"Then he threw down his sword, snatched up the princess, and promised to spend the rest of his life defending her. And they lived happily ever after."
Wendy opened her eyes with a smile to take in Jack's delighted expression. "I knew it!" he crowed, "I knew he'd rescue her!"
"You're very smart," Wendy agreed, tucking the bed clothes more closely around him.
"Tell another one, Aunt Wendy," the boy pleaded. "It's not so very late, is it?"
Wendy removed the boy's eyeglasses with practiced care. At times like these, he looked so much like his father that she could almost believe herself back in the nursery. "It is very late," she said softly. "Your mama and papa will not thank me for keeping you up so far past your bedtime."
Jack pouted until she handed him his teddy bear, looking so disappointed that Wendy relented. "But I'll come back tomorrow and tell you all about the pirates that they met during their honeymoon voyage."
"Pirates!" Wendy placed a hand squarely on Jack's chest to keep him from leaping out of bed.
"Pirates," she replied. "But only if you are a good boy and go straight to sleep now."
The boy screwed his eyes shut and, with great concentration, pretended to be fast asleep. Wendy smiled fondly and placed a kiss on his forehead before making her way quietly out of the nursery. As she walked down the stairs, her brother's voice called to her, "What was it tonight, Wendy? Indians? Magicians?"
"A sword-fighting merchant's son and a princess." Wendy leaned over the banister to look down at the bearded face of her younger brother. "They lived happily ever after."
John chuckled, "A sword-fighting merchant... Wendy, I don't know how you do it."
"Merchant's son," she murmured, then finished her descent. "Surely, you can manage a story or two yourself, John."
"Me?" John laughed. "Hardly. Jack sometimes clamors for a story from my youth, but I can remember none. It's a shame that we did nothing exciting in childhood that would divert him."
Wendy had heard similar complaints so often that she barely reacted. She'd gone beyond wondering why none of the boys remembered their adventures in Neverland. "Yes, you were a rather dull youth," she teased her younger brother.
Feigning injury, John protested, "Dull youth? I was the brightest in my class, I'll have you know!"
"It was the glasses; they fooled everyone," Wendy laughed.
John smiled ruefully, "Perhaps, dear sister, perhaps. I wish I did know a story or two for Jack. Your talent is unique."
"Perhaps it is a gift from God."
"Certainly a gift from somewhere, as you didn't get it from mother and father, nor did Michael and I." He shook his head, dismissing the subject. "Have you heard the news?"
"News?" She hadn't, of course. She rarely heard anything that related to the modern London world. Wendy preferred the news that came to her through her books and imaginings over anything that might happen in real life. Her parents despaired of her, and blamed her bookish tendencies for her spinster status.
"The Phoenix has returned to port." At her puzzled expression, John continued with exasperated affection. "Wendy, do you follow nothing? The Phoenix has been missing for almost two decades and was thought lost at sea. The return is nothing short of a miracle. The captain and crew are sure to be the toast of society when they arrive in London."
Wendy's mind raced, 'A ship lost at sea... they were caught in a hurricane and washed ashore on a deserted island where they were held prisoner by cannibals... The captain amazed them with magic tricks that he taught himself to wile away the long hours of dullness between adventures, and the cannibals thought him a god and were afraid to harm him or his crew... It took years for him to learn enough of their language to explain their predicament and persuade the natives to help rebuild the ship but once he did...'
"Wendy!" John's voice cut through her fantasy. "Wendy, are you all right?"
"Hmmm?" She blinked, startled, and ducked her head. "Yes, I'm all right. Just tired, I suppose."
John's eyes narrowed, but he nodded. "There a cab waiting to take you home whenever you're ready."
"Yes, thank you, John." Wendy allowed her brother to help her into her wrap. "Good night."
"Good night, Wendy."
Wendy leaned back, enjoying the clattering noise of the horse's hooves on the short drive. 'Once the captain persuaded them, the natives revealed themselves to be master shipbuilders. They disassembled the entire ship and put it back together, safer, faster, and more water tight than the crew had ever dreamed possible...'
The clattering stopped as the hansom came to a halt in front of Wendy's parents' home. Wendy stepped from the cab into the cool night air, still lost in her daydreams about the ship's heroic captain and crew. For the first time in years, she wished that she was still a part of London society. Once she had been welcome in the whirl of parties and balls, but her strange habits and manner of speaking had gradually isolated her. She'd turned down suitors for not fulfilling her remembered image of sandy hair and mischievous green eyes until they had eventually stopped calling at all. London society had no place for an old maid, particularly one as prone to flights of fancy as Wendy was.
As she climbed the staircase to her bedroom, Wendy overheard a disagreement between her father and mother. She shook her head wryly, noting how little things had really changed since her return from Neverland and then paused when she heard her own name.
"...but he asked for Wendy specifically," her father protested.
"He's an old man. He remembers her as the young lady she was years ago, he doesn't realize..." her mother's voice trailed off. Wendy flinched as she realized what her mother was referring to.
"Twenty-eight is hardly ancient."
"She should have been married at twenty-two!" Her mother's voice took on a shrill note. "Even twenty-four, but now... She had prospects then, but you wouldn't be strict with her."
Now her father sounded annoyed. "She didn't care for any of them." A faint smile crossed Wendy's face.'Dear father...' He had so wanted her to find someone that she could truly love. He wasn't content to simply marry her off to the first man who came calling.
"It doesn't matter!" Her mother paused and then continued in a placating tone, "Not every woman can be as lucky as I was. In time, she would have learned to care."
Her father sighed. "Maybe this invitation..." Wendy's ears pricked up at this. An invitation? For her? To what?
"It will not make a difference," her mother said firmly. "She's too old to be courted now. She should not go."
"It's never too late to hope. The Phoenix has been missing for nearly twenty years. We don't know what to expect." Wendy sat down heavily on the steps, her eyes alight with excitement. The Phoenix? She would get to meet the heroic captain and crew of the Phoenix. Her mother's stringent voice cut off her fantasy before it could begin.
"She'll be a laughingstock!"
An ugly silence followed her mother's outburst. Tears started in Wendy's eyes. A laughingstock... An old maid dressed to outdo women ten years her junior. An old maid still searching for a husband. An old maid...
Finally, Mr. Darling spoke in a measured tone. "Mr. Oliver asked for her by name. Wendy will go to the ball. You will find something appropriate for her to wear and make sure that she is introduced to the correct people. You will not mention this discussion to her."
With that declaration, the argument was concluded. Wendy scrambled to her feet and made her way shakily to her bedroom, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. She undressed hurriedly, uncharacteristically leaving her dress lying on the floor of her bedroom, and climbed into bed, burying her face in the cool side of her pillow. Imagining herself at the ball brought fresh tears to her eyes. An old maid decked in ribbons, the younger girls laughing at her behind their fans, the smiles on the faces of the older people at her desperate attempts to land a husband, now that her good years were far behind her, an old maid...
An old maid.
She'd grown up in spite of herself. She'd rather enjoyed it at first, despite the vague feeling that she was being disloyal to Peter. She'd liked the dancing and fine dresses, the love letters. Those things had not lasted. She'd returned to her childhood bedroom and habit of telling stories, but the knock on her window never came. She was forgotten now. By everyone.
"Happy thoughts, Wendy-bird," she whispered aloud to herself. "Think happy thoughts."
Reaching behind her, she flipped the damp pillow over, resting her head once again on the cool side. She closed her eyes and forced her image of the ball to alter, focusing on the brave captain of the Phoenix. He would be tall, she decided, muscular, but not overwhelming, with strong hands. His mischievous green eyes would take in the simpering young girls jostling each other for his attention and dismiss them at once. He would pace the room with a look of amused disinterest until his gaze lighted on Wendy. Then his lips would quirk into a smile with no thought of impropriety. He would bow low before her and kiss her hand without even waiting for an introduction.
Wendy wriggled happily as the scene played itself out behind her closed eyelids. It didn't have to be so bad, she reminded herself. And if her fantasy captain just happened to be the mirror image of a grown up Peter Pan, then what of it? They were only daydreams after all.