Promise Her Anything, but Give Her Chocolate

by JoAnn Baca

 

Mary plumped the pillows on her bed and slid the top quilt up over them. Then she stood back, hands on hips, to survey her tidy chamber. A satisfied smiled wreathed her face … until she spied the overflowing trash can. Cheeks reddening suddenly, she bent and scooped it up, a hasty movement that scattered the topmost items. Sighing, Mary knelt and searched for the several pieces of discarded stationery that had fallen out of the can.

One piece had landed on her footstool, another at the foot of her bed, still another under the treadle sewing machine beside her rocking chair. One had skittered all the way to the far corner of her chamber, as if mocking her for disposing of the evidence of her foolishness. She huffed with the effort of repetitive stooping, finally gathering the wayward trash.

When she had replaced it all in the trash can, she shoved everything down deep inside of it. She didn’t notice that she had missed one piece of stationery which was still perched, balled up, in plain sight atop her newly made bed.

Lifting the can again, Mary turned and sped from her chamber, wanting to dump it quickly and without being seen.

Seconds later, Vincent rounded the corner of the passage leading to Mary’s abode, unaware he had just missed the Tunnel matriarch.

He called out, requesting entry to her chamber. When she didn’t reply, he went in, intent on leaving her some of the chocolates that Catherine had delivered for the community the night before, in celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Vincent set the candies on Mary’s nightstand, then searched for paper and pen in order to leave her a note about the sweets. As his eyes scanned the room, his gaze lit upon the paper sitting prominently on her bed.

Curious about the odd placement of what looked like a crumpled note, he plucked it and smoothed its edges. Within a few words, he realized it was a private message not meant for his eyes, an unfinished declaration of love. He carefully re-crumpled the paper and returned it to its place on the bed.

He was so embarrassed about reading the contents of the missive that he completely forgot to leave his own note beside the chocolates in his haste to leave.

***

Father was roused from slumber by the sound of children entering his study. The ticking clock beside his bed had failed to ring its customary alarm. Cross, he grabbed it, thinking he had forgotten to wind it, but noticed that, instead, he had forgotten to set it. Now he barely had time to dress before he was due to teach his first class of the day; breakfast would not be an option, which meant no tea. How a man was expected to face eight precocious pre-teens without a bracing cup of tea was beyond him, but he supposed he’d find a way.

After waiting a few minutes for their usually punctual teacher, Geoffrey whispered to Samantha, “Where do you suppose he is?”  

She shrugged. “I didn’t see him at breakfast.”

“Maybe he’s still asleep?” suggested Dustin.

Kipper snorted. “He’s always up at the crack of dawn. He must have some internal clock, fueled by Earl Grey!”

All the children snickered at that, but gradually their laughter died out and they began to sit up straighter as, one by one, they noticed Father gazing at them sternly from his chamber entrance.

When he had their complete attention, Father glared at them over the top of his glasses. “If we have all settled down, perhaps we can begin.” Just at that moment, his stomach let out a loud, long gurgle. After a moment of shock on the children’s part and chagrin on Father’s, they all collapsed into laughter.

***

Catherine stepped out of the shaft of light at her threshold into Vincent’s waiting arms.

“I came as soon as I got your message.”

They embraced, and though it was a brief exchange, it was warm and enthusiastic on both their parts.

“I feel foolish now,” he confessed when they’d parted. “I’m afraid my note might have been a bit alarmist.”

Catherine smiled. “I don’t mind.” She reached out to take his hand. “Why don’t you walk me home and you can tell me as we go.”

Her use of the term “home” sent a thrill through him. To know that she thought of his world as her home as well ….

He forced himself to focus on the matter at hand.  “It was an accident that I even saw the note, but now that I have ….” Hesitantly, he explained how he had come to unravel the balled up note in Mary’s chamber, finishing with, “When I saw that Mary had begun it with ‘Dear Jacob’ and was confessing her deep affection for him … well … I crumpled it back up and left as quickly as I could.”

“You don’t think she gave him a complete version of that note?” Catherine probed.

He shrugged. “I’m not positive, but I doubt it. When I saw him at lunchtime, he merely grumbled about forgetting to set his alarm and having to teach on an empty stomach. If he’d received a note like that from Mary, somehow I doubt he’d have acted that normally.”

“What are Father’s feelings towards Mary, or is it something he’s ever spoken of?” Catherine stopped and turned to gaze up into Vincent’s face. For her, the conversation had just gone from casual to serious.

Knowing his answer was important to her, Vincent considered the question, calling forth memories of conversations with his parent as well as his own empathic sensitivities. Catherine waited patiently, until Vincent quietly urged her to continue walking.

She didn’t interrupt his rumination, realizing he was turning over every stone in his memory and analyzing the results in light of the question. They walked for quite a while in silence.

Finally, Vincent spoke.

“They are old friends, and thus he perhaps does not choose to examine that friendship closely. But over time, I have seen and, more importantly, felt a change in him.” Vincent paused a moment before declaring, “He cares for her deeply, in ways he does not express. “

Looking into Catherine’s eyes to emphasize his conclusion, he said, “I believe he not only loves her, he is in love with her. But he may not realize himself what his feelings for Mary are. Or if he does, perhaps he feels the time is long past for speaking up. He might even believe that if she doesn’t feel the same way, it would upset the applecart of their relationship, perhaps irreparably.”  

It was Catherine’s turn to ruminate in silence for several minutes.

She leaned into Vincent’s side and squeezed his arm as she sighed. “It’s so sad, don’t you think? Mary’s been in love with Jacob all these years, was almost brave enough to confess it … then her courage failed her. You know what they say … and it’s so true ….”

“What is?”

“Faint heart never won fair … well, not fair lady, in this case … but you understand the sentiment.” Catherine shrugged, a wry smile on her face.

Vincent smiled in return. “And the same holds true for Father.”

“Sometimes men don’t reach for what they want, even when it’s right in front of them,” she murmured, as if to herself.

***

Mary was exiting Father’s study carrying a tray of tea things when Catherine and Vincent rounded the nearest corner. She was smiling to herself, and as they approached, she confided, “Somebody left me some chocolates!”

Vincent’s eyebrows rose, but before he could admit it was his doing, Catherine squeezed his hand in warning.

“Who do you think it was?” Catherine whispered eagerly.

Mary’s gaze cut quickly to Father’s study and just as quickly back again. “Oh, I couldn’t say. I have my suspicions, but … until something is said ….”

“How mysterious,” Vincent murmured, deeply uncomfortable.

Catherine shot him a warning glance.

“Well, I’m sure whoever it was will reveal himself before day’s end. It’s Valentine’s Day, after all!”

“Yes, it is!” Mary replied, smiling broadly.

They watched her retreat down the passageway. When she was no longer in sight, Vincent mumbled, “This has disaster written all over it.”

“Nonsense,” Catherine replied. “Watch and learn.”

As they entered Father’s study, Catherine began speaking to Vincent as if they had been having a conversation. “…and I think Mary is a lucky person.”

Father raised his head from a book as he heard her, sliding his reading glasses atop his head. “What’s that about Mary?’

“Oh, Vincent was wondering whether it was Peter or Eli who gave Valentine’s chocolates to Mary. They are both kind of sweet on her. Anyone can tell by the way they act around her.”

Father frowned. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh, yes. Anyway, I was just saying that Mary is a lucky woman, to have a number of suitors lined up. She really needs to make up her mind soon. It’s not fair to keep so many gentlemen in limbo.”

Vincent’s eyes widened during her speech, and he began coughing. Catherine gave him a discreet dig in the ribs with one well-placed elbow, and he got control of himself.

“Which one do you think she should go away with?” Catherine asked Father with all seeming sweetness.

Father stared at her, shock on his face. “Go away with?!”

“Well … yes. She’s given her life to this place. Don’t you think she’s earned the right to consider her own future happiness?”

Father’s jaw dropped open, then closed, then opened again, but no words came out.

Catherine pressed her advantage. “And Valentine’s Day is the perfect day for a man to reveal his feelings to a woman, and to ask for a promise in return, don’t you think?”

Father continued to stare at her, finally gathering himself enough to snap his jaw shut and nod dumbly in agreement.

“Your turn,” she whispered to Vincent, then aloud said to Father, “I want to see about the distribution of chocolates to the children. I’ll see you both later.”

Dismayed that she’d left him to complete her nefarious plot - with no clue as to how, Vincent went to Father’s side. He clapped the older man on the back, took a deep breath, and plunged in.

“It’s quite exciting,” he managed to say with some semblance of enthusiasm.

“What is?”

“The prospect of Mary marrying and leaving us. For her, I mean. For us … well, we’ll have to muddle through as best we can.” He sincerely hoped he was carrying on in a manner Catherine would approve of. He felt he was still balancing on the knife’s edge of disaster.

“Y-e-e-s-s-s,” Father replied with a distracted air, clearly too focused on what Vincent had just said to spare a coherent reply.

Mouse skittered in just at that moment, and Father’s attention was drawn to whatever fresh intrigue Mouse was about to get into. Vincent used the opportunity to retreat from Father’s chamber and proceed to his own.

***

Catherine looked up as Father peered into the playroom. He beckoned to her. She got up off her knees and handed the puzzle piece she was holding to one of the children.

“If you’re looking for chocolate, you’re too late,” she said as she approached him. “As the children say: if you snooze, you lose!” She smiled and took his arm. “Or was it me you were looking for?”

“I was … er … yes. I have a question to ask you.”

Was he actually blushing? Catherine smiled to herself, feeling victory was within reach.  “You can ask me anything,” she offered expansively.

“It’s … er … about Mary, actually.”

He had stammered out that much, but Father didn’t seem capable of going on.

After a few silent steps, Catherine realized she would need to help him along.

“Mary? Oh, did she reveal who her secret admirer was, the one who left her chocolates?” She knew she was being wicked, but this was so much fun! To see the serious older man so flustered was a rare treat.

Jacob roused himself to respond. “About that. I … uh … that is … well, you say you have no chocolates left?”

The despair in his voice tugged at her conscience.  She leaned closer and murmured in his ear, “Actually, I do have a small stash left. If you really need it.” It was the chocolate she had intended to give to Vincent, but she would gladly disappoint him for a chance to nudge Father closer to revealing his feelings to Mary.

Father’s eyes were bleak when they caught her gaze. “I rather think I do. If it’s not too late already.”

Resisting the urge to ask more, she nodded and whispered, “Wait right here.” Running back to the playroom, she dug into the bag she had carried down with her and pulled out an oblong box wrapped in gold foil and tied with a brown ribbon. She hurried back to Father with it. “These are Godiva truffles. They’re decadent, and guaranteed to win the heart of a fair lady.”

He clutched the box to his chest with one hand as if it were a lifeline. “Thank you, my dear,” he replied as earnestly as she’d ever heard him say anything.

“My pleasure,” Catherine said, smiling at his rapidly retreating back. Father’s cane beat a crisp tattoo as he nearly scurried down the passageway.

***

“Well?”

Catherine had barely entered his chamber before Vincent rose and came toward her.

“He took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Whatever you said to him really helped.” Catherine’s smile was joyous, but then it faltered. “However, it didn’t come without tremendous sacrifice.”

His troubled gaze bespoke his worry.

“It’s worse than worst, Vincent. To seal the deal, I had to give him the box of chocolates I was going to give you tonight, when I planned to ask you to be my Valentine.”

The twinkling of his blue eyes revealed it was an easy thing to forfeit. “All great enterprises come with sacrifices.” His smile widened to show his canines. “Besides, I have a feeling a certain lady to whom I shall be Valentine might make it up to me by bringing me a new box of chocolates tomorrow.”

“Ah hah!” Catherine frowned at him. “You’re doing this merely for the chocolate.” Then she smiled. “That’s fine with me!”

They laughed and embraced, and by the time they broke that embrace, they were both slightly breathless … and very well-kissed.

***

Everyone was surprised at dinner when Father and Mary announced their engagement - everyone except one particular couple, who merely applauded along with everyone else … while wearing self-satisfied smiles on their faces.

 

 

 

 

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