“Let’s explore the closets.” Olivia, my very tiny friend from school had come to visit her aunt, Sanda, but it was really just an excuse to see me and Connor. He and his family still lived in Jeeves’ flat above the garages, but since he was currently sequestered in a makeshift lab on the property with Mr. Shaw, she and I had found a shady spot on the lawn to sip lemonade and catch up on each other’s news.
“It’s too hot to go inside.” I wasn’t grumpy, just lazy. Natasha, Connor’s big red dog, was on her back next to me, getting the mother of all belly-scratches, and I didn’t want the blissed out dog face to turn into sad eyes if I stopped.
“I’ve heard the closets at Elian Manor are even better than the attics at school.”
“I wouldn’t know. This isn’t really my house.” I said it without thinking, but Olivia’s startled reaction made me add, “I didn’t grow up here.”
“This is your family’s manor house. Your roots are here and your people have always lived here. It's your history.” Olivia sounded shocked that I could think anything else.
“My history is all over the map because we moved all the time. The only thing I really have in common with Elian Manor is my name.”
Olivia pushed Rocky off her lap and stood up to brush grass from her shorts. “Oh. My. God. I can’t believe you haven’t claimed every inch of this house - it’s like a giant playground. Come on, I want to dress up, so we’re going to start with the closets.”
“That sounds as much fun as a stick in the eye.” I grumbled halfheartedly, giving Natasha an extra scratch behind the ears. But I stood up to follow her anyway.
“Oh shush! Under all that badass, you’re still a girl who likes pretty things, despite … whatever that is.” She waved her hand dismissively at my @T @T Walker T-shirt, which so perfectly suited my geekiness I couldn’t believe she didn’t love it.
“Hey, don’t knock the nerd just because you’re like a little china doll.” It was so easy to tease Olivia about her diminutive size. She had just turned sixteen, but was about as tall as Connor’s eleven-year-old brother, Logan. Instead of the glare I expected, she smiled sweetly in a way that was much scarier.
“See the open window on the third floor?” I followed her gaze and nodded. “If I get there first, you have to play dress up with me as long as I want. If you win, we’ll come back down here and lounge with the beasts.” She indicated Connor’s pack of dogs that had attached themselves to us since she arrived. “But no staircases. Go!” I had exactly one second to register what she meant before Olivia was running across the lawn.
Olivia was fast, but my 5’10” legs were longer and I beat her to the house. I had already mapped a way to the second floor, so I was up on a window ledge before I realized she was taking a different route. I paused just long enough to see her climb a drain pipe like a monkey, which she could do since she weighed about as much as one, and I realized she was going to beat me unless I pulled off something truly spectacular.
I made it to the second floor with no problem and was about to leap across to my no-fail ledge, but then Olivia shut a window on her way past, and no-fail became sure-fall . I changed direction practically mid-leap, which threw off my balance enough that when I grabbed up, my hand slipped off the stone. Olivia lunged down to snag my wrist, and when we finally tumbled inside the third floor window, we were both red-faced and sweaty.
“You didn’t tell me we were playing by roller derby rules.”
“Sorry about that.” Olivia didn’t look sorry, but I forgave her. I knew I’d have gotten much worse if I’d been racing Ringo. “I figured you were going to win by a mile and wanted to give myself a fighting chance. Besides, it’s paybacks for the doll comment.”
I laughed. “You get a reprieve because you saved me from a gorse bush.”
She gave me an evil little grin then, and sang in a sing-song voice. “I get to dress Saira up.” It was hard to be mad though. Her brand of cute made babies and puppies look like trolls.
“Almost falling off a manor house doesn’t scare me. Olivia’s nefarious dress-up plans - those scare me.”
“No, it’s going to be fun!” Olivia opened a wardrobe door and poked her head inside.
We were in one of the box rooms of the third floor. There were apparently several that had always been used to store clothing, accessories, and whatever supplies a Clocker might need, according to Ringo. He had explored the house from top to bottom, of course. This room was decorated like a dressing room, with a big Persian rug on the floor and a tufted leather bench in the middle of it. There were long mirrors on the doors of the wardrobe Olivia had opened and she leaned back to stare at me.
“This is better than St. Brigid’s!”
The pure joy on her face almost made the prospect of playing dress-up bearable, and I got up to poke around one of the other wardrobes.
The clothes seemed to be organized by decade. Olivia was in a wardrobe full of crinoline and silk, and I guessed that was probably an Edwardian one. She pulled out a hanger with a long pink confection that belonged on top of a wedding cake, and held it up in front of her at the mirror.
“I have to try this,” she breathed in awe.
“Just be glad you’re so tiny that you don’t need a corset.” I shuddered. There was a special place in hell for corsets, which were approximately as comfortable as being crushed in a vise, and only marginally worse than underwire bras.
I poked through some Victorian cloaks, and tried on a men's silk top hat. It was too bad Halloween wasn’t an English tradition, because I could have totally rocked an Abe Lincoln look.
An hour later, Olivia had modeled a couple of centuries worth of dresses, and had even convinced me to put on a long wine-colored velvet gown. It was cut like the midnight blue dress Archer had made for me in 1888. Olivia ooh’d and ahh’d, but after one long look in the mirror, I took it off and didn’t let her put me in another dress.
The midnight blue dress was a part of the week I'd spent falling in love with the son of a nobleman-turned-theology-student. Archer had taught me who my family really was in Ringo's attic flat in Victorian London. For that matter, I felt more connected to that flat than I ever did to Elian Manor, and it's where I had to leave the dress behind after my father died and my mother was nearly killed. The dress also represented the last really happy moment I’d spent with Archer when he was still mortal, before Wilder had infected him and changed his life forever.
My immortal Archer was downstairs, asleep in the windowless keep, and I wished he was sitting on the bench, enjoying the sunlit fashion show. I shoved the thought firmly back into the same box I put my other unattainable wishes - the ones like knowing what a normal childhood was like, or growing up with a dad.
I was putting away the last hat when I knocked the lid off a big wooden hatbox. I pulled it forward to replace the lid and was surprised to find how heavy it was. I carefully lifted it down off the shelf and peered inside.
“What’s that?” Olivia asked. She was back in her shorts and pink T-shirt, but in my mind’s eye, she was still wearing a frothy ballgown.
“It looks like a box of gifts,” I said, as I brought the hatbox over to the leather bench.
I pulled the packages out one by one and laid them on the tufted leather. They were all small, and wrapped in pretty, hand-painted paper. “These are my mom’s paintings,” I said, examining the delicate landscapes with wonder.
“Really? They’re gorgeous! Do you think you just found her Christmas closet for this year?”
I looked at the tag on a small box, and tears filled my eyes. “No,” I whispered. “This was to my dad.”
I held the box in my hands as if it was the most precious jewel, and Olivia turned over the tag with equal care. “To my greatest love, my husband, and the father of our unborn child. When you admired this seal, I finally knew how to give you my heart forever. Happy Christmas, From Claire.” Olivia’s voice sounded a little teary when she finished reading. “That’s so beautiful.”
“All their letters were like that. It’s how they fell in love.”
Olivia looked at the other tags one by one. “To Mum, Papa, Emily, and Missus.”
“She must have hidden them before she—” I cleared my throat. “—before she left home.”
“Open it,” Olivia whispered.
My hands trembled. I wanted to so much, but it wasn’t mine to open. I exhaled, re-packed the box with all the gifts, and stood up. “I’m going to show my mom and let her decide.”
We kept our no-staircases rule all the way to the first floor, choosing to ride banisters down instead. It was a little tricky with the box under one arm, but managing it made up for having lost the race to Olivia earlier.
My mom was in the sun room, which was one of her favorite places in the enormous manor house. She had filled it with plants, and on sunny days she liked to read on the white sofa surrounded by her jungle. She smiled happily when she saw us.
“I wondered where you two had gone. Connor has finally emerged from the lab and is out wrestling with the dogs.”
“I’ll go find him. Come outside when you’re done,” Olivia said. I nodded, and my mom watched as she left.
“She reminds me so much of her grandmother when she was little.”
“You know that’s a weird thing to say, right, Mom? I mean, you’re the same age as her mother.”
My mom sighed. “I know. It’s one of the hardest parts about not living in my native time. There’s no one left who “knew me when,” and yet, for me, it doesn’t feel that long ago.”
I held the wooden hat box out to her. “Olivia and I were up on the third floor, and I found this in a wardrobe.”
My mom looked confused for just a second, and then her eyes went wide as she recognized the box. “Oh! I’d forgotten these.”
She opened the lid and pulled out each gift with a smile. She unwrapped the one address to Mum and opened the box. “My mother’s favorite perfume. I saved the money I made from the sale of a painting to buy her this, and she said my father could always find her in the house by the trail of her scent.” She held it out for me to sniff. It had gone off slightly with age, but I could still smell a flowery mix of jasmine and rose, with a little bit of vanilla. A wave of familiarity washed over me, which was strange, considering I’d never met my grandmother. I must have smelled her perfume on some of the clothes in the wardrobes upstairs, and I thought I’d be making another trip to the box rooms soon to find them.
She picked up the gift to Papa and opened it to show me. “I made a jar of shaving soap from the herbs and flowers I’d gathered all summer with the Missus. She taught me how to infuse the almond oil with yarrow for his skin, and I even added wild honey to preserve it.” I smelled that, too, and a flash of memory hit me. I was instantly transported to the Missus in her cottage in the forest, and the way she cared for my mom like a mother would.
That package was set aside with the one to her mother, and she picked up another. It seemed like she deliberately avoided my father’s gift as she chose the boxes.
She unwrapped it and showed me a beautiful porcelain box, hand-painted with wildflowers. “The Missus was easy. She only wanted things I had painted, so I found this to hold her special herbs, and I covered the whole thing with her favorite flowers.”
“It’s so beautiful. Do you still have brushes that can do such intricate work?” I touched the petals on a daisy in awe.
My mom smiled. “Why don’t you come and paint with me in the studio this afternoon, and I’ll show you what I have?”
“I’d love to,” I said. It had been a long time since we had painted together, and I was surprised at how much I missed it.
She seemed pleased, and she examined the flower-covered box again. “Do you think Olivia would like to have it? It was meant for her great grandmother after all, and it’s delicate and tiny, like she is.”
“I’m sure she would love it. A porcelain box for a porcelain doll.” I shoved the pang of jealousy down to my ankles and accepted the box from my mom.
She snorted. “Don’t say that out loud to her – if she’s anything like the other women in her family, she’ll tear your head off and feed it to the dogs.”
I laughed. “Are all Picts so fierce, or just the small ones?”
“I only know small ones.” She was already reaching for Emily’s gift. She unfastened the paper very carefully and opened the small box to reveal a gold hummingbird pin made of seed pearls and sapphires. It was so beautiful it took my breath away.
“My sister was nineteen when I left. She was forever going shopping in my room for things she liked, and this pin was among her favorites. I think she was jealous that our grandmother had given it to me.” My mom looked into my eyes. “Would you like it?”
I took it from her outstretched hand and examined it. The craftsmanship was so spectacular that it looked like it could take flight from my fingers. I handed it back to my mom.
“I could stare at it all day, but I would never wear it.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say,” she said with a smile. “I think Millicent would wear it though, don’t you?”
I grinned. “She’d totally rock it.”
My mom laughed. “And faint dead away at the idea of totally rocking anything. I think I’ll give it to her for Christmas this year.” She placed the pin back in its box and set it aside. Finally, she removed the last box and turned it around in her hands. She read the tag silently, and caressed the paper that she had painted in a botanical theme. Then she handed the box to me.
“You should have this,” she said quietly. “It was a gift to your father, so it’s meant for a man. But perhaps that won’t matter.” There wasn’t any pain in her voice. I realized it had been a couple of months since we’d talked about my dad, and she finally seemed okay.
I kept the paper intact, and carefully opened the small velvet box. Inside was a set of gold cufflinks, with a heart, a crown, and fire pressed into the gold. It looked like the seal a signet ring would make.
“They’re beautiful,” I breathed.
“Aren’t they?” My mom’s voice held a note of pride. “Will and I liked to poke around tinkers’ carts when they came through the woods near the Missus’ house. One tinker, Mr. Griffin Wyatt—” she grinned. “I can’t believe I remembered his name. Anyway, he had amazing knick-knacks on his cart, and he used to save special things just for us. We had recently gotten married, which was a secret from everyone but the Missus, and Mr. Wyatt came through Epping wood that same week.” She got a little dreamy-eyed, and I felt how very happy my parents had been together.
She smiled at me and continued her story. “He drew an empty envelope out of a hidden compartment and showed it to Will. It was addressed to one of the Boleyn family and the tinker swore it was genuinely from Tudor times. There was no identifying information about the sender except for this seal in wax, still attached to the flap of the envelope.” My mom touched the top of one of the cufflinks tenderly. “Will bought it on the spot because, he said, the flaming crowned heart should become our own family seal, for the two of us and any children we may have.”
Her eyes rested on the cufflinks again. “The heart was for obvious reasons – we were so deeply in love I sometimes ached with it. Will said the crown symbolized the immortality of our love, and the fire represented life – the life we gave each other, and any lives we would create together. He asked me to make a painting of it, which may still be somewhere in this house, but I also took the wax seal to a jeweler and had him make these.”
I knew I’d be searching the house for that painting, and the thought of a treasure hunt made me realize how right Olivia was about the playground this house could be. I studied the gold cufflinks. The uneven edges mimicked the original wax and made them more striking than if they had been perfectly symmetrical. I felt an instant kinship with the rough refinement of them. The symbolism my dad had given the seal fit the way I felt about Archer. He had my immortal heart, and he was my life.
I looked up at my mom. “Would it be okay with you if I gave them to Archer for Christmas?”
She reached out and tucked a piece of hair back behind my ear. “I think your dad would be honored for Archer to wear them.”
I grinned at her. “Not just because he’s the only guy we know who still wears French cuffs?”
She laughed. “Will would have liked Archer, and he would have appreciated how much Archer loves you.”
I kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Thank you for finding these. You’ve given me the gift of happy memories to fill in the spaces around the sad ones I’ve come to associate with my youth.”
I sat next to her and watched the mayhem on the lawn. Connor’s brother, Logan had joined in, and the game had switched to tag. I thought Natasha, the dog, was it.
“I’ve never really felt connected to this place.” I finally said. “None of the memories in these walls has been mine.”
My mom took my hand into hers. “I know how much damage I did to your childhood with all the moves, and I’m so very sorry for that.”
I met her eyes. “It’s okay, Mom. Sitting here with you, opening these presents you planned so carefully for the people you loved, makes me realize that even though I’ve allowed people to be part of my home – you and Archer, Ringo, Mr. Shaw, Connor and his family, and even Millicent – I’ve never let a place be my home. I guess places were always temporary and changing, and nothing ever felt like ours. But this place, Elian Manor, it is ours, and it’s full of the people I love. Maybe it’s time I let it be my home, too.”
My mom squeezed my hand and we sat there for a long time with our fingers linked together, watching kids and dogs run amok outside in the sun. The scent of my grandmother’s perfume lingered in the air, and I held the jewelry box with my father’s cufflinks in one hand.
I had a history, I had a family, and I was home.