“20 for 20”
AN APPROPRIATE GIFT
by JoAnn Baca
The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness
rather than in its value.
~ Charles Dudley Warner
Vincent set down the treasured copy of Yeats’ poetry he had brought from its pride of place on his bedside bookcase for Catherine’s birthday – his gift to her, along with a bookmark he’d fashioned from the leather remnants of her favorite of his vests, and a bag of the cookies she loved best, fresh from William’s kitchen. He knew the volume soon would occupy a place on the special shelf that Catherine had in her bedroom, filled only with books gifted from him: a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the dog-eared paperback of Great Expectations he had read to her while she was recovering in his chamber Below, Brigit’s book of Irish fairy tales…
He spotted the shelf from where he sat on the huge velvet-covered sofa that had taken the place of two smaller couches in Catherine’s living room, and that was so much more comfortable for long evenings of reading in front of the fireplace. He could see that the shelf was nearly full now, but he could always craft another one for her…or maybe a bookcase. He made a mental note of that as a potential future gift.
While he was waiting for Catherine to return from the kitchen with tea to go with the cookies, his eyes strayed to the items on her coffee table. Across one corner of its surface, a half dozen candles in holders filled the room with the aroma of vanilla. Her mail lay in the center of the table, untouched. On top of the thin stack was a cream-colored envelope; the upper left-hand corner was embossed with the private address of Elliot Burch in ink so glossy it looked wet.
“You haven’t opened your mail from Elliot,” he murmured as he accepted the mug of tea she handed to him.
She sat beside him on the couch and set her own mug down atop the expensive linen envelope; a brown ring of spilled tea from the bottom of her mug soaked into it. “I expect it’s a birthday card,” she said. “He usually sends one on special occasions…my birthday, Christmas…Valentine’s Day. He thinks it’s a clever way to lay siege to my emotions. He would send them for Winterfest and naming ceremonies if he knew about them!” She smiled at his raised eyebrows.
“I would toss them out unopened, but he always includes a gift certificate.” She lifted her mug off the envelope and took a sip of tea. “Why don’t you open it for me?”
“I couldn’t,” he replied, horrified at the thought. “Whatever he’s written in it is personal…for you alone.”
Tilting her head, Catherine regarded him frankly. “I have no secrets from you. And besides, Elliot has been told…many times,” she smiled again, “in a polite way, because I’m a lady…” her smile grew larger, “that he should stop sending gifts, because they are neither necessary nor appropriate, and that I just give them to a friend.” As Vincent tilted his own head with curiosity, she added, “Edie loves to go to the exclusive shops the gift certificates come from!”
His tea was in danger of being spilled as Vincent sought to control his surprised reaction to Catherine’s revelation. But it relieved him to know that she held no special place in her heart for the man she had once thought she might be in love with.
“Please, Vincent…you open it.” She scooted closer to him and patted his shoulder.
He hesitated for a moment longer, still unsure if he should intrude on her privacy in this way. But then he picked up the envelope in one hand while he put his tea down with the other. A quick slice of one sharp claw-like nail split the thick stock open, and he tapped the fancy birthday card out into his hand.
The front of the card pronounced birthday wishes in elegant calligraphy; the inside had no printing, allowing the sender to fill the space as he wished. As predicted, a smaller envelope within slid into his hand, and he offered it to Catherine unopened.
She noted the little Tiffany blue envelope and chuckled. “Birthdays usually mean Tiffany’s. Edie anticipated that, so I expect she’ll soon be wearing a certain silver necklace she’s had her eye on!” She tossed the gift onto the coffee table without noting the amount. “Read what he wrote,” she requested. As with the gift certificate, she didn’t look at the birthday card, eyes on Vincent’s face as she sipped her tea.
He studied the hurried script. Whatever the sentiment, Elliot was a busy man who apparently took little time to make his handwriting neat. “’I’m never giving up.’” Vincent felt his throat start to close, hating to read these words to the woman he himself hoped would never give up on him. “’On your birthday…and always…I’ll send you my love, in hopes that one day you will accept it…and me. Your love…it’s worth everything. Elliot.’” Vincent closed the card and carefully laid it on the coffee table.
“He sends you thoughts like this on Valentine’s Day also?”
She set her mug atop the card. “And on Easter, and Thanksgiving, and Halloween… even the Fourth of July! I’m sure his secretary is tired of buying them for him, and of picking up the gift certificates, too. Whatever he thinks he feels for me, Elliot is not a man to do his own shopping!”
She grew serious then, and reached out to him, folding him into her embrace. “The Elliots of this world are much easier to be with, it’s true. But that just masks the fact that they are so much less worthwhile. As a wise man once told me, ‘Follow your heart,’ and I did…straight back to you.”
He breathed in her scent, the comfort and familiarity of it sinking into his bones – two things he had finally allowed himself to feel, two things so precious he could scarcely speak as she held him close. She spoke of worthiness…something he struggled with when it came to the woman beside him. But every day, in so many ways, she told him…showed him…that he was worthwhile. If he still struggled to accept that as fact, it was only because it still constantly amazed him.
“Loving you is in many ways like a fairy tale come true for me, you know,” she murmured.
How often had he himself thought such a thing? It was this astonishing, impossible-to-imagine story they shared, and yet…it had happened. “’Once upon a time…’” His voice was a husky whisper.
“Yes. ‘Once upon a time’…in the city of New York!” She pressed a soft kiss to his throat. “This is a city of dreams come true, and I prove it to myself every time I look at you.”
Vincent wrapped her in his arms. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
“For what…and for what?” she murmured, nuzzling his ear.
He struggled to maintain his thoughts as he delighted in the delicious sensations she was producing with her warm breath and warmer lips.
“Thank you for letting me see what Elliot means to you…and I’m sorry for wondering if he still does mean anything to you.”
She pulled back to regard him, her smile lingering…and alluring. “Consider it an early birthday present. Now…for mine…”
Nimble fingers began to pluck loose the ties of his shirt. He smiled into the loving eyes of his birthday girl…so generously about to give him yet another early birthday present…on her birthday!