to date? And how much worse for Hank, who was bright enough to know where he stood. Raven continued, more briskly, “This house is beautiful, Hank. I can see why you want to live here. Why haven’t you moved already?”
“Oh, I love it here – but I wouldn’t want to move to the country yet. This is only for weekends, now; this is more the place where I’d retire, I think." He sounded apologetic as he added, "I know most women hope to have a big home of their own right away, but I can't help feeling like city life is much more fun.”
“I agree completely.” Raven sounded slightly surprised, Charles thought.
They made their way upstairs, Hank no doubt lugging their bags into their respective rooms. Just as they got up there, though, Charles heard the crunch of tires on snow out front. Apparently the guests had arrived.
With a nod to Nora, Charles headed to the door. He could manage without his stick well enough for this short distance, and he wanted to make a good impression on –
--he opened the door to reveal a man in a black coat and hat –
--on the single most handsome man Charles had ever seen.
He’d thought Erik Lehnsherr attractive just from his photograph, but that flat, black and white image hadn’t captured those pale blue eyes, or the perfect lines of his body, or the sheer magnetism of the man. The way he stood there, dark clothes contrasting with the snow-white countryside, filling the doorway as if he were the only man in the world …
Charles realized he was staring, and that his guest was staring back. It was Erik who spoke first. “Are we at the right house? Rebecca Lawrence’s house?”
“Yes! Yes, you’re in the right place. I’m her brother, Charles. Won’t you come in, Mr. Lehnsherr?”
Erik stepped inside, but warily, as though he thought there might be booby traps ready to spring. Just behind him came Emma Frost, turned out in a white fur coat and a turban. “Splendid,” she said. “Simply splendid. Just as all our readers will have envisioned it. Really, when reproduction for photographs gets just a little easier – I can’t wait to feature it!” She held up her hands, forming a square like a photographer’s frame. “’The Perfect American Home.’”
Charles fervently hoped photography would remain expensive for some time to come. He made some pleasant chit-chat as he tried to take their coats, but at the last minute, Lehnsherr paused. “You shouldn’t have to deal with these. Your leg – ”
“I can manage,” Charles insisted. While his hip ached a bit, surely he could hang a couple of coats in the hall closet.
… did this house have a hall closet?
Just then, Raven appeared at the top of the stairs, Hank just behind her. “Welcome to our home!” she said, sounding so sweet and conventional and completely unlike herself that Charles was barely able to keep from laughing.
“This is lovely. Simply lovely.” Emma already had command of the room. Her fashionably short hair was set into tight little curls, as rigid as the lines of her white suit. “The sort of homey simplicity we’ve gotten too far from these days. Don’t you agree, Mr. Lawrence?”
“It’s Mr. McCoy,” Hank managed to slip in. “Rebecca Lawrence is a pen name.”
“We wanted to preserve our privacy,” Raven said.
“Very wise,” Emma said. Thank goodness she was in a mood to be pleased. “It’s good to touch base with basic, decent values again. Don’t you agree, Mr. Lehnsherr?”
Charles didn’t hear Erik’s response; he was too busy stuffing the coats into what might actually have been a broom closet but would just have to do. Then he got back into the kitchen, where Nora was untying her apron. “Thank goodness you’re back,” she said. “Sounds like the cow’s got out again.”
“There’s a cow?” Charles had spent most of his life in London, the past few years in Manhattan, and absolutely none of that experience remotely prepared him for cows. He rarely dealt with domesticated animals larger than, say, a schnauzer. But sure enough, in the distance, a cowbell clanked dully.
Nora didn’t seem to notice his discomfiture. “I’ll get her tied up again. You watch little Robert there, and mind the stove.”
It was a relief to turn back to the familiarity of his kitchen – to smell the cinnamon and nutmeg, and enjoy the relative silence – until the moment the door swung open. Mr. Lehnsherr strode through, then halted, obviously taken aback. “Excuse me,” he said. “I meant to – collect myself.”
His skin was pale; his breathing quick. Charles realized with a jolt that Mr. Lehnsherr was on the verge of panic.
He knew the reason, or rather, that there was no reason. And he knew that Lehnsherr needed help.
“Sit down,” Charles said, gesturing to a chair. “Right away. Just sit down and take deep breaths.”
Although it looked as though Mr. Lehnsherr would like to argue, he sat. Charles quickly poured him a bit of the cooking brandy, hoped it was fit for drinking, and took the glass to the table. “Here. Take a sip. If you want to talk, you can talk. If you’d rather be distracted, I can think of something. And if you’d like to be left alone – well, this plum pudding won’t make itself.”
“No problem, Mr. Lehnsherr.”
“Erik, please.” For a few minutes, Charles busied himself folding in the cubes of bread and the remaining spices. The only sounds were the clanking of pans as baby Robert kept playing on the floor, oblivious to the rest. Only after Charles had spooned the plum pudding into a baking dish did Erik say, “Thank you for not asking why.”
“I know why.” Charles opened the oven, felt the glow of heat as he pushed the dish inside. “After our London house was bombed, my sister and I had attacks like that for – oh, months. More than a year, I think. Anything could set us off.”
Their trauma, great as it had been, had only lasted one horrible hour, more or less. How much worse must it be for Erik Lehnsherr, whose suffering had lasted for years?
Erik stared down at the table as he says, “I keep telling myself I’m back in the ‘real world’ now. But the war is as real as this house. The danger is as real as the safety. After you’ve seen it fall apart once – it’s hard to believe it can ever last, anywhere.”
“I still expect the ceiling to cave in,” Charles confessed. “I still listen for the sirens. But, you know, for once the cold hard facts can comfort us. The Germans aren’t here, and the way the war is going, they’re not likely to ever show up.”
That won him a quick, razor-straight smile. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“We can’t know the future. Only today. And today, you’re warm and safe and in a house where everyone is honored to have you.” Was honored too formal? He rushed on, trying to lighten the mood: “I realize Christmas isn’t your holiday. I’m surprised the Frosts were able to talk you into this.”
Erik stared down at the glass in his hands, and Charles realized he’d blundered even before Erik said, “I let them talk me into it. You see, I’ve no place else to go. No one waiting. Might as well spend a few days here as anywhere else.”
After only a few minutes’ acquaintance, Charles already knew the worst thing he could do would be to pity Erik. So he continued, “We’re not terribly religious, so don’t expect an overly preachy holiday. Just turkey, and plum pudding, and evenings by the fire. Surely everyone enjoys good food and happy company.”
“I’ve had too little of either lately.” Erik looked steadier now. “Thank you.”
“It’s just the cooking brandy.”
“I didn’t mean the brandy. I meant – when I get the shakes, people either pretend it’s not happening or treat me like some invalid. You knew how to handle it. I appreciate that.”
The warmth blossoming in Charles’ chest made him feel as though he was melting. Erik’s eyes met his, held his gaze a moment longer than most people did, just long enough for Charles to wonder, He isn’t – he couldn’t be –
This was the moment Robert chose to began wailing.
“Oh, no.” Charles had no more experience with babies than he did with cows. He’d rather have dealt with the cow. But this was supposed to be his nephew. Shouldn’t he do something?
Just then, however, Emma Frost marched in, Raven right behind her, looking terrified. “Poor little fellow,” Emma said. “So adorable. Never had children of my own. Aren’t you lucky to have the perfect mother, little one?”
The “perfect mother” shot Charles a terrified look as she walked to baby Robert and picked him up, holding him out from her body as though she thought he might stain her borrowed housedress … and to judge from the stink now wafting from the baby’s diaper, she might be right. Raven swallowed hard and said, “I think it needs changing.”
Had Raven ever changed a diaper in her life? Charles hadn’t either. He looked out the back door, wishing Nora would return. How long could it take to find a cow?
Then Erik surprised them all. “I’ll change him.”
“You will?” Raven beamed with relief, before remembering that she was playing hostess. “But surely you don’t want to – ”
“I like babies,” Erik said. “Here, let me have him.” He took Robert from her arms, deftly scooping him onto one hip. “Where are the baby’s things?”
Thank goodness Nora had mentioned this. “I’ll show you,” Charles offered.
Which was how he found himself in the downstairs guest bedroom, watching Erik Lehnsherr change a baby’s diaper.
“You’re good at this.” Charles laughed softly as he watched Erik folding the square of white cloth into a triangle, then doubled that triangle on itself.
Erik’s next words astonished him. “I had a daughter.”
The past tense was the most horrible thing Charles had ever heard. “Oh, Erik. I’m so sorry.”
Erik glanced back at him, as if surprised by the depth of emotion in Charles’ voice. His smile was sad, yet he smiled all the same. “I lost my wife and daughter many years ago. I’ve hardly been near a child since. It’s … good.” He looked down at baby Robert then as he lifted his feet, the better to slide the diaper beneath him. “There you go, little man. That’s better, isn’t it?”
Charles felt that melting sensation again.
Which was a very stupid way to feel. Potentially a dangerous one, if Erik realized what was going on. For a moment, when their eyes had met in the kitchen, Charles had dared to hope that Erik might be –
But he wasn’t. Wife and child meant heterosexual, most of the time.
(Not all of the time. Charles realized that. Still, after less than an hour’s acquaintance with Erik Lehnsherr, he suspected a life of pretense wasn’t for him.)
It wasn’t as though Charles were a virgin. An older boy had satisfied his curiosity at school, and he’d fallen in with a man he very much liked at university. However, Geoffrey’s upper-crust family had detected what was really going on and set an ultimatum: It was Charles or the inheritance, and the inheritance had won out. Charles had almost managed to convince himself that he didn’t blame Geoffrey, really. His family had a castle. One might do any number of things for a castle.
He’d nursed his heartbreak for a while afterward, only thinking he was ready to look for love again in the months before the Blitz began. Then he’d learned what heartbreak really was. Between looking after Raven, grieving their parents, recovering from his injuries and arranging their move to New York, he’d scarcely had time to think about love.
New York City had to be one of the easiest places to be homosexual in the world. You could be arrested if you were caught, but the police were fairly lazy about enforcement, at least during wartime when everyone was spread so thin. Raven’s literary set contained several “queens,” as they called themselves, but Charles didn’t fit in. Once he'd been much like them - cocky, arrogant, self-satisfied in the extreme. But the bombing had transformed his mind as much as his body, and now he had no interest in that type. Not that he'd had any opportunity to turn them down. None of these men were short of potential boyfriends, which meant a shabby Englishman with a bad leg and a cane and a restaurant that kept him busy six nights a week – well, he wasn’t their first choice. Or their third. Or their tenth.
Honestly, Charles didn’t mind it much. That scene with all its glitter and flash wasn’t what he wanted, not really. No, his type would be someone … steady. Substantial. With depth to match his discretion. Sensitive and yet strong –
In other words, someone very like Erik Lehnsherr.
Charles sighed and got back to making dinner.
By that night, as they all decorated the tree together, Charles had passed through “initial awe” and was well on his way to “hopelessly infatuated.”
Emphasis on hopeless. But still. It was amazing just to feel this way.
“I thought Christians always put a star atop the tree,” Erik said as Raven teetered on the ladder in high heels.
“Angels work too!” Raven sounded breathless. At the foot of the ladder, Hank clung to the frame, attempting to provide some steadiness and clearly ready to catch Raven if necessary. As she nudged the angel into place, she added, “We’ve always liked angels. In our family, I mean.”
“Room for individuality even within tradition,” Emma Frost said from her place by the fire, where she was darting a needle through popcorn and cranberries as though for spite. “That would be a good theme for a column, wouldn’t it, Rebecca?”
It still took Raven a few seconds to respond to that name. “Oh, yes. Wonderful.” Carefully she made her way down the ladder.
Charles was helping Erik hang ornaments on the tree. Most of them were old-fashioned, hand-carved, not like the shiny metal baubles in stores now. They must have belonged to Hank’s parents. Slowly he turned a little hand-painted snowman over in his hand. He and Raven had never done much for Christmas since their parents’ deaths; really, they ought to change that.
“I’m hanging the baby Jesus on the tree,” Erik said wryly. “I already put up the Three Wise Men and a herald angel. Meanwhile you get all the snowmen and elves.”
“I really should give you the secular ones, shouldn’t I?”
“Actually, I like the irony.” Erik and Charles exchanged smiles, just long enough for Charles’ heart to turn over, before Erik turned back to the tree.
Then Hank sat down at the piano and started to play. Charles glanced over at Raven, who looked as surprised as he felt. They’d both assumed Hank McCoy was an egghead without an artistic bone in his body. Oblivious to their astonishment, Hank began playing something unexpected – jazz, from the sound of it. After a moment, Charles realized the music was from the Nutcracker, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, to be exact. But the arrangement was unexpected and brilliant.
When Raven recognized it too, she smiled. “Hank, did you come up with this on your own?”
“Me? Gosh, no.” Hank kept playing easily as he spoke. “It’s an arrangement by Duke Ellington – I’ve heard him play it in the clubs. He keeps saying he’s going to do an entire jazz album of the Nutcracker Suite, eventually. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“Wonderful.” Raven actually walked behind Hank and put her hands on his shoulders. Apparently Hank should have tried paying the piano much earlier in their courtship.
What are we going to do about presents? Charles had brought his for Raven, just as she’d brought hers for him. They’d spent nearly all their discretionary income for the month on stately, proper gifts for Emma Frost and Erik Lehnsherr – a leather-bound address book for her, and a black turtleneck sweater for him. (Charles had protested the turtleneck as too bohemian, but Raven had already lost the receipt.) Now the present for Erik felt horribly impersonal.
Then Charles brightened. He’d brought his favorite book along on this trip, for reading on the train. All right, it was used – but it was a vintage copy, leather-bound and handsome. Surely it would be an acceptable gift, and he thought it might be just the kind of story Erik Lehnsherr needed right now.
Hank’s song trailed off, and both Emma and Raven applauded. Emma said, “I enjoy traditional music, myself, but that was – well, it was delightful.”
Raven chimed in, “I had no idea you liked jazz so much.”
“I love it. If you ask me, Duke Ellington's the Mozart of the 20th century. But ... I hadn’t thought you would approve. You know, going to clubs in Harlem, that sort of thing,” Hank admitted.
“Are you crazy? I’d love to do that sometime.” Raven was smiling open-mouthed. Unfortunately, she and Hank were acting too much like the dating couple they were, instead of the happily married parents they were supposed to be. Thankfully Emma Frost hadn’t noticed – yet. Charles was going to request some Christmas carols to hurry the conversation along, until, in the momentary hush, he heard a distant bell ringing.
The same bell from the afternoon …
“The cow’s got loose again,” he said.
Raven turned to him, wide-eyed. Even Hank, who owned this farm, seemed to be at a loss. “Oh,” he said. “Well. The cow. We’d better – fetch her, then.”
“Do they come when you call?” Raven whispered. Charles shook his head no.
“I grew up in farm country,” Erik said. “I wouldn’t mind going after her. Besides, I’d like to take a look around the grounds.”
“I’ll go with you,” Charles said, without thinking. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he felt stupid.
Raven said what they were all wondering. “Can you manage with your stick?”
He affected courage he didn’t feel. “We’ll see, won’t we?”
“If you lose your footing,” Erik said, very lightly, “you can always lean on me.”
Remember to stumble. Definitely stumble at least once. Maybe even fall, if you think he’ll catch you.
But the snow was only a few inches thick, and fluffy, not yet having turned to ice at the edges. Charles found he was able to manage reasonably well as he and Erik worked their way across the broad, rolling grounds. He only wobbled once – but Erik noticed and immediately offered Charles his arm.
Hang pride. Charles took it, relishing the warmth of Erik’s body close to his.
“There she is,” Erik said, pointing toward the far fence and a dark shape just visible near it. “Does she have a name?”
She did; Nora had told Charles that afternoon. But it was so ridiculous that he blushed. “Macushla.”
“Macushla? What kind of name is that?” Erik laughed. “It sounds Serbian. Or Hungarian?”
Charles had to grin. “She already had the name when we got her.” As in, this morning. “The mystery may never be solved.”
Did cows charge, or was that only bulls? Erik didn’t seem to be worried, and Charles took his cues from him. Sure enough, Macushla waited patiently for them as though they’d had an appointment; when Erik took hold of the loose rope around her neck, she fell into step beside them.
Thank goodness the stable was obvious. Charles would not have wanted to have wound up with a cow and no idea where to put it.
“You know, you haven’t yet told me what you do for a living,” Erik said. “It’s refreshing. Most men are more interested in telling you their profession than their name.”
“I run a restaurant in Manhattan.”
“Very chic, or a cozy neighborhood place?”
“Cozy, even though the neighborhood is in Manhattan.”
“So culinary talent runs in the family.”
It took Charles a moment to realize what Erik was talking about. “Oh, right! Yes. Absolutely.”
It’s a good thing he’s leaving the day after Christmas, Charles thought as they walked into the stable. Otherwise I’m sure I’d make a fool of myself over him.
Erik guided Macushla into her stall, petting her side to soothe her. He had beautiful hands, really – long-fingered and strong –
Talk before you make a fool of yourself now. “What will you do? For a living, I meant, though I suppose it must apply to everything, now.”
“Do you know, you’re the only person outside the military who’s bothered to ask?” Erik held his arm out for Charles again, even though their path back to the house was a smooth walkway, shoveled clear. After the briefest pause, Charles threaded his hand through the crook of Erik’s elbow. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve been fighting this war most of my adult life. For Jews in Germany, it began in the early 1930s. Now I only know … code-breaking. Ciphers. How to get through barbed wire. All very useful on the front, none of them particularly handy in regular life.”
Nor could Erik return to a career in intelligence, Charles realized. His cover had been blown spectacularly; his name and face were now known to Axis and Allies alike. “I feel sure you could master anything you set your mind to.”
“You’re kind. Really I’d like to work with immigrants, refugees. After the war, there will be thousands upon thousands of them. They’ll need to know how to resettle in the United States. Maybe I could be someone who helps them.”
“You’d be brilliant at it,” Charles said, meaning every word. Was he imagining it, or was Erik guiding them back inside very, very slowly? “It’s a difficult transition. Raven and I had the advantages of speaking the language and being U.S. citizens – ”
“We were born here, before the family moved back to England,” Charles explained. “Anyway, even with those advantages, the transition was rough going, and I think it would have been even if – even under happier circumstances. That would be an excellent thing for you to do, I think.”
Erik paused. By now they stood just a couple feet away from the front door. “I’ve got a transition of my own to navigate first. Probably I’ll settle in Washington, D.C., but I plan to see New York. Maybe visit once in a while. Don’t suppose I could look you up sometime?” His eyes looked deeply into Charles’; for his part, Charles felt as though he could hardly breathe. “For – a meal?”
“A meal! Right. Absolutely. Yes. I’d love to treat you to a dinner at Greymalkin’s, any day you like.” He was babbling now but couldn’t stop himself. “And any other help you might need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I won’t,” Erik said.
Was this good? This seemed very good. Very very good. But maybe Erik just meant to look Charles up as a friend. Wife and child, remember?
Maybe the next words out of Erik’s mouth would resolve things. Yet as Charles looked up at him, Erik said, “I think this holiday was just what I needed. A time that’s peaceful. Calm. Honest.”
Honest. The word landed on Charles like a weight, almost crushing. Whatever Erik felt for him – which was probably, almost certainly, just friendship, but even friendship meant so much – all of it was based on the fiction of Rebecca Lawrence, America’s Most Beloved Homemaker.
Before Charles could think of anything else to say, the door swung open wide. “You found the cow?” Emma Frost said, almost majestically, as though they’d been on the grandest errand of all time. “Well done! How I enjoy this simple farm life.” She still wore diamond earrings.
Charles managed to smile as he came inside. “Erik helped me past the rough spots,” he said quickly, in case Emma had noticed their joined arms. “It wasn’t bad at all.”
“Wonderful,” Raven said, beaming at him from her place on the piano bench, right next to Hank. Legs touching. Interesting, Charles thought.
Then Emma Frost said, “You know, Rebecca, you must make me a promise for the morning.”
After a beat, Raven realized she was being spoken to. “Oh, anything!”
“In your wonderful Christmas column last year, you talked about making everyone a large breakfast to share together before opening the gifts.” Emma smiled. “And you flip the pancakes yourself! I’ve never had the knack for that. Promise you’ll flip some for me in the morning.”
Raven’s jaw dropped in open horror, but fortunately Emma wasn’t looking directly at her. “I – sure. Of course.”
Charles mouthed, Why did you say that? She shrugged. Flipping pancakes in the air wasn’t easy, and Raven could hardly manage to load bread in a toaster. He stifled a groan as he made a note to set his alarm clock for an ungodly early hour. Tomorrow morning he’d be teaching a crash course in pancakes.
They hadn’t made it through this weekend yet.