Crown thee with nettles, kneel, and lay
Thy brows upon love's altar close,
- Clark Ashton Smith
Professor Stokes had a very keen talent for observation. Perhaps that was due to the nature of his work and his hobbies, but he had always been like that. Since he was a boy he could tell when his younger brother was out of sorts or if his mother was exhausted. He could tell when a colleague was agitated or lying through their teeth. Or if his dear students were stressed or confused. That monocle wasn't for show, after all.
And it was on this Saint Valentine's Day that he noticed that the lovely Mrs. Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard was upset, stressed and irritated. Unlike most people, Elizabeth was well adept at hiding her feelings. She was the head of the family, after all. A business to run, an image to maintain, and up until quite recently the stigma of being some agoraphobic woman to fight against. But the longer he knew her and was able to be blessed with her presence and company did he start to pick up on the signs. The way her regal posture would stiffen just so, the wringing of her hands that would turn to a nervous tightening of fingers, the quick glances or turn of the head away when she couldn't think of the proper words.
She was in the drawing room at the little desk in the corner, right hand gripping her fountain pen, left hand fidgeting just so as her thumb and pointer finger circling each other almost at war. Her back was stiff, and although he couldn't see her face just yet, he was sure there would be a worried sort of tightness to her expression.
He cleared his throat to make himself known, hoping not to startle her. She paused, and turned to look at the door way. The pained expression quickly softened to a tired but fond smile. "Oh Eliot, I didn't realize you were here."
Stokes stepped forwards, arms behind his back. "I was on my way back from the Old House, when I thought I'd say hello," he was close enough now to look over her shoulder. Contracts for the fishing fleet covered with scribbled notes and x's and cross outs in the harsh blue ink he knew exclusively belonged to Roger Collins. "Am I interrupting?"
"Yes," she said, but then sighed and dropped her pen onto the desk. "But I'm happy you are. I was starting to get a headache."
He nodded, and pulled his monocle out by it's silver chain, placing it to his eye. "Is everything alright?" he peered down at the papers. "Salary raises?"
Elizabeth's shoulders slumped, and her little smile vanished. "Some shareholders are insisting we only raise senior staff's annual salaries by two percent, when it was insisted on years ago that it would be four. I tried to compromise to three percent but they're not happy with that either."
Stokes placed a hand on her shoulder. "Perhaps you need to step away for a little while? It's a holiday after all."
Her eyes shone a moment, with a slight side glance to a nearby bouquet of pink and white roses sitting prettily in a vase with the label To my sweet, hardworking Mother, with love: Carolyn. If it hadn't been for the flowers and chocolates exchanged between family members and few friends she probably would have forgotten completely. Violets and vanilla creme chocolates from Roger. A card from Cousin Barnabas, fanciful and full of lovely calligraphy that could not be replicated by a store. A hand drawn card by David. And even chocolates and pansies from both Mr. Garners wishing her a very happy day, though no doubt they sent something to all the wealthy individuals in their clientele.
She was never the biggest believer of Valentine's day, personally. Though it didn't stop her from making little heart shape cards for each one of Carolyn's little classmates when she was still in primary school. But as for her own love life...well...the less said about that the better.
"Perhaps I should," Liz admitted.
Stokes beamed. "Then would you be so kind as to join me for dinner, Elizabeth?"
Liz's eyebrows shot up. "Dinner?"
"Yes. There's a lovely little restaurant in Bangor that I have a usual Friday reservation with. I'd be honored if you'd join me."
"Are you sure?" she asked, standing now. "I don't want to get in the way of your plans with anyone."
Eliot placed his hands on her arms, letting his monocle fall from his eye and rest on his chest. "Elizabeth, there's no one else I'd rather spend today with."
She smiled softly again. "Then alright. I accept."
Stokes' eyes lit up, and his smile was infectious. She found herself smiling too. How is it he knew exactly what she needed? No matter. He promised to return in an hour and they parted ways.
Of course, it caused quite a stir at Collinwood when Elizabeth announced her dinner plans with Professor Stokes. Carolyn squealed. "Like a date? Oh Mother, that's wonderful!"
"Please kitten," Roger scoffed. "The good Professor and your mother are simply friends. He would've offered dinner no matter the day."
"Roger please," Liz sighed, rubbing her temples.
"He's just jealous he got stood up for lunch," David teased.
Roger's eyes flared a moment. "David, go to your room."
"But you were! Mister Blair was-"
"David! Your room! Now!" Roger shouted, and the boy stuck out his tongue and ran off.
Carolyn during the chaos had hopped over to the phone to tell Maggie, even though Liz insisted it wasn't a big deal. But it was usually a losing battle with Carolyn.
Only Julia provided some relief by helping Liz pick out what to wear. Settling on a black dress with long sleeves that hugged her figure quite nicely, with a white lace collar and a red and gold rose brooch on her right shoulder. Her hair was up in its usual curls, complete with a black satin bow.
Punctual as ever, Eliot arrived back at Collinwood in an hour, dressed in a dark grey three piece suit with a pink bow tie and matching pocket hankie and vest. He was closely examining the original Barnabas Collins' portrait when Liz descended the stairs.
She lightly tapped his shoulder. "Ready?"
He whirled around. "Yes I'm-" Eliot's words died in his throat. She was stunning. Beyond stunning. And a man with usually something to say suddenly found himself quite speechless. "Elizabeth you-you look-absolutely charming."
She smiled at his praise. The sorrowful mood that had tainted her lovely face not seconds before has washed away. "Why thank you. And you look very dashing."
"Thank you," he whispered, taking her hand and raising it to his lips. Silently, he took a single red rose from his pocket and gifted it to her. She took it with a smile, holding it close and breathing in the lovely scent.
"I'll be the luckiest man there tonight," Stokes continued. "I'll have the most enchanting woman in Maine as my company. Shall we?" he held out his arm, which she happily linked with hers.
What they talked about on the ride over to Bangor was light chatter. The weather, the snow, the economy. Just trying to get the usual chit chat out of the way.
It was a lovely restaurant indeed. Cozy, quiet, but with a lovely atmosphere. Everyone seemed to already know Stokes as they walked inside; greeting him warmly and leading them to a quiet little table in the corner, already set up with candles. Like the sweet man he was, he held out her chair, pushed her in and poured her their first glass of sherry.
"Thank you for getting me out of Collinwood, Eliot. I didn't realize how much I needed it until now," she said with a sigh.
"I thought as much. You needed cheering up, and I've found the best way to deal with stressful things sometimes is to, well, relax with a nice meal and good conversation," he leaned forward. "Conversation that doesn't involve the things that are stressing you of course."
"Of course," she gave him a slight smirk. "Well Professor, what is it that you're teaching this semester?"
Stokes looked surprised, but quickly recovered. "Well, at the moment I have a literary analysis class on eastern literature. A history class focusing on Europe. But, I'm sure you don't want to hear about all that."
"Oh but I do," she exclaimed. "I've been so wrapped up in fish and Collinwood. And I'd love nothing more than to talk about history and literature."
"Oh. Well," Stokes cleared his throat. "I've taken these past two weeks to focus on ancient chinese poetry…."
And off he went. Liz listened with rapt attention. Though every few minutes or so he'd pause. As if waiting for her to say she'd like him to stop. But she didn't. In fact, she'd encourage him to keep at it. The topic soon turned to his field research in other countries. The deserts of Egypt. The highlands of Scotland. Most recently the catacombs of France. They were so engaged in their conversation that it took the poor waiter clearing his throat twice, and loudly, for them to notice and order their main course.
"Forgive me, I must be boring you," Stokes said bashfully, quickly taking a tip of sherry.
"No, no not at all," she sat up and reached across the table, taking his large hand in her much smaller one. "I love listening to you."
Stokes could feel the heat rise to his cheeks slightly. "I'm...I'm certainly glad to hear that. If you're sure-"
"I'm more than sure," she insisted, smiling. "Please Eliot."
"Very well," Stokes gave her a soft squeeze, before letting her hand slip away. He soon launched into a lecture on the Italian city of Venice. No. Not a lecture. It was nothing like that. Her eyes stayed wide and eager, only looking away to take a bite of food or drink from her glass. Asking questions every so often that he could only wish someone in his classes would ask. She was engaged and intrigued. Bright and curious. As if trying to capture the memory of the city as her own, like she had walked the streets herself, to savor the full history.
It was nothing short of endearing.
"Venice has a rich, lush history. The museums alone are enough to make your heart soar. Why, it could take you weeks to visit it all. I plan on going back soon. There are a few artifacts they'd like me to assess and they can't possibly have them shipped here." He did love to do that. Sabbaticals to Europe or ventures in the name of the University's history and archeological departments. Though sometimes that meant he was away when important moments of disaster seemed to strike Collinsport, Maine. But he couldn't let the inhabitants of Collinwood keep him trapped.
At that thought, he paused, frowning for the first time all evening. Wasn't that what Elizabeth was? Trapped? Both literally for nearly two decades and figuratively? They needed her, of course, she was their proud matriarch and yet-
And yet he had the strangest feeling it had been a long time since Liz had done anything selfishly. Even something as simple as taking a trip. Before he even really thought through the logistics, the words left his mouth.
"Come with me."
"Pardon?" Elizabeth was startled, eyes wide and confused. But that only strengthened Eliot's resolve.
"Venice. I would like very much if you came with me," he smiled sweetly, little dimples forming around his mouth. "I've been told I'm an excellent travel companion. And we'd get to see things beyond tourist attractions."
Liz's mouth opened, then closed. Then opened again. "Oh Eliot I-I don't know. I've never…" she swallowed hard, looking downward almost sheepishly. "I'm not exactly well traveled and-I know very little about these sorts of things. I don't know what sort of help I could be I-"
He reached over, and lifted her head gently with his knuckle. "I know. That's why I want to take you. But you don't have to tell me yes right now. And I shan't be offended if you say no."
Liz searched his face. There was nothing but sincerity and kindness there. Warmth. "May I think about it?"
"Of course," he pulled his hand away, just as their waiter returned with a desert menu. They both decided on a little pastry platter, when Eliot reached into his pocket for his wallet. "Charge it to-"
"Both of us," Liz interrupted, her purse already open.
"Elizabeth, it's my treat." the professor instead, but she shook her head.
"Oh no, I inist," she said. "If we must, we could go dutch but I am not leaving you with the full bill."
Stokes chuckled. "You're a stubborn woman,"
Liz smiled pleasantly. "Thank you."
"It's a lovely quality. Very well, half and half it is."
The waiter seemed amused by this, and once he came back with the bill he also placed two glasses of wine on the table. "On the house, for the adorable couple," he said with a wink. Ignoring the reddening faces of the professor and matriarch.
And once their sweets were eaten and their wine slowly sipped, they rose from their table. Check paid in halves. Stokes linked his arm with Elizabeth's and escorted her back to his car. Holding the door open and helping her in, of course. He was a gentleman, after all.
The ride back to Collinsport was beyond pleasant. The perfect end to the evening. The music on the radio was mostly filled with Bing Crosby and Bobby Darrin singing about love lost and found and returned. They chatted about their favorites musicians and composers, Liz eager to hear that they shared a love of opera.
"Oh I haven't been to the opera in such a long time," she mused. "Would you like to go one day? I usually went alone."
Stokes smiled, allowing his eyes to dart away from the road for a moment, to bask in the wonder of Elizabeth's smiling face. "I'd be delighted."
"Consider it a date then."
When they finally reached Collinwood, it was rather late into the evening. They glided up to the front door, which was of course unlocked. They exchanged pleasant goodnights and that was that. Or so he thought.
Stokes turned, looking back at the beautiful, lovely woman standing in the doorway. Before he could say a word, she had moved towards him. She placed her hands onto his jacket's lapels, tugging him gently downward as she rose to the balls of her feet and pressed her lips to his cheek.
"I'll go. To Venice. Nothing would make me happier," her voice didn't waiver, and he could have sworn up and down those green eyes of hers were sparkling.
Feeling rather bold, Professor Stokes drew an arm around her waist and kissed her. Properly. On the lips. Only for a moment or two before releasing her. Both of their faces flushed pink and their breath unsteady. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am," he whispered.
But beyond the doorway was a very slack jawed Roger and accompanied by Julia Hoffman, staring at the pair. Eliot cleared his throat, and released Elizabeth slowly, watching with slight ire as a very amused looking Julia gave him a smirk and a thumbs up.
"We'll sort it all out tomorrow," Liz said, hands still on his coat. "Over lunch?"
"Yes, yes of course. I'll pick you up at noon."
Her smile could have lit up the dark night. "Happy Valentine's day, Eliot."
"And a very happy Valentine's day to you,"
He could hear Roger Collins clear his throat and a muffled smack, no doubt he earned a swift hit to the gut from Julia, but he chuckled nonetheless. "Goodnight, Elizabeth."
"Goodnight." She walked back into Collinwood, doors shutting behind her. Stokes went back to his car with a slight spring in his step. Giddy almost. What an adventure it would be. He would make sure of that. Elizabeth deserved as much. He'd show her the beauty of the world that lay the great oak doors she had been locked behind. And who knows what might come of their adventure? It was too soon to hope for anything, but if that kissed proved anything, it was that there was something there. Affection. Affection that she returned. Perhaps it had always been there. Perhaps he had noticed it too, but had refused to believe his own eyes. In what universe did Elizabeth Stoddard fall for Eliot Stokes?
This one, it would seem. And how that affection would grow on their trip remained to be seen.
But how glorious it would be, either way.