Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charlie's War, part four

Continued from here

Michigan Creek, CO
December 25, 1918

Charlie woke up just after dawn on Christmas Morning and stared out over the snow-covered fields of South Park. The rising sun had stained the pristine snow pink and for a moment, she indulged in a childish fantasy that the snow would taste of fresh June strawberries. She could see the summit of Mosquito Peak and the waves of snow that were blown from it, looking for all the world like sea foam off a breaker.

Below her, the house was utterly silent, except for the occasional snoring of her father and the fitful fussing of Henry, Georgia and Junior's youngest. He was just a year old now and cutting some teeth, Mama said. He was generally a good boy, happy and laughing, but teething had made him grumpy and irritable, and his mother looked haggard and worn. Charlie wondered for a moment if Junior had been helping out at all and decided that she'd intervene on behalf of her sister-in-law.

But all that would come later, for this morning, there was cooking to do. There was going to be an enormous Christmas dinner later that day, with the mayor of Michigan Creek and his family, the Colonel, the entire McNamara family – including Al and Gwen – plus some of the other families in the community. There was a turkey and two geese, thanks to Jack, Charlie, and the Colonel's latest hunting trip, as well as a ham and bread and dressing and vegetables and sweeties enough to feed an entire army.

There was much to celebrate this Christmas, after all. The Great War had finally ended, and while Charlie's closest brother had been killed on the battlefield, many other families attending tonight's party had their loved ones home with them, hale and hearty and safe once more. The Spanish Flu epidemic seemed to be retreating, too; there were fewer and fewer cases reported every day, and it had been nearly a week since someone had succumbed to the illness.

Charlie rose from bed, washed her face and dressed quickly in a corn-flower blue calico dress and descended the stairs, tip-toeing past her parents' room and going to Hank's old room, where Jack had been staying since July. Charlie rapped lightly on the door and it soon opened, revealing a bare-chested Jack looking sleepy and mussy-headed. She grinned and stood on her toes to kiss him. “Happy Christmas, my darling,” she whispered against his lips and was rewarded with a one-armed hug, the other arm hiding somewhere behind the door.

Happy Christmas to you, Bunny. Did you sleep well?” Jack asked her as he ran expert fingers through her loosely-plaited hair.

Charlie snuggled against him briefly and nodded. He smelled incredible and was still warm and soft and pliant from sleep. “I slept wonderfully. Did Santa come to visit you during the night?” She tried to peek over his shoulder into his room, but his broad shoulders were blocking her view. On purpose, she thought, and tipped a suspicious look up at him.

He grinned knowingly down at her, his blue eyes sparkling. Her constant curiosity and slightly suspicious nature were two of her more endearing qualities. “Yes, but strangely enough, he didn't leave me anything.” He drew his other arm out from behind the door and presented a small, sky-blue box wrapped with a silver bow to her. “Apparently you were a very good girl this year. Look. It has your name on it.” And sure enough, in Jack's neat, copperplate printing was her name.

She bit her lower lip and took the little box, surprised at how heavy it was. She shook it and sniffed it, all the while looking up into Jack's face with a mischievous grin. “Hmm. Shall I open it now, do you think?” she asked. Jack nodded solemnly and she carefully untied the bow and lifted the lid from the box.

Nestled inside, on a bed of excelsior, was the most breathtaking pendant Charlie had ever seen - a huge oval-shaped opal, which was easily the size of Jack's thumbnail, surrounded by enameled flowers painted in blue and green, and scroll-work and flourishes lined with pavé diamonds. The setting looked like it was silver or perhaps platinum. Charlie gasped and her mouth went dry. How much this must have cost Jack! She looked up at him with wide eyes and saw that he was actually nervous. She realized that she'd have to say something and quickly. “It''s beautiful, Jack.”

Do you really like it?” he asked earnestly.

I love it, Jack. Really, I do. But...isn't it rather expensive?”

Jack chuckled softly and darted a kiss against Charlie's forehead. “Silly Bunny. Nothing's too expensive for you.”

She kissed him again and they parted, lest her mother, who had just risen – Charlie caught her talking softly to Papa – saw them together unchaperoned. Charlie darted another quick kiss against Jack's cheek and went silently back up the stairs to her bedroom, tucking the box away somewhere safe until that afternoon, when she could show it to her mother and sisters-in-law.

Some ten hours later, the house was filled with people, and food, and laughter. Dinner had been a thumping success and everyone had remarked upon how beautiful the decorations looked. Junior and Papa had found a huge Colorado blue spruce and dragged it back to the parlour of the house on Michigan Creek. It was decorated with silver and blue ornaments, white electric lights, and a sweet-faced blonde angel sat atop the tree, holding a lyre and looking a bit like Charlie. A mountain of gifts lay under the tree and the children in the house – including Charlie and her brothers – were having a hard time waiting until after dessert to plow into it and discover what that year's presents were to be.

After the pudding had been consumed, the brandy and tea drunk down, the party gathered in the parlour and presents were finally handed out. There were squeals of joy, gasps of surprise, and not a few tears of happiness from the recipients. Papa had given Mama a necklace with four stones in it – an amethyst for Junior, a diamond for Hank, a sardonyx for Al, and an opal for Charlie. Mama – and indeed all the mothers present – had been reduced to tears as she put it around her neck.

Charlie herself received new dresses and shoes from Mama, a bottle of Quelques Fleurs perfume from Papa, jade earbobs from Junior and Georgia, a pair of handmade, deerskin gloves from the Colonel, and a pearl and diamond brooch from Al and Gwen. But the most surprising gift of the evening came from Jack.

When everyone had opened their gifts and were chatting happily, Jack suddenly stood in front of the tree and tapped a fork against his brandy glass delicately, quickly gaining everyone's attention. He smiled at Charlie and reached his hand out for hers, drawing her up to stand next to him. “I have something I'd like for everyone here to share with us,” he said. “For the past six months, I have had the opportunity to come to know each and everyone here. You've been gracious to me, opening your homes to me, feeding me and caring for me. I feel as though I'm with family here and I'm grateful to you all.” He paused and then turned to face Charlie. Very slowly, he descended to one knee and fumbled in the pocket of his jacket, taking out a small black box. He opened it and held it out to her. Inside was a ring, a huge solitaire in a platinum setting, surrounded by smaller diamonds in a sunburst pattern.

Charlie's knees suddenly felt weak and she sank to the floor, tears filling her eyes and her heart pounding in her ears; she could barely hear Jack's next words. “Charlie, you're an amazing girl. You're beautiful, and funny, and so damned smart. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?” He took her left hand and slid the ring down her third finger as she nodded. Then she launched herself into his arms and kissed him. The crowd around her exploded into applause and cheers broke out.

Junior turned to Papa and said, “So that's what happened that day in your office! He asked for your blessings!” Papa laughed and confirmed it. Jack had finally worked up the nerve to ask Mr. McNamara for Charlie's hand – leaving him pale and shaky. And Papa had been utterly stunned that the heir to the fifth largest fortune in America had asked to marry his only daughter.

The celebration went long into the night, with everyone asking to see Charlie's ring and giving Jack hearty congratulatory thumps on the back and words of advice on how to tame Charlie. He told them all that he had no desire to tame her. He liked her fiery and wouldn't have her any other way. She was one of a kind, he told them. Utterly perfect and utterly unique in every way.

Michigan Creek, CO
June 15, 1919

Where are your gloves, Charlie? You can't get married without gloves.”

Oh, Mama,” Charlie said with a small amount of annoyance. “I'm not wearing gloves. It's so old-fashioned. Gwen and Georgia didn't wear gloves at their weddings; why should I?” She was tired of being fussed over, tired of people picking at her and poking at her, dressing her hair, applying make-up, insisting she wear this bracelet instead of that one, or this necklace rather than that one. She'd chosen to get married outside, in the middle of a mountain meadow because she wanted to avoid being all done up like a doll, but her mother and two sisters-in-law had taken over like matrons in a women's prison, shouting orders and pushing Charlie around.

Mrs McNamara gave her daughter a narrow-eyed look and carefully adjusted the fit of Charlie's brand-new dress. It was a beautiful creation, sleek and narrow-fitting, made of silk with an overlay of delicate ivory lace. It had short, cap sleeves and a daring, plunging V-neckline, but Charlie was young and beautiful and the dress made her look like a princess. But Mrs McNamara worried that she was showing off too much skin. Hence the necessity for gloves. She sighed and gave in; after all, Charlie had submitted to everything else she and Gwen and Georgia had demanded of her. “Fine,” she said to Charlie. “But at least wear some lipstick. And powder your décolletage.”

Yes, Mama,” Charlie said with a sigh of her own. She turned back to the mirror and applied a thin layer of peach-colored lipstick and carefully dusted her chest and cleavage with some sweet-smelling powder. Then she carefully put on her grandmother's triple-strand pearl necklace, matching earbobs, and a delicate Chinese cloisonné bracelet painted with orange and yellow butterflies. Her mother helped her with her veil, carefully attaching it with carved ivory combs into the up-swept loose chignon of Charlie's hair. Charlie rose from her seat at her mother's vanity and took a deep breath. “Well? Do I look all right?” she asked Mrs McNamara.

Mama took a deep breath and with a voice thick with tears said, “Oh, my darling girl. My angel Charlotte, you are beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Jack's breath will be stolen right from his chest when he sees you.”

Seeing her mother so close to tears triggered the same reaction in Charlie and she went and hugged her mother, closing her eyes and pretending just for a moment that she was six again and Mama's hug could make everything bad and scary in the world go away instantly. “I'm scared, Mama,” she admitted softly. “What if I'm a horrible wife? What if I'm an even worse mother?”

Mrs McNamara gently patted Charlie's back and then held her out at arm's length, giving her a soft smile. “May I tell you a secret, Charlie?” Charlie nodded and her Mama raised her hand to gently cup Charlie's cheek as she said, “I felt the same way just before Howard and I were married. And then just after Junior was born. And Hank, and Al. And definitely just after you were born.” She smiled and chuckled a little. “Every woman who has ever been married or become a mother has felt the same way. Yes, some of them have been horrible wives and awful mothers, but you come from a long line of amazing, strong women, and you will not be horrible or awful.” She gathered Charlie in for another tight hug and kissed her cheek before turning her loose. “I'll go find Papa and then we can get this show on the road!”

Georgia and Gwen, Charlie's bridesmaids, came into the room, looking beautiful and sunny in their pale yellow georgette dresses, wide-brimmed straw hats, and bouquets of wildflowers – black-eyed Susans, wild carrot, Indian paintbrushes, and alpine lupins. They oohed and ahhed over Charlie, wishing her well and giving her practical advice – don't forget to breathe, keep her eyes fixed on Jack's face, repeat exactly what the minister said, don't forget to smile and try not to cry and ruin her make-up. Then Mr McNamara entered the room and it was suddenly time to go.

Mr McNamara's car, a fancy Packard touring car – the twin to Al's, in fact – soon arrived at the meadow Charlie and Jack had chosen for their wedding. A small area had been roped off with yellow and white ribbons, and chairs – filled with family and friends already – had been set in rows right in the grass, which was filled with the same flowers that were in the bridesmaids' bouquets. Jack, Junior, and Jack's brother Jacob were standing together at the head of an aisle between the chairs. The minister, Reverend Doctor James Raymond, stood there as well, looking rather severe in his stark black robes, which were only slightly lightened by the purple stole around his neck.

Are you ready, Charlie?” Papa asked from the driver's seat, glancing into the back where Charlie was sitting, clutching her bouquet of black-eyed Susans, field daisies, and tasseled grasses. She nodded and he flashed her a smile before getting out of the car and going around to open her door to help her out. At that moment, the small string quartet started playing and Georgia and Junior's four-year-old daughter, Isabelle, started down the aisle, dressed in a white frock with a yellow sash, spilling handfuls of tiny white flowers onto the ground from a basket between her hands. Then Gwen, Georgia, and finally Charlie and her father made their way down the aisle and Charlie lost track of time and place, losing sight of everyone and everything... except for Jack.

Charlie barely remembered being led down the aisle, or her father handing her off to Jack – though she did remember her hand slipping into his, the rough callouses from digging, the sheer heat of his skin against hers suddenly made everything realer. She certainly didn't remember Reverend Raymond's brief words before Jack's voice broke through the thick haze of nerves.

I, John Moses Samuel Taylor, take thee, Charlotte Alma McNamara, to be my wedded wife,” Jack said, gripping Charlie's hands tightly in his own, his normally open and smiling countenance clouded and serious with the gravity of the proceedings. “I do promise and swear, before God and these witnesses, to be thy loving and faithful husband; in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” He paused for a moment and then continued in a slightly more confident voice, reciting the words to an ancient Egyptian love poem, “She is the only girl. There are no others. She is more beautiful than any other. She is a star goddess arising. She has captured my heart. We will remain joined until the end of years. We will remain together in the endless line of hours and not even death will part us.”

Charlie managed not to start crying when she heard those words though she could feel the hot pricking of tears at her eyes as she made her way through her Anglican vows. She paused and took a deep breath, fighting the tears but she was quickly overwhelmed by them. She made a few false starts with the ancient words of her own poem, but finally got enough of control of herself that she could speak clearly, albeit with a slightly damp voice. “My beloved is like a garden, full of beautiful papyrus blossoms and I am like a wild goose attracted by the taste of love. I will never leave you, my darling. You are my health and my life. My only wish is to stay in your house, by your side. We will always be hand in hand, and come and go together everywhere.” When she finished, she looked up and saw that Jack, too, was crying and the sound of sniffling from behind her and to her right proved that others had joined in.

They managed to quell the waterworks long enough to exchange rings and finally, Reverend Raymond pronounced them Mr and Mrs John Taylor and allowed Jack to kiss Charlie. He swept her up in his arms, held her close and kissed the living daylights out of her, drawing a blush from her cheeks and stealing the breath right from her lungs. The small crowd exploded into applause and cat calls and wolf whistles, the Colonel's Indian whoops of joy being the loudest of them all.

A long line of cars left the meadow, headed back to the McNamara's house on Michigan Creek for the reception party. A tennis court had been set up on the front lawn, and a croquet field in the back garden. The parlour had been emptied of its furniture and turned into a large dance floor while a sumptuous buffet luncheon had been set out in the dining room. There was hot bouillon, sprinkled with grated hard-boiled egg yolks; chicken jelly salad with mayonnaise; tiny bread and butter sandwiches; frozen custard in ice cups trimmed with white paper petals, so that each individual serving looked like a daisy; and small squares of sponge cake, iced in yellow and dotted with white candies.

Jack and Charlie danced together and with their parents, and Charlie took a turn with each of her brothers as well as Jack's, while Jack danced with Georgia and Gwen. The Colonel allowed Charlie to beat him at tennis – or so he said – and Mrs McNamara and Jack enjoyed a heated game of croquet. There were stories of the bride and groom told by their grandparents and aunts and uncles, toasts and beautiful speeches made by friends and siblings, and finally, it was time for Jack and Charlie to leave. They were spending the night in Michigan Creek's one and only hotel before leaving early in the morning for Denver, so they could take a train to New York City and board a boat that would take them to the Italian Riviera for their honeymoon.

Their goodbyes were bittersweet; after the honeymoon, they would be going immediately to London, and it would be some time before Charlie saw her parents or her brothers again. Jack had accepted a position with the Egyptian Exploration Society, whose headquarters were in England. He'd be working directly for Lord Carnarvon, the famous patron of most of Egypt's more lucrative digs, and alongside Howard Carter, an up and coming archaeologist who had a knack for finding untouched tombs.

Soon, Jack and Charlie found themselves alone in a plain but functionally furnished room at the Creekside Hotel. Charlie was horribly nervous about the wedding night, despite some rather practical advice from her mother and sisters-in-law. Still, she did have to admit to being excited about the whole affair. She loved the way Jack made her feel on the numerous occasions when he'd kissed her and touched her, always taking care to never push her to do something she didn't feel comfortable with.

Jack opened a bottle of champagne while Charlie changed from her wedding gown into a lilac-colored silk nightgown and a matching peignoir. He built a fire in the room's hearth to ward off the mountains' chilly night air, and stripped out of his tuxedo, leaving just his shorts and undershirt on. When Charlie slipped out of the bathroom and entered the bedroom, Jack gasped softly, his eyes growing as wide as dinner plates and a look she'd never seen on his face set her heart pounding in her chest. “My God,” he whispered. “You look heavenly, Charlie. Come here and let me kiss you.”

She went and melted into his arms, tasting champagne on his lips, feeling as though she was floating high above the Earth on a cloud of pure bliss as he ran his fingers through her hair and stroked her arms and shoulders. Then he carefully peeled off the peignoir, leaving a trail of hot kisses down her neck and out across her shoulders before scooping her up in his arms and carrying her to the bed. “I'll be gentle, my love,” he promised, his breath warm and ticklish on the side of her neck. “If it hurts too much or doesn't feel good, please tell me and I'll stop. All right, Bunny?” Charlie nodded and smiled at his pet name for her; she trusted this man, this bronzed God who was her husband, completely with her heart and soul, and now she was ready to trust him with her body.

Jack slowly, carefully undressed her, his expressions like that of someone unwrapping a longed for and much-desired present. His eyes never left her face as he drank in her pleasure and her excitement and when she nodded and told him she was ready, he lifted himself above her and took her gently, carefully. It did hurt – as her mother and sisters-in-law said it would – but at the same time, it was a good kind of pain, the sort of pain that promised to blossom into searing pleasure if she could just stand it long enough. And she found she could and was utterly overwhelmed as white-hot lightning stabbed at her when Jack drove her over the brink and into orgasm, again and again.

Later, drenched in sweat and utterly spent, they lay side by side on the room's small bed, curled up together in a boneless heap of intertwined limbs. Charlie's head was nestled in the hollow of Jack's shoulder and his arm was around her back, fingers sliding idly through her hair. “I love you,” he whispered in the dim light cast by the dying fire. “I love you more than I can ever hope to express. I love you more now than I did yesterday, but not nearly as much as I will tomorrow.”

Charlie smiled and raised her head, looking up into his blue-blue eyes. “Thank you,” she said, wanting to say more, to pour her own feelings into words as lovely as his. But she'd never been good at that sort of thing, so she settled for gratefulness and tried not to be disappointed in her words' lack of poetry.

For what? For loving you?” She nodded and Jack laughed. “Silly Bunny,” he said with a soft smile. “I couldn't do otherwise. Loving you is like breathing now. It's just as important as my heart beating or my blood rushing through my veins. Loving you keeps me alive.”

She moved closer to him and kissed him, feeling emboldened by his words, and let her hands roam over the firm planes and angles of his body, unfamiliar territory now but the terrain of which she very much looked forward to having intimate knowledge. Jack gently took her hands between his and showed her how to give him just as much pleasure as he'd given her earlier. They finally fell asleep just as the sun peeked over the Reinecker Ridge, throwing streams of yellow, salmon, and orange sunshine across the wide valley and through their room's lacy curtains. “Goodnight, Mr Taylor,” Charlie said through a yawn and grinned when she heard the response –

Goodnight, Mrs Taylor.”

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