Mary sighed as she sat in the parlor. Every year her family hosted a Christmas party; inviting family and friends. Mary always anticipated the celebration with great delight. Unfortunately, this year was going to be an exception. Her brother Michael had invited his college chum, Ethan Wood, and his sister, Georgina to celebrate with them this holiday season. Now, Mary had no problems with his college mate's sister, she got along with her quite well. But, Georgina's brother was another story:
Ethan was not one of Mary's favorite people, to say the least. She found him highly annoying. With his teasing her about how large her sleeve puffs had grown and if they grew any larger she wouldn't be able to make it through her front door and other such nonsense. Mary would quietly tell him that it was "the latest fashion," something he of course knew little about since he did not realize how up-to-date the size of her sleeve puffs were! Ethan had not been present at their Christmas festivities in the past for the reason he would spend Christmas Eve with his folks.
Mary's family loved Ethan to pieces and scheduled their Christmas party earlier just so he could attend. The family also loved Georgina, especially Michael. She was quite a beauty and, surprisingly, had no beaux, which Michael thought ridiculous.
"Are all the men in this town, except for me, absolutely blind?" He had exclaimed to Mary earlier that day whilst he was nailing a garland along the hearth mantle.
"I guess so," was Mary's helpful answer.
At present, Mary let out another sigh as she sat on the parlor loveseat. Her mood deeply contrasted with the atmosphere that now filled the house. Around her the people were laughing and chattering as the Christmas party had already been underway now for fifteen minutes.
Mary's father was sitting in a chair across from her, engaged in a conversation with Ethan. "So, what do you plan on doing once you get out of college, Ethan?" He asked.
"Well, my father has offered to take me on as a partner in his furniture business."
"That's just fine! By the way, how is your father's business?"
"It's been going splendidly, sir. The amount of furniture made and sold has more than doubled since last year!"
"Well, he's the only man I'd ever buy furniture from in the whole state of Maryland!"
Mary refrained from letting out another sigh as she picked up the book she had been reading earlier that day. A few minutes had passed before a voice interrupted her progress.
"What are you reading?"
"'Emma,'" was Mary's curt reply, which she didn't bother to raise her head to give.
"Ah . . . Jane Austen . . . again . . ."
Mary looked up for this one. "What's wrong with Jane Austen?" she demanded.
"Nothing, if the feminine . . . syrupy . . . feathery . . . romantic novels are to your liking . . . "
"Jane Austen is not 'feathery' or 'syrupy' thank you! Her books can be very deep and meaningful. Like, 'Sense and Sensibility, or 'Persuasion!'"
"If you say so . . ." Ethan said with a sideways grin that always annoyed Mary.
"Mary!" Came her mother's voice, in scolding tones. Just in time before Mary let herself get into another full fledged argument.
Mrs. Pembrooke had entered the parlor to set down a tray of shortbread cookies.
"Put that book away! You're eighteen, you know better than to read a book while we have company!"
Drat. A book had been her only defense against Ethan's trying company.
"Yes, Miss Pembrooke, you know better than that!" Ethan echoed with a mocking grin.
"Oh, hush!" Mary wished to say.
"Are you excited about the new century?" Ethan suddenly asked her. "The year 1900?"
Mary, after a moment of uncomfortable silence, at least, discomfort on her part, answered him:
"That depends upon the possibilities in the future, Mr. Wood," said she. With that, Mary got up to move into the family room, in hopes of finding her cousin, Alice, who was the best listener, in her opinion than anyone in the whole state. She also somewhat shared her ill opinion of Ethan. She censured his dislike of romance novels too, but that was all. The only reason Alice did not particularly mind his childish heckling because she was not the victim of it.
"Why did my brother have to invite him to the Christmas party? Why?"
"Well, he is good friends with him," Alice said soothingly as she propped her baby sister on her knee. "He's also taken quite a fancy to Mr. Wood's sister. Obviously, my dear cousin, your brother is hoping to catch her under the mistletoe tonight."
"She's a very nice girl and very sensible. Georgina would do my brother worlds of good! If her brother were not to be permanently thrown in my company as a result, I would promote a match between her and Michael whole-heartedly! And in any case the mistletoe is hung outside the front door. They would have to brave the bitter weather to get under it!"
Aunt Gertrude came into the living room and with a flourish of her arm she announced, "Dinner is ready!" she announced. Mariah relayed the message to the parlor and immediately the dining room was packed with people. The children were fighting for seats next to their favorite relatives.
Mary's father instantly took charge and assigned everyone a seat. To his daughter's horror he placed Ethan right beside her.
"What else is going to ruin my evening?" She wondered wryly and, at the same time, knowing that she just jinxed herself.
Mrs. Pembrooke carried in a steaming plate of turkey and set it in the middle of the table. Their one and only servant, Julia, plus Aunt Gertrude brought in the rest after a few trips.
Once everyone was situated Mr. Pembrooke readied to give thanks to the Lord when Mrs. Pembrooke interrupted him.
"There are two empty chairs."
"You probably have two chairs too many, my dear."
"No, I counted them out according to how many guests we have. Two people are missing from the table. Mary, where is your brother?" Mary shrugged her shoulders.
"Speaking of siblings," said Ethan, "where's mine?"
Mary rose from the table. "I'll go find them."
"Hurry up!" cried her little cousin Gregory, "I'm hungry!" His mother promptly cuffed him.
Mary left the dining room and searched through all the lower levels of the house. She stopped before the stairway. After Mary thought for a moment she violently shook her head.
As she moved back towards the dining room she felt a draft of cold air hit her slightly bared shoulders. Mary turned and followed the cold air to the foyer. The front door was ajar.
With knit brows, Mary crossed the room and slowly opened the door. There she found Michael with his coat wrapped around Georgina in the act of passionately kissing her. It obviously had been a mutual decision because Georgina's fingers were intertwined in his hair.
"Michael!" Mary shouted and watched with amusement as the two jumped apart.
"W-We were just-"
"Stepping out to admire the weather!" Georgina finished for him.
"Everyone is ready to eat." Mary said with a raised eyebrow. "We are waiting for you two,"
"Oh, dear!" Georgina exclaimed running into the house with Michael directly behind.
"You won't tell Mother and Father, will you?"
"Not a word, because you are going to tell them!"
A panicked expression crossed his face.
" . . .Someday," Mary added and her brother visibly relaxed.
When the two lovers had hastily seated themselves, ignoring the curious looks they received, Mr. Pembrooke said grace.
Mary clasped her hands and bowed her head. She tried to listen to the prayer as she did every night, but her head was too awhirl with the future that the event she had witnessed could possibly bring. What would she wear?
"Miss Pembrooke," she heard Ethan hiss.
"What?" Mary asked sharply, keeping her eyes closed and her hands folded.
"Grace is over."
Mary's head shot up and she blushed with embarrassment as she received amused glances from the family members who were now beginning to dine.
"I spoke too soon," Mary said to herself.
"Would you pass the mashed potatoes, please?" Ethan asked Mary later in the meal. She picked up the bowl and held it to him.
As Ethan took the bowl from Mary, she felt his fingers brush against her hand. A queer feeling rose in the pit of her stomach and her breath caught in her throat.
"That should not have been exciting," Mary thought to herself.
She stole a glance at Ethan. His brows were knit and he seemed to be putting intense concentration into piling potatoes onto his plate.
Mary was so excited about the festivities that would commence after dinner that she devoured her meal speedily.
"You eat too fast," Ethan remarked.
"No I don't," She protested after taking a sip of wine, "you just eat too slow."
"That's because I am grateful for my meal and savor every bite of it," he Ethan replied with a self-righteous air and a purposeful upward tilt of his head.
Mary rolled her eyes and sat impatiently in her chair. The sooner the whole family was done, the sooner she could excuse herself and get away from Michael's aggravating college-chum.
Once dinner was over, the entire family retired to the living room to do their traditional gift exchange. Weeks before, Mary's mother had written the names of the guests from her list on another piece of paper then cut them out. She dumped the clippings into Mr. Pembrooke's old top hat and mixed them up.
Mrs. Pembrooke would then pull out a name then assign them to the first person on the guest list, then another name would be drawn and that would go to the next person, so on and so forth. After the process was finished, the names of the people they were assigned to were then, mailed to the guests.
Mary had been assigned to cousin Gregory. She gave him a rocking horse; something he had been saying that he always wanted. It used to be her and Michael's rocking horse when they, too, were six years of age.
As Mary gazed with satisfaction on the joyously gushing boy, who kept running back and forth from the rocking horse to her with hugs to give in return.
When Gregory was convinced that he had thanked Mary enough he carried the rocking horse into the parlor so he could enjoy his gift in peace, without his cousins of the same age, crowding in on him to look at it or to touch it.
Mary watched him leave with a smile. A tap on the shoulder suddenly broke off the reminiscent thoughts that were forming in her head. When she turned she found Ethan standing next to her with an almost shy demeanor. That characteristic was not one Mary had seen expressed by him before and she was taken aback.
"This is for you," Ethan said, suddenly shaking the shy look off and giving her that irritating sideways grin once more. He handed her a beautiful package wrapped in gold paper and red ribbon.
Mary looked up at him with surprise evident on her face.
"Don't look so stunned!" he said with a chuckle that sounded to her a trifle nervous. "You were the one for whom I had to get a gift."
" . . . Oh, I understand that . . . of course . . . I . . ."
Ethan rolled his eyes. "Open it," he urged.
Mary crossed the room and sat on the sofa by the Christmas tree. Ethan followed her and took a place beside her. Mary gently undid the ribbon and pulled the paper back. A plain white box was revealed. She carefully lifted the lid.
Cushioned by green tissue paper was a choker: A cameo of a young Grecian lady held by a delicate pink silk ribbon.
"Ethan . . ." she breathed in awe, "it's beautiful."
"You like it, then?" he asked, the unease now clear in his voice and in his eyes which anxiously searched her face.
"Very much so," Mary replied looking in Ethan's amber gaze. "Thank you!"
"You're welcome," Ethan's said; his lopsided grin spreading into a wide smile. "Merry Christmas, Miss Pembrooke."
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Wood."
After bestowing on him another expression of sheer pleasure, Mary left Ethan to put on the gift with the assistance of the hall mirror.
Mary found that her hands were shaking as she tried close the clasp. Suddenly, it slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor with a clatter that was caused by the cameo.
"Need help?" Came Ethan's teasing voice.
Mary turned to see his head poking out from the living room.
"If you don't mind," She answered quietly. Mary let Ethan pick up the treasure since it would've been indecent for her to bend down with the deep neckline she was wearing.
Ethan stepped behind her and gingerly brought the small necklace about her throat. Mary felt a tingle shoot up her spine at the sensation of his breath upon her neck, as he bent close to squint at the clasp. The few seconds it took seemed hours. Finally, Ethan stepped back with a decided "done."
Mary looked at the mirror and gave a satisfied smile.
"It 's perfect . . ." she heard Ethan murmur.
"It matches my gown," Mary quickly added.
Ethan's gaze shifted and after a quick examination he agreed.
Mary turned to face Ethan, to again thank him, but her breath suddenly caught when she noticed how close they were as a result of his helping her with the choker. She blushed. The two might have stared at each other there forever if Gregory hadn't burst out of the parlor in tears.
"Mary! Mary! The rocking horse's ear broke off!"
"The ear! . . . Oh, I had forgotten that there was a crack at the base of his left ear." Mary tenderly wiped the tears off the adorably pitiful face. "Shh . . . it's not your fault, sweetheart, it's mine I forgot to fix it."
"Is it in the parlor?" Ethan suddenly asked.
Immediately, Ethan went into the room. Mary and Gregory followed. The young man knelt down and picked up the severed ear. After examining it and the surface of the toy's head he announced, "It's all right, it was a clean break. It should be easy to fix."
"Really?" Gregory sniffed.
"Sure!" Ethan answered with a cheerful grin. He then pulled a little bottle out of his coat pocket.
"What's that?" Mary asked.
"Wood glue," Ethan answered, not looking up from his task.
"Why do you have wood glue?"
"My father owns a furniture shop, remember?"
"I know, but why do you have it with you now?"
"Oh, I always carry some with me," he then looked up at them both with a smile, "especially such tragic cases as these."
As he worked Gregory hovered anxiously over him and paced back and forth like an expectant father. Ethan kept assuring him that it was going to be fine the entire time.
As Mary watched this amusing little scene she thought that Ethan would make a good father someday and those thoughts stirred the warm feeling in her again. She had never seen Ethan in this light before.
A minute later Ethan stood up. "There ya go, Greg, good as new! Just don't touch the ear for awhile, okay?"
"Okay!" Gregory cheerfully scampered off in search of other amusements.
"You did a good job," Mary commented as he moved to stand beside her.
Mrs. Pembrooke then called from the living room that the mincemeat and rhubarb pies were being served.
After the pies were devoured the adults gathered around the piano to sing carols while the children played with their gifts. As Mary sang she watched Michael as he stood beside Georgina who was playing the piano. They looked so sweet together in the warm glow of candlelight mixed with the gentle brightness of fire from the hearth.
A new voice soon came to her ears. It was light, yet it's simplistic tones made it all the more beautiful as it soared above the music. Mary turned to find that it belonged to Ethan. Before she knew it, she stopped singing and just stood there, listening.
"Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.
For all is hushed,
The world is sleeping,
Holy Star its vigil keeping.
Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow. . ."
Then came the reading of the Christmas story by cousin Alice:
"'In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. Her name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, 'Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!' . . ."
Before Mary knew it the Christmas party was over and all the guests were trickling out the door. Her mother and father stood by the door and bid them farewell.
"Goodbye, Gertrude, the mincemeat pie was delightful! Thank you for bringing it!"
Mary hugged relatives and kissed their cheeks. She felt a tug on her gown. She looked down to see Gregory.
Mary knelt to receive her big sticky- a result of rhubarb pie consumption with kids-kiss on the cheek. She embraced Georgina and teased her with a whisper of how she always wanted a sister. Georgina blushed and nodded her head with a flushed but pleased face.
The girl took it as a hint of Michael's intentions and was eager to walk down the aisle with him. Then came Ethan. He stiffly shook her hand when she gave it.
"Lovely party . . ." he said, suddenly acting like his over-confident self. "Keep those sleeves in check. Next time I see you, you will probably be walking sideways as a force of habit."
"That would be the only way you would be able to get through the door."
Mary rolled her eyes. Back to his usual self as if nothing happened. "Well, nothing did happen except for him giving this beautiful choker, but he had to give me a present . . . but he could've gotten something less considerate . . . it was awfully nice of him . . . why do I care all of a sudden?" Mary shook the thoughts from her head.
"Mary, dear . . ." said her mother with her yawn.
"I'm absolutely exhausted! Would you blow out the candles and turn off the gasoline lamps?"
"Certainly, Mama," answered Mary, turning a sympathetic eye on her poor tired mother as she followed her equally worn out husband upstairs to bed.
Mary then flitted about the house snuffing out the candles and extinguishing the lamps.
As she turned down the last gaslight a bright spot of red came to the corner of her vision. Mary paused and looked at it in the dim light. A lone red scarf hung on the coat rack. "Hm! Someone must have forgotten it," she murmured to herself. Mary went to pick it up and as her hand closed around the scarf a knock came at the door. Mary frowned and took the scarf with her as she went to answer it.
Upon opening the door she discovered Ethan Wood standing on her doorstep, with an expression of obvious surprise. It startled her as well. He was the last person she'd thought she'd see, alone, on her doorstep.
"Oh, Miss Pembrooke! . . . I did not expect you to answer the door . . . I mean . . . I left-"
"Your scarf?" the un-expected Mary finished for him, holding up the sought-after item.
"Yes! Thank goodness, I thought I had lost it outside when I left your house earlier. Georgina would never have forgiven me if I did. She made it for me."
Mary nodded uncomfortably. She could feel the dreaded awkward silence creeping up on them like a fog. "Well," she said, dissipating that fear, "here is your scarf."
At first he didn't take it from her, for his eyes were fixed on something above her head. With the hand that was holding the scarf still extended, Mary looked up. The sprig of mistletoe waved back at her in greeting, as it dangled over her head.
Mary barely felt Ethan take the scarf out of her grasp; she had been about to drop it anyway. But, the movements made her turn her attention back to Ethan.
He flashed her a sideways grin that was considerably weaker than the ones he usually bestowed on her.
"Mistletoe," he declared feebly.
"O' clever one, thou art correct," Mary said, raising a sarcastic eyebrow. But, all sarcasm fled as Ethan slowly made his way up the two small stairs that connected the front door with the path to the house; a determined look on his face.
Holy smokes! He was going to kiss her!
"It's not an obligation," Mary heard herself say in a shaky voice. Her throat was beginning to dry up. "It's just a tradition," she croaked.
"But, it's considered bad luck to break traditions," he said coaxingly as he now stood close to her inside the doorway.
"Yes, but, I'm sure that this one has been broken many times before and nothing's happened . . ."
"Well, I'm not taking any chances," he whispered.
"But . . . I . . ." Mary's protest trailed off when Ethan cupped her face in his hands and brought her mouth to his in a tender kiss.
Mary's pulse quickened as Ethan's thumb began to gently stroke her cheekbone. She was sure he could feel her heart slamming against her chest, just as she could feel his. Mary had trouble believing that this was the same young man who, ever since their acquaintance, had teased and argued with her constantly.
After another moment their lips reluctantly separated, but their fingers were still entwined. Mary felt a rush of cold air hit her still tingling mouth and found herself sorely missing the contact.
"Mary, you don't know how long I've wanted to do that," Ethan whispered hoarsely.
Having that information; Ethan addressing her for the first time by her Christian name, and in such enamored tones, caused Mary to throw her arms about his neck and press her mouth to his again.
"How long?" She asked once they parted again.
"Ever since January."
Ethan nodded with his sideways grin, which Mary now loved with all her heart. "When I joined you and Michael on that ice-skating expedition of yours," he continued, "You slipped and I was just close enough to catch you. I recall your face only inches away from mine when you looked up to see your 'rescuer.'"
"I remember!" Mary exclaimed with an amused smile for the memory.
"I think you were too upset to notice that my face had gone beet red," Ethan laughed, "I mean, even though I couldn't see my own face, I could feel that it was definitely getting as hot as coals!"
Suddenly, the bells of the town church were heard, pealing out the eleventh hour.
With obvious reluctance and disappointment clear on his face, Ethan said, "I think its time for me to go, Georgina said she was going to stay up until I got home. She said that she wanted me to 'tell her all about it' upon my return."
"Unlike the one who put it up herself," Mary began with a smile in good humor, "she remembered that there was mistletoe here and that one of us was bound to be under it at some point."
Ethan frowned for a moment and focused his sights on nothing in particular before inquiring:
"Was she and Michael . . .?"
"While we were waiting . . .?"
"Well, I'll be . . .!"
"It's not that much of a surprise," Mary said with a grin.
"I suppose not, its just . . . she's my sister . . ."
Mary nodded in understanding.
Ethan sighed, then looked at her with a warm expression that made her knees feel inadequate in their support. He then leaned forward and kissed her again. After a moment he released her lips gently and whispered, "I'll see you tomorrow."
Once Mary's mind cleared she echoed with an inquiry, "tomorrow?"
"Well, after such encouragement, I'm going to talk to your father about something I've been contemplating for eleven and a half months."
"Ethan . . ."
"I want to court you."
"Ethan!" Mary flung her arms around his neck, elated to the very depths of her soul.
"I love you, Mary," Ethan whispered rapturously into her hair.
And the girl's blissful answer:
"And I you, you sweet boy,"