In disbelief, Betty said, "So, you and Yuriko – you're not actually – "
"That was only our second date, unless you count – this thing that doesn't count, Jesus, Betty, seriously, you really mean it?" Daniel's voice sounded almost as astonished as she felt.
"I—" Her voice cracked, but she pressed on, managing to whisper, "I do."
"Well – are you home? I could, uh, come by, maybe. Or is there somewhere we can meet? We should talk about this, right? I need – I'd like to see you tonight. If that's not, I don't know, rushing it or something."
"No, no, of course not!" Betty felt almost frantic – it was like her body and spirit had been so wound up for so long that she couldn't feel anything like happiness or even relief. No, first she was going to have to make a pit stop at "panic." She looked at her apartment, which she hadn't had time to clean in a couple of days. "Not here, I don't think."
"I just ate. But – I've got your email with directions and everything. Can I come by your place?"
"Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Are you going to Tube it or – "
"I'll get a cab." The price for a fare from Bloomsbury to St. John's Wood would be steep, and it wouldn't be easy to hail a taxi on a cold Saturday night. But she needed to get to Daniel, right now, to find out if she was just hallucinating in front of some Hallmark Channel movie or whether she was looking at a real, true Christmas miracle.
Fun fact: Putting on lipliner in a taxicab is a bad idea.
When the cab took yet another turn that caused Betty to draw a mulberry smudge on her cheek, she grimaced and grabbed a tissue. Stupid, to be worrying about her makeup – Daniel had seen her bare-faced before, not to mention in sweatpants, an eye patch and even a butterfly costume. Her fuschia sweater and white skirt were haute couture by comparison. But she wanted to do something, anything, to calm herself down – to feel like she was preparing for this.
Her mind took her back to that first dinner, just a few hours after she and Daniel had run into one another in Trafalgar Square. He hadn't raised the issue of romance that night; it had been in her thoughts because of Claire's hints, but she'd told herself that was just maternal matchmaking, nothing else. A bit of silliness that made her go warm all over when Daniel leaned over the table to tell her a funny story about the flight over, or brushed his fingers against her arm – by accident, of course. Nothing more than that.
Yet now when she thought back on it, the way Daniel had looked that night was so vivid. The shyness of his smile, or the way he would drop his eyes for a moment before slowly lifting them to hers again. The red leather of the chair he'd sat in. The small gilt votive that cast flickering light on his face. Betty thought she could smell the bouquet of the red wine they'd drunk.
Her cellphone rang, startling her. She fished the phone from the chaos of her purse; it was Daniel. "Hi! I'm on my way."
"Good. It's just – my coach house is kind of set back from the road, and I gave you directions from the Tube, so I don't know if the cabbie can find it."
"What does it look like?"
"It's about halfway down the block, red brick with cream – but they're all red brick with cream – you know what, forget it. Make him let you out halfway down the block, and I'll be standing out there waiting for you."
Betty cradled the phone against the side of her face. "Daniel. It's freezing. Literally – the rain's starting to turn into snow." The droplets against the windshield took a moment to blur away now.
"I don't care." The softness of his voice made memory break over her in waves, and she could envision him again across the table, candlelight painting his face soft gold. "I just want you to find me."
She knew what he was referring to, and yet it seemed to say so much more. "I'm sorry this took me so long."
"It's okay. Traffic around Regent's Park is nuts –"
"Not the cab ride, Daniel. I mean – reaching out to you. Knowing what I wanted." She glanced at the front of the taxi, where the driver seemed too wrapped up in his own cell conversation to pay any attention to hers. Thank goodness. All the things she'd once thought she could never bring herself to say out loud wouldn't wait any longer. "I know I hurt you. I must have made you think I didn't believe in you."
A long pause followed that, filled only with her cabbie's mumbling and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" from the radio. Finally Daniel said, "You're talking like you … owed it to me to go out with me, or something like that." She could imagine his concerned frown across that dinner table, the way the candlelight caught his kind eyes. "Which is crazy talk. It was your call to make."
"I made the wrong call. I hurt us both. I just don't understand why it took me so long to see it."
Daniel actually laughed. "Like I took four years, being near you every single day, to understand that you were the one for me?"
She hadn't actually looked at it in that light.
As the speckles on the taxi's windshield turned more and more from rain to snow, he continued, "I never blamed you for saying no. I mean, Jesus, you've seen me pretty low. You going out with me – honestly, it seemed like a long shot."
The distance they'd both traveled – from those first days to now, from December 8 to 11 – seemed farther to Betty than ever, their speed more intense, the journey more wonderful. "You should've called me, you know. Tried again."
"I didn't want you to think I was pathetic. Which – is more pathetic as a reason for not calling than actually calling could've been, oh, God."
"Are you kidding? I would never think you were pathetic. And after the stuff you've done this year?"
His voice sounded steadier when he spoke again, and she could envision him squaring his shoulders across that dinner table. "It means a lot to me that you still cared what I was doing."
"Always, Daniel." Betty could hear the softness in her voice, the need; she hoped he could too. "No matter what."
"We're okay now. Right? Better than okay."
She wanted to agree, but it was important to be honest. "We still have a lot we ought to talk through."
"I just – I don't care, Betty. I want you here."
"We're close, I think. Marlborough Place?" Betty was talking half to the cabbie now.
"Okay, I'm going outside. See you in a minute." Daniel's end of the connection snapped off, and she stuffed her phone back in her purse.
As directed, the cab driver let her off halfway down the block. Betty pulled her gray coat tightly around her to ward off the chill as she looked anxiously up and down the street. Nothing but snow was falling now, dotting her glasses, sparkling against her black hair.
Then she saw him: Daniel, wearing a camel overcoat that went with formalwear over what looked like lounge pants and house shoes, holding a red umbrella up against the snowfall. His face lit up, and finally, finally, the last of her panic and sadness melted away, leaving behind only joy.
I'm here, and he's waiting for me, and we don't have to be apart any longer.
Betty took one hesitant step toward him before breaking into a run. Daniel remained where he was, but he held out his free hand, welcoming her into his embrace. She went faster and faster until the moment she flung herself into his arms.
He smelled so good – just like himself, a scent she hadn't even realized she knew so well. Better was the feeling of Daniel's arms around her, his cheek resting against the top of her head.
"You made it." Daniel sounded even more relieved than she felt. He kept the umbrella steady – sheltering them both now, she realized. "You're really here."
"Really and truly."
Betty knew they ought to have any number of sensible conversations now. That hurrying things this important could sometimes be dangerous.
But she'd never felt more certain about the rightness of anything in her life than she did about grabbing the lapels of Daniel's coat and pulling him down for their first kiss.
The initial moment was tentative, unsure – their lips barely brushing, Daniel breathing in sharply as his hand tensed around her waist – but no more. He crushed her against him as he deepened the kiss, his tongue sliding against hers. Betty felt a wave of desire so strong it almost made her dizzy; the whirling of her mind and the fine, glittering snow around them made her feel for one instant as if she were in the center of a snowglobe being whirled about, some ideal winter scene for someone else to dream over. But this was her dream, coming true.
When they broke apart, Daniel's voice was ragged. "Betty. I love you." Her eyes must have gone wide with shock, because he added, "I can't wait any longer to say it."
"I love you too." His whole face lit up, more brilliant than any Christmas tree, and Betty didn't know whether she wanted to laugh or cry from joy. "Come on, let's get inside."
His arm still around her shoulders, with him keeping the umbrella protectively over her head the whole way, they walked along the drive to his home, which appeared to be a three-story coach house. As they went inside, Betty took in the first floor – one, long multipurpose room, with an entry hall complete with industrial-chic chandelier, then modern kitchen in stainless steel, a long dining set, and finally some kind of lounge area. Everything was dark wood and old brick and brushed metal, rich mahogany and richer cream and burnt orange. Obviously he'd had it done – but just as obviously, this was a far cry from a studio apartment with a swimsuit-model mural on one wall and fully half the floor space devoted to an enormous bed.
Though she was hoping some part of this house held an enormous bed.
Daniel folded up the umbrella as the white starry flakes against it melted into droplets. Betty slowly unbelted her coat and shrugged it off her shoulders, and though she handed it to him to put on the rack, she knew neither of them cared very much about where her coat ended up at the moment. His stereo system – so expensive as to be invisible – played a jazzy version of "White Christmas." When he ditched his coat as well, she saw that he was wearing only a dark gray T-shirt over his black knit pants, designer loungewear that looked totally comfortable while hugging every line of his body.
No ogling, Betty thought. At least, not yet.
"This is your home," she said.
He blinked. "Well, yeah. Obviously."
"I meant – you've really made a home here. Not just found a place to stay." Betty stepped further into the half-darkened apartment; most of the light shone from a few mica-shaded lamps, save for one bright, shiny spot in the kitchen. She could see a mixing bowl and some abandoned tomatoes on the island, wooden spoon still probably right where Daniel had dropped it to answer her phone call. But she walked past that, deeper into the house. "When did you buy this?"
"Two weeks after – after that last time we talked." Despite all his brave words, that memory evidently still hurt him. But he just as evidently was determined to push past that. "I considered going back to Manhattan, but that felt wrong. Like trying to go back in time, and maybe not in a good way."
She nodded, understanding this. As homesick as she'd sometimes been for New York, she'd never once come close to packing a bag. They really had been on the same journey this whole time; she just hadn't realized Daniel was on the path beside her until tonight. "It's beautiful."
"Thanks. Sometimes it just feels – big and empty." Betty looked over her shoulder at him to see that a small smile was dawning on his face. "But not now."
"Not ever again." And at that, she would have kissed him once more if he hadn't beaten her to it.
The next few moments were a delicious blur: the warmth of Daniel's mouth, the friction of the skin of his hands against her cheeks, her neck. The feeling of the hard muscles of his chest against the softer curves of his body. Craning up for him as he stooped down for her, both of them laughing between kisses, stumbling toward his sofa in an effort to make it more comfortable, sliding off that and onto his shag rug, which was far more comfortable yet. The firmness of the floor under her back as Daniel lowered himself over her. His teeth scraping against the flesh of her throat, her twisting alongside him, wanting to move with him –
"Whoa." Daniel caught her, his hand closing over the top of her head. "Be careful." She glanced back to realize that he'd just kept her from whacking against the glass edge of his coffee table.
This protective gesture, small as it was, warmed her heart all over again. Betty repeated, "I love you, Daniel. So much."
He had the most amazing, endearing, lopsided smile. "God, I hope this isn't some kind of Christmas-ghost-vision thing. Like in the movies. The Ghost of Christmas You Only Wish."
"Nope. Absolutely real." Betty shunted herself over, away from the coffee table, the better to crawl over Daniel and dip her head down to kiss him again. This kiss was more tantalizing than the rest – her breasts brushing his chest (how had she never realized how thin this sweater was before?), their lips only barely touching, her tongue tracing the contour of the kiss as their breaths flowed into and out of one another.
As their mouths parted, Daniel buried his hands in her hair, holding her face close. "I love you," he said. "And it would be easy for me to get – carried away, like this, and I know we need to be mature about everything. Talk things through. Take it slow, and – "
"I want you."
"Oh, God, yes," Daniel breathed, in the split second before he kissed her again.
Later that night – really, early the next morning – they returned to the sofa. Betty was hungry.
"Okay, these are supposed to be chili-and-lime prawns." Daniel, wearing only his knit pants as he padded back from the kitchen area, a tray in hand. "You don't want to know how long it took me to figure out that prawns are just shrimp."
Betty giggled. She was wrapped in Daniel's bathrobe – huge on her, thick and fuzzy, brilliant red, and soft against her bare skin. The stereo system, uninterrupted, still played holiday music, now "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." As Karen Carpenter sang, she teased him: "Supposed to be? I thought you were doing this whole party yourself."
"Buying some hors d'oeuvres at a local restaurant totally counts as doing it yourself. Let's see – what else did I buy? I think we have pea shoots with parmesan and seared scallops with bacon and tomato vinagrette. Do you want some wine?"
"Right now I just want you to come back here. You're too far away."
Daniel cuddled up with her on the couch, kissed her soundly, and then simply let her rest against him as she had her snack. Between bites, she said, "We're going to ruin your party if we eat all the food."
"I'll just have to make the rest myself. Hope peanut butter on crackers is chic."
"We'll do a trend piece on it in THAMES. You'll be the one who brought them into vogue. It's chic if we say it's chic."
"Wilhelmina would be so proud of you right now."
"Thanks. I think."
He sighed as he stroked his hand idly through her hair. "Any chance you'll suddenly be free for the party now?"
"My social calendar just cleared right up." A thought occurred to her, one that dimmed the smile on her face. "Uh-oh. Daniel – is Yuriko coming?"
"No, she has a concert, just like this evening. This is the time of year when musicians pick up a lot of party gigs. Thank God she was busy; if you'd called tonight and I couldn't really talk to you – that would've just killed me." For the first time since she'd bounded into his arms, Betty heard a tinge of sadness in Daniel's voice. "I have a date with her on Wednesday that I've got to break, though."
Betty propped up on one elbow to get a good look at his face. "You really liked her, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I did," he said honestly. His fingers brushed beneath her chin, tilting her face up to his. "But I love you."
She smiled up at him. "I'm just glad I didn't waste any more time."
"The time wasn't wasted," he said, surprising her – mostly with how true it was. "Besides, we have more stories to tell each other. More to catch up on. Starting now."
They kissed again, the fire of the chili making it burn just a little. As Betty relaxed against Daniel, she heard the last song and the next one begin – Joni Mitchell's "River," once more.
She smiled into the kiss so much that he broke away from her, bemused. "What's funny?" he murmured.
"Nothing. I just love this song."
"Don't really know it."
"You should listen to it sometime," Betty said. "We both owe this song more than you can imagine."
"Really?" Daniel half-turned his head, already trying to pay attention to the lyrics. But she put her arms around him and kissed him so deeply that the words and the soft piano music faded far away.
"Sometime," she whispered. "Not now. We have better things to do now."
The song kept playing as sweetly, gently, all of its sadness turned into joy.