Happy Holidays, everyone! The season is passing quickly, and I was rather inspired by our theme this month. I started writing and it’s turned out to be more than I originally bargained for. I’m planning it to post in three installments, with the last being here 🙂 Since it’s part of the Advent Calendar, I won’t say when so it will be a surprise! I’m not sure of the date for the second installment yet, but hopefully in a week or so. I haven’t decided if I’m posting it here or on my blog yet. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy it!
The Advent Calendar
It was there on her desk, just as she thought it might be, and in some bizarre way hoped it would be. The wrapping paper was even the same old-fashioned snow scene—like something out of a Regency novel or one of those folk paintings you find in an art museum.
She walked further into her office. She’d look like an idiot if she did no more than stand and stare from the doorway. After all, the present wouldn’t bite!
She dropped her purse and briefcase into her chair and bit her bottom lip. What would be in the present today? And, just who was her Secret Santa? The entire office had drawn names before Thanksgiving, but a limit had been set for a maximum amount spent and, of course, Secret Santa was never more than one gift—not this make-shift sort of Advent Calendar her Secret Santa had decided to undertake.
She’d been shocked on the first day of December when she entered her office to find the first package with a large number one on the top. The gift inside was simple, a fine milled bar of lavender soap and a bath mitt. The following day, another package appeared but with a large two adorning the top rather than a bow, this time containing a set of lavender candles from the same company as the soap. How had they known her favorite scent was lavender?
In the beginning, none of the gifts were extravagant. Her Secret Santa fully stocked her bath with lavender soap, salts, bath bombs, and oils for the first week, but the weekend had been the biggest surprise. Surely her Secret Santa wouldn’t have presents for the days they didn’t work? The early Saturday morning delivery boy holding a beautiful pink Christmas cactus in full bloom had been a shock, to say the least. The card had no message, but the number written in neat bold letters. Sunday, another delivery boy appeared with a bag of treats for Grunt, her long-haired black cat.
Since then, the gifts had ranged from her favorite coffee and muffin delivered to her desk from the local coffee shop to adopting a snow leopard from a wildlife fund in her name. Each gift was personal and demonstrated how well the individual knew her, which was unnerving. She didn’t share much of her personal life at work. How did this person know so much?
“You have another?”
Elizabeth looked up to find Charlotte, standing just inside her office door and nodded.
“It’s not going to bite, you know. Open it! I want to see what it is.”
“Charlotte! This has gone way beyond the Secret Santa. How do I accept any more gifts? I should’ve started turning them away a week ago.”
“Oh, come on! Obviously, your Secret Santa is of the male persuasion and he definitely has it bad. The other assistants and I have a pool going on who it is. And, for the record, I think you’re way off on Mr. Bingley.”
She traced her finger along the two in twenty-three. “I know. I asked him last night, and Jane confirmed it isn’t him, but how does this person know so much unless Jane is telling them?”
Charlotte leaned against the corner of Elizabeth’s desk. “Did she behave suspiciously?”
“No, but Charlie did. He wouldn’t look me in the eye when he denied it. You know I have a sense about these things. He has some idea, but he won’t tell me.”
“Don’t get all crazy when I ask this, but what about the big boss man?” Charlotte spoke softly, probably because the door was still wide open.
“William Darcy?” Elizabeth laughed and shook her head as she moved her belongings and sat in her chair. “No way. You know he despises me. On my first day, he made it perfectly clear it wasn’t his idea to hire me and he hasn’t changed his mind since. I’ve caught him staring at me, you know. He looks at me with nothing but derision. Besides, William Darcy isn’t thoughtful. He’s a horse’s ass.”
“Elizabeth,” said Charlotte in that voice, the one that always tried to make Elizabeth see reason. “I’ve seen the way the man stares at you. It’s not one of derision. He looks like he’s in pain.”
“Are you sure he’s not simply constipated?”
With a roll of her eyes, Charlotte closed the office door and then resumed her previous spot. “He’s not constipated. He appears lovelorn.”
“You read too many bodice rippers.”
“Think about it! The day after you moaned and complained that he was behind you in line at the coffee shop, you get a cup of coffee and a muffin delivered to your desk. Don’t forget that you had to be at the courthouse early that morning. He would’ve known you either skipped breakfast or would be needing a pick me up.”
“That doesn’t explain the other gifts, though.”
“Sometimes he sits next to you during meetings. He’s probably noticed that you frequently wear lavender.”
Elizabeth sat back in her chair. “How would the high and mighty William Darcy know my favorite animal is a snow leopard or that pink is my favorite color?”
“Wow, you are in some serious denial,” said Charlotte. “Have you looked at the wallpaper or screensaver on your computer lately? Or perhaps the calendar hanging on the wall. Any idiot could see you have a preference for snow leopards. As for your favorite color, your phone case is pink, you often paint your fingernails pink, and you have several scarves and a couple of suits in different shades of the same color. That’s an obvious clue if I ever saw one.” The last was said rather drily.
“I still don’t think it’s him. From what you said, it could be anyone in the office who noticed.”
“I looked up those bath products you received. Do you know how much they cost?”
Elizabeth shifted in her seat. She’d intentionally not done that. The words “French milled” on the labels had her suspicious as it was. “I really don’t want to know. I’ll feel that much guiltier for using them.”
“You’ve used them?”
She turned on her computer and shrugged. Used them? She’d lit the candles, put the lavender salts in the water, poured a large glass of wine and luxuriated in the bath. “Maybe.”
The latest package appeared in front of her face when she turned. “Open it. I’m dying to know what’s inside.”
Elizabeth frowned and yanked the box away from Charlotte. “It’s creepy.”
“Ha! I only wish I had your Secret Santa. I’d love for a man to send me expensive bath products and my favorite things every day for twenty-five days. It’s only creepy if he’s stalking you, which he’s not. No one loiters around your office or follows you home. You’re just looking for excuses not to like the man!”
“Because I don’t know who he is!” She took a deep breath and tugged at the paper until it fell away from the box inside. Carefully opening the lid as though something would burst from within, she leaned over to peek inside.
“What is it?”
Elizabeth couldn’t see well enough, so she removed the lid and pulled away the tissue inside to find a neatly folded pink silk scarf. With careful fingers, she lifted one corner and the entire swath of fabric came into view. It was exquisite!
Charlotte’s low whistle broke the silence. “Hermes? You are one lucky girl, Elizabeth Bennet.”
Her head jerked up to Charlotte holding the tag for her to see while she sank back into her chair. “I can’t accept it. It’s way over the limit.”
Charlotte opened the scarf completely and whistled. It’s gorgeous. Wherever he bought this, I doubt he can return it.”
“But this is different from the others. It’s a small gift if you don’t consider the label, but I don’t live in a hole. I know what Hermes is and that it’s expensive—even if I don’t know how much this one costs.” She reached forward and fingered the soft fabric, letting it slip through her fingers. “It’s certainly beautiful.”
Before she could react, Charlotte slipped the scarf around Elizabeth’s neck and began to arrange it. “If you’re determined to give it back, then at least try it on to see how it looks. How often do you get to wear a Hermes scarf?”
Elizabeth stood and turned to look at her reflection in the gilt-framed mirror on the wall while she tucked and arranged the fabric so it suited. “Okay, there, I’ve tried it on. Happy?” She began pulling to remove it before something happened to ruin it. That would be just her luck! She would attempt to do the right thing, only the scarf had a large coffee stain or make-up smudge.
At a knock on the door, she called, “Yes!”
As she slipped the silk from her neck, William Darcy entered but stopped just inside, standing stiffly and holding a folder in one hand. “I hope I am not disturbing you?”
“No,” she said quickly, folding the scarf to put it back in the box. “Charlotte and I were merely speaking of Christmas. I was about to start on the papers you requested.”
He dipped his chin in a formal sort of nod. “Good, I look forward to reading through them when you’re done.” He lifted the folder and held it out for her. “I brought the specifics for the property. I believe you need them for the final draft.”
As she took the folder, she moved behind her desk and placed it beside her keyboard. “Thank you for bringing it down, but you could’ve just emailed the information. You didn’t need to go to the trouble of bringing it yourself.”
“I assure you, it was no bother.” He glanced at Charlotte, who excused herself and hurried out before his eyes darted to the pink silk in Elizabeth’s hand. “A Christmas present?”
She started and took the fabric in both hands. “Yes, but I can’t accept it.”
His forehead furrowed. “Do you not like it?”
“I do like it. It’s probably the loveliest scarf I’ve ever seen, but it’s too expensive. I don’t feel right accepting it.”
“Perhaps the person who gave it to you didn’t consider the cost an issue. Instead, they might have only considered the joy you would receive from wearing it.”
“You believe I should keep it? It’s far beyond the Secret Santa limit.”
“This person is your Secret Santa? I’m paying them entirely too much,” he said, holding the tag where he could read the label. A small lift appeared on one side of his lips. Was he making a joke? Before she could respond, he cleared his throat. “I don’t expect the permits or the other documentation until after Christmas, so please don’t work late. I expect you to enjoy your Christmas.” After a tight smile, he strode out, leaving her speechless.
William Darcy had made a joke. He’d also told her not to work late. Who was this man and what had he done with her normally uptight, abrupt mannered boss?
William Darcy strode back to his office. Damn! He’d run out of ideas for small things to buy for Elizabeth when the pink silk all but fell into his lap. When he and his sister, Ana, had sorted through his mother’s scarves and he’d found the Hermes that still had its tags and its original box, he knew it was meant for Elizabeth.
The scarf had been the last gift his father had given his mother before she died ten years ago. Anne Darcy had loved silk scarves and had a drawer full that he and his sister couldn’t bring themselves to even open until a week ago. Ana had taken the ones she preferred, a few of the vintage pieces were cleaned and donated to charity for auction, and a few remained, including the pink Hermes. Ana was not a fan of pink and had no objection when he asked if he could give it as a gift.
He didn’t pay for it, so it fell under the rules, right? He blew out a long breath. Of course, Elizabeth didn’t know that and it was doubtful it would make a difference, either. She would still insist it was too much.
His assistant Meghan Reynolds followed him into his office when he returned. “Well? Did she open it?”
“She intends to return it to me. It’s too expensive.”
The older woman smiled in her grandmotherly manner. “I warned you she would.”
He dropped into his chair and leaned back. “I had no other ideas. Once the bath products were exhausted, some gifts were easier than others, but when I saw that scarf, I knew it should belong to her.”
“If she discovers it’s vintage, she’s going to be all the more adamant you take it back. I can only imagine her reaction to your gifts for Christmas Eve and Christmas day.” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him over the rims of her glasses. “You know if you hadn’t been such a horse’s ass on her first day, you might be dating her rather than admiring her from afar.”
“I know,” he said, his voice low and grumbling. “You don’t have to remind me.”
They both turned when the door opened and Charles Bingley walked in wearing his usual happy expression. “I just stopped by Lizzy’s office. If the scarf wasn’t so expensive, you know she would be wearing it everywhere. I told you she wouldn’t be comfortable accepting it.”
Darcy glared at his best friend since kindergarten, which only made Bingley laugh. “Don’t give me that look. You put yourself in the dog house without any help from me. If you hadn’t been such an ass—”
“Yes, I know, but we didn’t need another attorney and won’t until Hurst retires next year, but you were so determined we had to hire her.”
Reynolds laughed and Bingley rolled his eyes. “She finished Harvard Law at the top of her class, not to mention the different accolades she’s accumulated since. We couldn’t let her pass us by. If we’d waited until next year, someone else would’ve scooped her up, but you wouldn’t listen to me. Instead, you were all surly on her first day. ‘I have a mountain of paperwork on my desk. I can’t be expected to take the time to welcome a new company attorney. Especially one who required her sister’s boyfriend to get her a job. You hired her, Bingley. You make her feel welcome.’” Bingley’s voice was the deep mocking one he always used when he imitated him. That voice was annoying! It always highlighted his worst moments.
“I hadn’t intended for her to overhear me.” When she stepped around the corner, he’d frozen in his spot and Bingley swore, but she did no more than raise her eyebrow, turn on her heel, and walk away. According to Bingley’s diatribe later that day, it had taken him an hour to convince her to stay. Not that Darcy cared at the time. He hadn’t wanted to hire her in the first place.
Bingley plopped into a chair. “I know. You never do, but this time, you regret it. She’s the first woman you’ve noticed in years and you screwed it up before you’ve even laid eyes on her.”
While Darcy would’ve loved to deny it, Bingley was correct. It hadn’t taken long for him to regret the stupid and untrue words he’d spoken that day. Once Bingley convinced her to stay, Darcy began to bump into her around the building—in the elevator, at meetings, in the breakroom getting coffee. She possessed this quality about her that drew his eye and made him take notice. It took him a few weeks to put his finger on it, but when he finally did, he couldn’t look away. Her eyes drew his like a magnet. They were intelligent and sparkled with humor. They were perfect.
Soon he caught himself appreciating the sway of her hips when she walked, the way her hair rippled over her shoulder when she concentrated on a document during a meeting. More than once, Bingley had been forced to clear his throat to redirect Darcy’s attention. Fortunately, no one else had noticed.
“Earth to Darcy!”
He jumped when Bingley’s hand waved in front of his face and Reynolds chuckled. “Stop it! I’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t do anything stupid.” Bingley stood and leaned over his desk. “I’m the one who rigged the Secret Santa so you could do this. If you do anything to hurt Lizzy, Jane will kill me.”
Darcy waved a hand to shoo them from the room and sat back in his seat with a groan. The problem was that Elizabeth Bennet wasn’t just another stunning face; she was intelligent and well-spoken. She was also meticulous, thorough, and since her work on the Wickham fiasco, Hurst never stopped singing her praises. After only three months, Hurst had done a complete one-eighty and decided she should replace him as head of the legal department instead of Craig Denny.
He opened the bottom drawer and pulled a wrapped package from the back with the number twenty-five on the top. If she thought the scarf was too much, what would she think of his final two gifts?
To be continued…
What does Darcy have planned for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Any ideas?