Christmas on Martha’s Vineyard
A Tale From Blythe Cove Manor
by Shirley Hailstock
Noelle stood in front of the bathroom mirror painting on her party face. She smirked at herself as she fixed her lipstick and surveyed the finished product. Well, at least, the painted on face matched the painted on dress she thought. On her last diet, instead of losing weight, she’d gained some. Everything she owned was at least a half-size too small. Some were more than a half size and she’d pushed them to the back of her closet. This Christmas red dress was at least close to fitting.
She absolutely refused to buy a larger size. No matter what the size zero sales clerk said as she’d looked at Noelle in the dressing room mirror. Size mattered to her and she’d reached her limit. But she had to attend tonight’s Christmas party. Her best friend, Joy, actually her only friend, had called and garnered a solemn promise from Noelle that she would show up. Noelle’s date, if you could call him that, had canceled twenty-four hours ago and she’d planned to skip the entire affair, but when Joy called, she couldn’t afford to snub her.
With one final swish of the lipstick brush, Noelle appraised her features and turned away from the mirror. No one would be attracted to her anyway. With her height at only five feet three inches and a weight that made her look like a troll, she was apt to spend the night hiding behind chairs or going to and from the ladies room. Of course, Joy had to plan a dance as if she was some 1950’s society woman whose invitation was highly sought after. The truth was, people loved this once a year party, even though it wasn’t the 1950’s and this wasn’t a society party, at least not the kind that era purported to have.
Gathering her coat, Noelle left her room at the Blythe Cove Manor Bed and Breakfast. The party was at Joy’s house. Some of the guest stayed at the St. Romaine Hotel, but Noelle preferred the smaller establishment with its quiet charm and the fact that she wouldn’t constantly run into people who would look at her, then do a double take as they immediately remembered when she was a size ten.
Noelle pulled her door open. Its hinges made no sound as she passed through it, giving her chiffon gown a flourish and allowing it to swirl about her legs.
“Oh!” she said, when she turned to head for the stairs. The B&B’s mascot, Martha, scampered down the stairs. It wasn’t the cat that startled her. A man stood closing the door on the opposite side of the hall. She was surprised that she had heard no noise and assumed she was alone.
The man looked her up and down, his eyes appraising, and the briefest shadow of a smile played at the corners of his mouth.
“Wow!” he finally said on a breath of air that warmed her like a gentle summer breeze.
Noelle wasn’t sure she was seeing straight. She knew this man.
“Emerson? Emerson Stewart?” she said.
She couldn’t keep the awe out of her voice. She’d had a crush on Emerson when she was in high school and by the amount of heat flooding through her body, she still had an attraction to him.
“What are you doing here?”
The words came out before she could stop them. She sounded like some old movie dialog coming from two people who unexpectedly met after years of separation.
That’s exactly who they were, but the words still rang hollow.
Emerson hadn’t changed much. No, he’d changed a lot and it was all for the better. He wore a dark suit with a bright white shirt that contrasted with his tanned skin, making him look more devastating than he had when they shouted down the long halls of Martha’s Vineyard High.
His eyes had always been a dark, penetratingly brown, the kind that made her inside melt. His body was still athletic and he stood straight and tall. For a moment, she remembered her weight gain and wondered if his wow comment had been because of that and not the appraisal she mistook it for.
“Noelle,” he said, taking a step toward her.
Noelle wanted to move, but her feet seemed planted to the hardwood floor and her closed door left her no place to go.
“Noelle Graham?” His voice was as dark and sexy as she’d imagined in her dark bedroom all those years ago.
She nodded, unable to speak.
“You look wonderful,” he said, now only a step away from her. Again his eyes traveled from her head to her feet.
She checked his appraisal for some sign of insincerity, but found none. She wondered why. Emerson had never shown any interest in her before. When her every waking moment was about him and the unrequited love she had for the captain of the basketball team. Yet he didn’t know she existed. At least she thought he didn’t, but he’d called her by name, recognized her even though she no longer looked like the giddy girl she’d been.
“Are you headed for Joy’s party?” he asked.
She nodded again. “I was about to ask Blythe to call a car for me.”
“I have a car. Why don’t you ride with me?”
“You’re going to her party?”He never came to Joy’s parties. In all the years, Joy had been throwing this Christmas party, Emerson had never come. She wasn’t sure if he was invited and decided against it or had other invitations.
“She sent me an invitation.” He pulled a white envelope from his pocket and held it up.
Joy could be a matchmaker, and there were times she’d tried to set Noelle up. Noelle wondered who Joy had set up for Emerson.
“Shall we go?” he asked.
Noelle looked up at him. His eyes immediately caught hers. He held his arm out and she stared at it for a long moment. Then she slipped her hand thought it and he led her to the stairway.
There had to be something wrong with her. Her hand tingled where he’d touched it and she felt the warmth of his body through his clothes. How could that be after all these years? She was twenty-six and she hadn’t seen Emerson since the day they graduated. From what she’d heard, he got into an intern program and left the Vineyard a week after school closed. She supposed he went to college from there and then began work. This was what she’d done, but she returned to the Vineyard for the party every Christmas.
Joy’s house didn’t sit on the main road. It was tucked away behind a lot of foliage and the driveway was one of the hidden ones you needed to know about in order to find it. Emerson turned exactly where he should, surprising Noelle, who said nothing about him honing in on it without directions. As he turned along the curved driveway, the house came into view. Designed to surprise arrivals, it was perfect for the holidays. Lights outlined the entire structure. Reindeer, elves, angels and life-size replicas of Santa and Mrs. Claus led them to the front door.
Emerson parked and helped her out of the car, taking her arm and pulling it through his for the second time. Noelle was grateful that she didn’t have to enter alone, but the two of them looked like a couple and they weren’t. They happened to be staying at the same B&B, although she didn’t know why. He’d always been the popular guy, hailed as a hero wherever he went. His girlfriends were cheerleaders or one of the in-crowd. So to come in with her. . .
Noelle stumbled over the comment, but Emerson’s arm caught her and supported her before she could fall.
Instead of her continuing their walk, she stopped and faced him, pulling her arm free and taking a step back. His hands were sure and his arms were strong enough to check her fall.
He looked confused, but no more so than Noelle.
“Why are you here, Emerson?” She kept her voice even and non-confrontational.
Noelle waited without saying anything.
“I told you. Joy invited me.”
“Why are you staying at the B&B and not with everyone else at the St. Romaine? And why are you escorting me as if we where old friends, when you never spoke a single word to me when we were in the same classes in high school?”
“Whoa.” He took a step back was if she’d hit him unexpectedly. “Where’d that come from?”
“You’ve never come to one of Joy’s parties before and she has one every year. Why now? Why are you really here?” It was obvious that she didn’t trust his motives, even though she was unsure of what they were.
“I promise you, I have no other reason for being here except that she invited me.”
“Has she ever invited you before?”
He shook his head. “We are both part of her past and we both got invitations. I know Joy and I weren’t that friendly in high school, but she was someone I knew.”
Unlike me, Noelle thought. “So you jumped in your car, took the ferry and returned to Martha’s Vineyard just for a party?”
“Don’t forget I was born here.”
“But your family moved away almost a decade ago. And you haven’t been back since then.”
“That’s why I’m staying in the B&B. Blythe is a family friend.”
“Strange, she didn’t mention you when I checked in.”
“Privacy concerns,” he offered. “Blythe is very discreet.”
Noelle didn’t accept that. She and Emerson had grown up on the island, attended the same schools, graduated the same year, and were both invited to Joy’s party. Blythe had to know they had some acquaintance, no matter how thin the thread. She knew Noelle, had known her for years. She also knew Noelle was staying at the B&B because of Joy’s party. Yet, she hadn’t even mentioned Emerson. And she’d put them on the same floor, in rooms directly across from each other. She wouldn’t have done that without understanding their reason for being there.
Emerson looked up at the night sky. It had begun to snow. Noelle watched him closely. The red and green lights reflected around them. Instead of turning his face to that of a sinister Halloween character, it enhanced his features. She pushed back on thinking how handsome he was and concentrated on maintaining her anger. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what she was angry about. He’d said nothing to give her a clue that he was here was anything other than a holiday party with some old friends. Yet, he also hadn’t convinced her that he didn’t have an agenda. Why that agenda would or wouldn’t involve her, she didn’t know.
“Maybe we should go in,” she said. “It’s getting cold out here.”
She took a step toward the door, but was stopped by Emerson’s voice.
“Noelle, when I got the invitation, I didn’t know you were coming.”
“When did you find out?” she asked.
“Two weeks ago when I called to confirm. Joy answered the phone and during our brief talk, she told me.”
Noelle turned back to fully look at him.
“Why would that make a difference? Or did it?”
“At the time, it did.”
“But–” she prompted.
“The reason no longer exist. I think we should go in and have a good time. I’m leaving the Vineyard tomorrow and returning to Boston.”
“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. You came all this way for one day?”
He hunched his shoulders in reply.
Noelle knew his parents no longer lived on the Vineyard. She wasn’t sure if there was someone he had to get back to. But if there was, why was he here alone?
“I have something to get done before the New Year. So the sooner I get back, the better.”
“I see,” she replied, although she didn’t see. “You’re returning to Boston to work on Christmas Eve?”
He hunched his shoulders in a it’s gotta be done gesture. “Come on.” He took her elbow and gave her a slight tug as they began walking again.
“There you are,” Joy said, the moment they came through the door. “I’ve been wondering when you two were going to arrive.”
Noelle hugged her friend, pressing her cheek against Joy’s and wondering why Joy seemed to expect them to arrive together.
“You’re so cold,” she said pulling back. Then she hugged Emerson. “You’re cold, too,” she told him. “I’m so glad you came. It’s been ages since I saw you.” She addressed Emerson.
Noelle stepped back, hoping to move into the crowd before anyone saw them.
“Why don’t you two get something to drink and warm up.” Joy left them to greet other guests. As Noelle and Emerson walked into the huge party room, Noelle was relieved to be stopped by a friend. Emerson continued toward the bar. For the first time in her life, it seemed, Noelle felt she could take a breath. She couldn’t wait to talk to Joy. Something was up and Noelle felt she had walked into a conversation that had begun before her arrival.
Emerson returned with a drink for her, but he was immediately whisked away by someone, someone female and thin. Noelle promised herself, she was not jealous and that the old crush she had on him was a high school thing and meant nothing to the woman she was today. He was leaving the Vineyard, returning to his life, and she would likely never see him again. The thought of that made her heart pump then drop.
Why had Joy invited him? She knew all about the crush Noelle had when they were in school. She knew that Emerson was unaware of her feelings back then. Why did Joy think it was a good idea to rip the scab off that memory and leave it open and wanting after so many years?
As fate would have it, Joy was never alone. As hostess, she was either dancing or seeing that everyone was having a good time. Noelle hadn’t intentionally sought Emerson out, but she knew his approximate location at all times. If she wasn’t glancing covertly at him, often their eyes met while both were speaking to someone else or either of them were dancing, she was looking for him.
Finally after a couple of hours, she found him standing behind her. She nearly gasped when she realized he was so close.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked.
Noelle answered with her eyes, not intending to, but she naturally dropped her gaze and her lashes fluttered downward. Emerson took her hand and led her to the dance floor. They had never touched before the hallway at the B&B, but sensation when he took her in his arms was knee-numbing. Noelle knew if he wasn’t holding her, she’d crumple to the floor.
“Relax,” he whispered in her ear.
His breath on that sensitive part of her body was erotic. She relaxed, knowing if she didn’t, she’d melt into him.
Emerson hummed lightly to the tune and swirled her about the floor. Noelle was lost; lost in his arms, in the song that resonated his her ear, in the strength of his hold on her, the sureness of their footsteps. Nothing had ever been this easy or this perfect. They were a match, a couple, two people who fit together as if they’d been made from opposite molds. She let the music take her away, dancing on the air of Emerson’s cologne, taking in the uniqueness of him.
All her old feelings came back, as if they’d been held in check, waiting for the right moment to open the door and left them free. She wanted the night to go on forever, wanted the dance to never end. However, it did. It had to.
Emerson pushed her back as the music ended. Then he did something totally unexpected. He leaned forward, his face coming close to hers. He kissed her on the cheek, then raised his head and moved out of range.
It took everything Noelle had not to lift her hand and touch the warm spot on her face where his mouth had been. He moved back, first with a couple of steps, then as someone else took her attention, turning and walking until he rounded a door that led to an interior hallway.
“Are you all right?” Joy asked coming up next to her.
Noelle mentally shook herself and looked at her friend. She smiled. “Yes, I’m fine. It’s a wonderful party as it always is.”
Noelle meant it. Emerson had kissed her and her world had changed. But she had no idea what had prompted him to do so. She wasn’t his type. She wasn’t thin and affectionate, hanging onto his arm and folding herself around him the way Janey Whitestone used to do. She did have good hair, it was her best feature, and over the years, she’d mastered the use of makeup. Yet none of that could be the reason Emerson had looked at her with eyes that could melt steel or someone’s heart, like hers.
It didn’t take long for her to find the answer.
An hour passed and Noelle had not seen Emerson. She’d decided to confront him, ask why he’d kissed her. It was the direct way of doing things and she was a direct person. She’d learned the skill long ago, long before she left Martha’s Vineyard. It worked well for her in every way except with him. Whenever Emerson came into view, she’d become the clumsy fourteen year old.
She’d almost succumb to that adolescent when she saw him standing in the hallway at the B&B. She wondered where he was, but didn’t want to ask. Obviously, Joy would read more into the question than Noelle wanted to admit.
Maybe Emerson had met someone in another hallway and was caught in a long conversation. Noelle decided to go and see. On the way, she was stopped by Alexander, Joy’s older brother.
“Dance with me,” he said, taking her arm and giving her no chance to accept or refuse. Not that she would have. She liked Alex, but his next comment stopped her. “After all, I’m your ride home.”
“What? Where’s Emerson?”
“He had to leave.”
“Leave, when? Why?” Questions burst from her without her thinking about them. “I mean, he didn’t say anything about leaving.”
“I don’t know. He said something he had to take care of had come up and he came with you so would I drive you back to Blythe Cove Manor.”
Alex threw out the explanation as if it was no big deal. Yet to Noelle, it was a major rejection. Was that why he’d kissed her? Because he was leaving and was too much a coward to tell her? He had gotten her a ride. He didn’t just abandon her to find her own way back. Her heart softened a degree before she hardened it again.
“Hey,” Alex said a little too loudly. “You’re crushing my hand.”
“Sorry,” Noelle said, relaxing her fingers, but not the set of her teeth.
The dance ended and the two went for drinks. Noelle got a glass of wine, but Alex limited himself to tonic water. Alex spoke to the bartender and the two started a conversation. Noelle didn’t listen. When she saw Joy, she excused herself and headed for her friend.
“Joy, why did you invite Emerson this year? You’ve never invited him before.”
Joy smiled the old conspiracy smile. She knew something and that smile was a communication method that only the two of them knew. Joy took Noelle’s arm and the two went to a quiet corner.
“It was the strangest thing,” she began. “He called me out of the blue about a month ago. After a few minutes of catching up, he asked if I still hosted this party. Of course, I did and told him if he was going to be on the island and wanted to come I’d love to see him.”
“And he agreed to come?”
She nodded. “He was a very popular guy in high school. I wanted to see him again.” Joy’s smile turned to a frown. “You two weren’t that close, if I’m remembering correctly.”
“We didn’t exactly run in the same circles,” Noelle evaded.
“He was a jock and you were one of the smart kids.” Joy’s comment held no sarcasm or condescension. It was a simple statement of fact.
“I was surprised to find him staying at the B&B.”
“You’d think he’d be at the St. Romaine. Maybe he’s changed. We all grow up. Maybe he’s a different person than that high school basketball champion.”
“What’s he doing now?”
She pursed her lips, frowning. “I don’t know. He works somewhere in Boston. He was a communications major. Maybe he’s in public relations or it could be something totally different.” She paused and looked at Joy. “You majored in math and now you’re an executive in the global wine industry.”
“Many people don’t discover what they want to do until after college.”
Joy nodded. “If you want,” she began a note of conspiracy in her voice. “I can give you Emerson’s office phone number.”
Noelle was already shaking her head. “I was curious, not interested.” she knew that was a lie the moment the words left her lips.
“You could do worst.” Joy stretched each word out.
“Maybe, but we still don’t run in the same circles.”
Alex dropped Noelle off a little after two in the morning. The snow had continued and there was a couple of inches on the ground. The B&B was silent as she opened the door and slipped inside. Only Martha was there to greet her. She smiled at the cat, but it was Emerson who came immediately to mind. When she left Blythe Cove Manor a few hours ago, her arm had been through his. Mounting the stairs, she looked at the door to his room. She was sure the room was empty. Noelle didn’t know how she knew that, but she had a feeling that the room had no one in it. Where was he, she wondered.
Pulling her key from the small clutch bag, she noticed a piece of paper lying on the floor between her door and the one where Emerson could be, but she doubted it. Picking it up, she turned it over. Part of the heading contained Bristol Wines, the name of her company and the image of their signature wine. For the space of a thought, she wondered if she’d dropped it. Then she saw the name of the company in the lower right hand corner and under it were the words proposed by Emerson Stewart.
It was only one page, but suddenly everything fell in place. She could almost hear the puzzle pieces lining up and forming a complete picture. Emerson was on the island to pitch his advertising company to her. It was an open secret that Bristol Wines was considering a new agency. She was head of the department that was looking at proposals. Obviously, Emerson wanted his company considered. She checked the name in the corner again. It wasn’t one on her short list. She wondered why he hadn’t asked her to hear him out.
Turning back, she looked at his door again. Despite the lateness of the hour, she marched across the small hallway and knocked loudly on the door. After several moments there was no answer and she could hear no movement in the room. She knocked again. And again there was no answer, confirming her belief that he was not in the room.
Noelle didn’t sleep at all. She didn’t get to bed until the sun was lightning the eastern sky. Thoughts of why Emerson had obviously prepared a proposal and then decided against using it or even mentioning to her, she had no idea. And he wasn’t there for her to ask about it.
She got up when she heard the first morning ferry’s horn. Blythe always had coffee and scones in the kitchen. Going downstairs, she was surprised to find Blythe already cooking.
“Good morning. I thought I’d be alone,” she said and took a seat in the homey kitchen.
“Not sleeping well?” Blythe asked as if she could read Noelle’s mind.
“The party lasted a long time. I hope I don’t look like it.”
Blythe set a cup of coffee and a saucer in front of her. “You look fine. Did you and Mr. Stewart have a good time?”
“I’m sure we both did. He left the party before I did.”
“Yes, I know. He said he had an early trip. I made him breakfast before he went to the ferry.”
“Ferry?” Noelle repeated.
“A few minutes ago. I’m surprised you didn’t pass him at the door.” She glanced at the opening to the kitchen behind Noelle.
“He left just a few minutes ago?”
Blythe nodded, putting a tray of scones in the Aga stove.
“Blythe,” Noelle said, making a snap decision. “I need to go to the ferry.”
At that moment, the ferry horn sounded again. Noelle heard it louder in her head than it really was. The bed and breakfast was too far from the ferry for her to hear it that well.
“I’m afraid you’ve missed him,” Blythe said.
Noelle left the island the next day, but she didn’t return to her home. She went to Boston to the address in the corner of single sheet of paper that had lain on the floor between her door and that of Emerson Stewart.
The building wasn’t one of the huge glass and steel structures, but an old house that had been converted to offices. A small gold sign with black letters matched the logo on the paper.
No receptionist greeted her as she pushed the antique door open and went into an anteroom that was completely decked out for the Christmas holiday. After waiting a few moments and finding no one, she poked her head in an office. Emerson sat at a large desk, his head down in obvious concentration.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” Noelle questioned, taking a step into the room.
He looked up, surprised to see her.
“Noelle, what are you doing here?”
“Wondering why you left the party without a word to me, but thank you for seeing that someone would take me to the B&B safely.”
He stood up, but didn’t come around the desk. She wondered if he was using it as a barrier between them, the same as he’d done by putting the distance between Martha’s Vineyard and Boston between them.
“I suddenly remembered something that needed cleaning up here.”
Noelle reached into her purse and pulled out the folded piece of paper. Smoothing it out, she opened it and placed it on his desk. “You left this.”
Emerson glanced down at it, but didn’t reach for it. “I no longer need it.”
Noelle raised and lowered her shoulders in a nonchalant manner. “Then why did you prepare it.”
He stood silently, not answering her question.
Well I’m here,” she said. “Why don’t you go through your presentation. You obviously put some work into it and planned to approach me.”
“I decided it wasn’t a good idea.”
“Why not. It’s not like you’d be treading on an old friendship. We’ve never had one.”
He didn’t dispute the statement, but she saw small twitch that pulled his mouth down.
“I’m sure you need to get back to the Vineyard or home for Christmas.”
She took her coat off and hung it on one of the chairs facing his desk. “I’ve delayed it this long. Another hour won’t change anything.”
Emerson seemed to give in then. He gathered a couple of files and walked around his desk. With his hand, he offered to lead her to another room. Noelle went into a conference room and Emerson turned on several media machines. Screens quickly filled up with his company logo and then he told her she was about to see a short film. It detailed the winery she worked for and how his advertising agency could take their product to new markets. It ended by showing a graph of projected sales increases over a twelve month period once the campaign went into effect.
“You’re sure of this?” she asked as the graphics ended and he’d completed his presentation. He spoke well, commanded attention and showed an attitude of confidence and ability without be overly pretentious. Noelle tried to look at him as only the voice of a contact seeing to represent their wine label, but she had a difficult time with that course of action. Still, Emerson’s presentation was different than the others she’d seen. She liked it, felt it would work.
“Of course, I can’t guarantee it, but my campaigns have worked in the past.”
“This is a new venture, isn’t it?” Noelle looked around, encompassing the entire building. She was sure of her words, but hadn’t had time to fully investigate the firm.
“I went out on my own a year ago. It has been a struggle,” he answered honestly. “But while I worked for Carson Advertising and Promotion, I had major success.”
“And why do you want my account?” It was a question she asked each of the agencies.
“Revenue for one. I won’t deny that I could use the business. And I won’t deny that representing Bristol Wines will add leverage to my business. But I promise you, my firm will give you our highest priority and work tirelessly to help you achieve your financial goals.”
“That’s a memorized line,” she told him.
“It is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
Noelle stood up. Her coat was back in his office, but she was preparing to leave.
“What do you think?” Emerson asked.
Standing behind her chair, she pushed it against the polished conference table. “I like what I saw. The presentation has some commonality with others I’ve seen, but it’s different enough that I’m willing to take the chance.” She saw the slight drop of his shoulders. A gesture of relief entered his eyes. “I’ll take you at your word,” she told him in a no-nonsense manner, and I’ll hold you to it.”
He smiled. “You won’t be disappointed.”
“I’ll have the paperwork sent to you next week and we can start in the New Year.”
The interview was over and it was time to leave, although she would really like to stay and talk to him longer. Her crush was back in full force, as if the intervening years had done nothing to dampen it.
Noelle retrieved her coat and went to slip an arm in the sleeve when Emerson took it from her and held it. He was close behind her when she pushed her arms in it. Stepping away she gathered her purse and slipped it over her shoulder.
“Merry Christmas,” she said with a smile, the painted on one that she practiced in front of her mirror.
As she reached the office door, Emerson stopped her. “Are you leaving for San Francisco today?”
“I’m going back to the Vineyard.”
“Have dinner with me?” he asked.
The question came from out of the blue. Noelle had not expected it and it had the effect of temporarily removing all control from her knees.
“You don’t have to do that. You have the contract. There is no need to try and win my favor.”
“That’s not the reason I asked,” he said.
Noelle raised her brows in question.
“I’d like to get to know you better.”
“Why? It’s not a requirement of the contract.”
“This has nothing to do with the contract.” His voice was slightly louder than she expected it to be. In a lower tone, he added, “I’d want to take you to dinner even if you’d turned my presentation down.”
Noelle frowned. “I don’t think I’m your type.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Past history. As I remember it, you go for the cheerleader type and as you can see. . .” She opened her arms and turned completely around. “I’d never fit into one of those uniforms.”
“You look just fine to me. I want a woman I can hold. Not one who feels like a stick when I put my arms around her.”
Noelle didn’t know if that was true or if this would lead anywhere, but she’d taken a lot chances in her life. This would be one she’d regret if she didn’t see where it would go.
“Then I suppose we should decide what we want to eat,” she said.
However, she knew exactly what she wanted.