December 25, 1925
Florence Winters tiptoed to her window and threw open the curtains. Fighting against the glare of bright white reflecting from every surface outside, she blinked and rubbed at her sore eyes, smiling regardless.
Christmas in New York City… Florence never thought she’d see the day.
The snow that blanketed the city seemed to stretch across every inch of it. Aunt Julia had called it a heavenly surprise, the thin glaze of snow icing everything it could touch.
Buildings resembled stacks of flapjacks covered in powdered sugar. St. Luke’s Place was a winding sheet of batting not yet sewn into a quilt, while the sidewalk in front of their home was already tracked through by early morning carolers and possibly a stray cat or two.
It was glorious.
Speaking of cats… a rustling coming from the other side of her closet door told her that she wasn’t alone. Shaking her head, she opened the door just wide enough to reveal a pair of yellow-green eyes peering up at her from the darkness. Sneaky meowed at her in such an inquisitive manner that she couldn’t help but laugh.
She pushed open the door and bent down and picked him up, scratching behind his twitching, velvet soft ears. “Good morning, you pesky little thing. Goodness knows how you manage to get yourself into these situations.” Sneaky’s eyes seemed to shine as she heaved him up against her chest.
“But since it’s Christmas, I suppose I could look the other way.”
After freshening up a bit, she donned her favorite pair of special pajamas she saved just for the big day. It was a soft set of red, green, and black plaid, paired with a red robe in a fluffy sort of cotton that was cozy enough to relax in. She stood in front of the mirror and wrapped the robe around herself as she slid her feet into a pair of matching slippers.
She wasn’t sure if this was how Aunt Julia celebrated Christmas Day, but it was tradition back home to spend the morning in special pajamas with the rest of the family. With a shrug, she tightened the robe’s sash.
A bloom of nervous excitement crossed her features as she imagined seeing the looks on everyone’s faces as they opened her gifts. Florence was a true believer in thoughtfulness, and what was more thoughtful than a carefully selected present?
Christmas Eve night had been a solemn affair at Trinity Church, but Christmas Day would be a different story. Being ever the eccentric compared to her wealthy friends, Julia Bryant apparently did Christmas a little differently than those who showered their children with gifts in stockings and shiny new sleds hidden under the big tree in the morning.
First and foremost, gifts were given to her staff. Aunt Julia had explained the night before that this was not the usual for everyone, though it should be. She thought of Ginny their housemaid, Hamish their butler, and Benny, their chauffeur, as the blood pumping through the home’s veins.
Without them, the home would be in disarray and what type of person would Florence be if she saw things differently?
With one last glance in the mirror to check the pinnings in her hair, she hurried out of her bedroom, letting Sneaky dart past.
Even from the top floor, she could make out the delicious smell of breakfast wafting up from the dining room. She could only imagine how early Chef Auguste had arrived to start the morning feast.
The quiet murmur of the household picked up as she neared the main floor, and by the time she made it downstairs, everyone else was already waiting. Her cheeks burned as she quickly realized she had no idea how long they were all waiting for her to come down.
And that she was very clearly the only one still wearing pajamas.
She bit her lip as she sought out Aunt Julia. There was an air of amusement that played across her older aunt’s face, her steely gray blue eyes crinkling in the corners as she smiled at her.
“Good morning, Florence, dear. I trust you slept… well?”
It was all anyone could do, not to burst into laughter right then and there.
At least Florence had the cheek to be gracious about it. “I suppose I did,” she said as she gestured to her casual outfit. “Though it appears I’ve underestimated the dress code.”
Aunt Julia took her arm and patted it, bearing an unexpected whimsical expression. “Never you mind that, dear. Auguste has prepared us quite a lovely meal, and I daresay we should find our places to eat before it goes cold.”
“You’ll find no objection here,” Florence said with a smile, walking with her aunt into the dining room. The staff followed.
Breakfast was a lovely affair as Aunt Julia had given everyone the day off to join in celebrating with them. Ginny sat next to Florence, dressed in a simple but pretty plaid cotton dress, the pair of them grinning at one another.
“I wish it was like this every day,” Florence leaned over to whisper in the maid’s ear.
Ginny just sighed. “Me, too. But I can’t complain—we can’t complain.” She laid her head on her husband James’s shoulder as he winked at her from the other side.
Across the table, sat Hamish and Benny. Hamish looked ill-at-ease, keeping his eagle-eyed gaze on both of the other two staff to make sure they were still on their best behavior in front of Aunt Julia. Neither Ginny nor Benny would’ve ever done anything to greatly disappoint their employer, Florence noted, but that never seemed to cross Hamish’s mind.
Benny, on the other hand, was joyfully shoveling another bite of smoked Wiltshire ham into his mouth, catching Florence’s eye as he did.
She did her best to hide the unladylike snort that threatened to come out as he grinned at her, his cheeks wide like a chipmunk’s.
“Enjoying your food?” she asked him, taking a dignified bite of her own griddles cakes and sausage. “Or preparing for the winter?”
Ginny chuckled beside her.
Benny pretended to pat his stomach, ignoring the distressed look on Hamish’s face. “Why not a little of both?” His tone was teasing, playful as it sometimes was when the two of them spoke. Florence didn’t mind it at all, and in fact, she found herself doing it more often just to see that brilliant smile against his tawny skin.
She realized that this was the first time she’d seen Benny with his wavy dark hair tamed and without his usual chauffeur cap, not in his uniform but not dressed down, either. He sported a brown tweed jacket over his shirt and green waistcoat, where there was a worn watch chain hanging out of his breast pocket. The outfit suited him and his coloring well, though Benny made anything he wore look effortlessly appealing.
It was hard not to stare when he wasn’t paying attention and when his dark eyes weren’t meeting hers.
Not that she’d ever admit that out loud.
She swallowed her bite of sausage a little too hard and winced as it went down rough. A girl could choke to death just by admiring the handsome guy!
“Are you quite all right over there?” Benny asked, raising a dark eyebrow in her direction.
She quickly nodded. “I’m fine.” She wasn’t, not really, not when these same distracting thoughts popped into her head whenever she was around him. But what could she do? Benny would probably think she was loony if he knew the effect he often had on her.
With breakfast finished up, Aunt Julia suggested everyone head back into the great hall to open presents together. Florence practically shot up out of her seat, excitement flitting under her skin again, tempering that breakfast-bloated feeling.
She was the first one, aside from Sneaky, who made their way into the great hall. It had been decked out for the festive holiday, and bore a striking resemblance to a scene right out of the Saturday Evening Post.
Number Seven, St. Luke’s Place had never looked finer.
The Douglas fir hung heavy with its fresh scent and glass baubles, its garlands of reds and golds. Florence had thought to mention stringing popcorn around the width of it, but as she looked at it standing tall and proud in the grand hall, she thought perhaps it was perfect just the way it was.
Underneath the Christmas tree were gift boxes wrapped elegantly, each patiently waiting for their moment to shine.
Ginny came around and gently nudged her and bent down to retrieve one.
“Who’s that one for?” Florence flashed a grin, already knowing the answer. She was the one who wrapped them, after all.
Ginny flipped the little handmade card open. “Hamish. Oh look, Hamish, this one’s from Florence!” There was a sort of humor in her eyes as they sparkled and she handed the butler his present.
Hamish cleared his throat, looking rather alarmed, though that was simply his look most of the time. “I-I didn’t know to…”
But Florence shook her head. “No, no. I don’t expect anything in return. You keep us in tip-top shape. I wanted to show you that I appreciate it.” To be sure, he had not been an easy person to buy for, but that didn’t stop her from at least trying to get it right.
“Very well,” the older man said, his Scottish brogue thicker than usual as he carefully untied the package. Even though everyone else was starting to sort through the rest of the gifts, Florence kept her eyes on him.
He pulled out a pair of reading glasses from inside his livery and pushed them up the bridge of his bulbous nose sitting over his rather bushy mustache, and read from the box. “What’s this now? Hannity’s Smoothing Solution?” With a flick of the clasp, he unearthed the contents of the package—a small glass bottle and the accompanying comb.
“It’s a beard oil. The lady at Gimbels said it’s the best out there. I know you take good pride in maintaining your appearance, Hamish. I do hope this helps you.”
He blinked. “This is a most… that is to say, I appreciate… Erm, thank you, Miss Winters. This has truly been an unexpected surprise.”
She paused for a moment, chewing it over. Was this a pleasant unexpected surprise, at least?
She hadn’t realized she’d phrased her thoughts out loud until Hamish’s ruddy cheeks darkened even more.
“Yes. Yes, of course. I only mean to say that I did not know we were exchanging gifts.” His snow-white mustache and outdated whiskers bristled as he spoke and fumbled through. “I would’ve thought to ask her lady’s opinion on what you’d enjoy as well.”
She knew it was a teensy bit selfish to feel this satisfied when a particularly hard-to-please person actually liked a gift she had picked, but Florence smiled anyway. “That’s quite all right. Like I said, I wanted to give my appreciation of your hard work.”
She turned her attention to the square-wrapped gift underneath the tree’s fluffy branches, smiling as she reached down for it. “And Benny, here you go,” she said, handing the package over.
Their fingers brushed against each other’s, and Florence wasn’t certain whether it was the zip of electricity thanks to her robe… or something else.
“Ooh, Benny, I think I know what that is!” Ginny was on the balls of her feet, trying to get a better look.
He unwrapped it slowly, revealing the thick paper sleeve peeking out from underneath. “What’s this?”
The record sleeve had printed music notes on it and a silhouette of a woman with her pearls and dress swinging as she danced to the sounds of De Marchi, the Italian jazz band whose music was embedded on the record.
Benny’s dark brows drew together, and he flipped the record over, his gaze sweeping across its sleeve deliberately.
Florence was sure her heart would jump right out of her throat if Benny kept quiet. “It took me a while to find it, but I’ve heard good things from my friend, Delia. She said they’ve come to play at Nicky Caboodles several times now, and I thought… well, I thought you might enjoy it.” There was too much of an anxious waver in her voice for her liking.
She didn’t want to come across as too worried, otherwise Benny might feel obligated to fib about liking the gift… but then again, Benny wasn’t one to lie.
He tucked his new present under his arm, and the corner of his mouth curved upward. “I think I will, Florence. I think I will.”
Hamish cleared his throat with such vigor, that the other four jumped. “That’s Miss Winters, if you would.”
“That’s all right, Hamish. I’ve already asked Benny to call me Florence. I think he earned the right, personally, when he saved my life.”
Hamish bristled, clearly ruffled at the very thought, and she turned away to hide the laughter wanting to bubble up and out of her.
“I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m glad you consider us friends,” Benny said in a far softer voice than she expected. “Thank you for this.”
This time it was Aunt Julia who cleared her throat. “What a thoughtful gift, Florence, darling.”
Ignoring the heat creeping high into her cheeks, Florence nodded and bent down to retrieve the next package—a wide rectangular box tied up with a pretty red ribbon. She immediately handed it over to Ginny.
“Ginny, this one is for you. I really do hope you’ll love it.”
“This looks like you’ve yet again gone above and beyond for me. You really shouldn’t spend your money on me, you know.” Ginny shot Florence a playfully exasperated smile.
It was well-known that Ginny was a humble young woman, much like Florence herself, though she wasn’t one to get lost in her own thoughts or daydreams. Not when there was too much work to be done, anyway. But there was something terribly satisfying in watching that sort of awed confusion split across her freckled face.
Ginny’s gasp was soft but spoke several volumes.
She pushed past the delicate paper and gently lifted the heavy garment from its box. “Florence!” Only a moment later, a tear slid down to glisten against her cheek, and she glanced between Florence and the lovely emerald coat that matched her eyes.
“Do you like it?” Was she being impatient? Yes, but Florence couldn’t bring herself to care. She just had to know Ginny’s true thoughts. It had taken days for her to find the right coat—the one Ginny always admired whenever Florence pulled it out to wear. Instead of the camel color, however, she’d picked out one that better suited her friend.
With a laugh, Ginny clutched it against her chest, looking past Florence to Aunt Julia, before nodding. “I love it. How could I not? I don’t think I have anything nice enough to pair it with, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll wear one of Auguste’s potato sacks if I have to, so long as I get the chance to wear this.”
“Here, Gin, let me.” James, looking rather dashing in his own dark gray suit, helped his wife slip her arms into the coat to try it on for size.
She spun toward Florence, biting her lip. “It’s perfect. I don’t know how to ever repay you for something so nice.”
“Nothing to repay since it was a gift, but I wouldn’t mind company on my trip to the library next time.” Florence winked at her. “What do you say?”
Ginny wasn’t much of a reader, but Florence was aiming to fix that. If Bitsy wouldn’t discuss Edith Wharton with her, then who would?
“I don’t suppose a trip to the library could hurt.”
“Good. Have you gone down to the one on Fifth Avenue? I haven’t yet but I’ve heard loads about it. We’ll go there and make a day of it once they open back up.”
Ginny had the look of someone who’d just been roped into something on the sly.
After attempting to chase down Sneaky to fasten his brand new collar complete with a tinkling bell hanging from a tag around his neck, Florence sifted through the rest of the presents and handed a larger one to Aunt Julia. “And here you are, Auntie.”
Truth be told, Aunt Julia had been incredibly difficult to buy for. What did you buy for a woman who had everything, or at least had the means to get anything her heart desired? Florence could’ve done with her own library but that didn’t help her when it came to her aunt.
In the end, she walked out of every store empty-handed. It wasn’t until she was lying in bed one night two weeks ago, that an idea came to her. Sure, she was a little rusty when it came to her embroidery skills, but at the very least, she had something thoughtful to give Aunt Julia when it was all said and done.
Aunt Julia carefully unwrapped the silky green ribbon from around the box. “You really didn’t have to go through the trouble.” And when she peeled off the box’s lid, she sighed. It was not the kind of reaction Florence had been secretly hoping for.
The pillow was made from cream-colored cotton—the same kind of fabric her mother had taught her to embroider on. Dozens of tiny flower buds in red, white, and peach studded the ends of many stems as they encircled around the larger bouquet of roses in the middle. She’d found the most delicate thread and did the cleanest backing she’d ever done on a piece, in hopes that it would be enough to impress her stately aunt.
It appeared her thinking may have been flawed.
Aunt Julia lifted the pillow from its box, and even though Florence was intently focused on her aunt, somewhere from beside her, Ginny made an appreciative noise.
Florence didn’t dare say a word just yet. She needed to know if she’d missed her mark first.
“This is lovely, dear.” The older woman’s tone was clipped, not an ounce of joy in it. And when she glanced out of the corner of her eye at her, Aunt Julia’s gaze flickered ever so slightly before she placed the pillow back in the box topped with its lid.
It was as though a snake had slithered its way up Florence’s body and wrapped around her shoulders, her chest, and then squeezed until her throat went dry.
“I… I made it myself,” she said softly, though something told her Aunt Julia had already guessed at that.
“Of course, and it’s lovely. I will have to find some place to display it.” This time Aunt Julia at least made an attempt to sound more enthused about it, though Florence couldn’t really believe what she was being told now.
She nodded and pasted a smile on her face that didn’t quite line up. It didn’t take a genius to see the pity in her friends’ eyes as she quickly turned away to busy herself with what was left under the tree.
“I have something to attend to this afternoon, I’m afraid. But maybe we can put on the radio and listen to one of the Christmas specials this evening?” Aunt Julia was waving a white flag, but for what reason?
“Of course, Auntie, that would be divine. We usually do that back home. Which reminds me, I should probably call my family before Mother has a fit. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were half-way here right now.” Florence would play her part here, and act as though she hadn’t noticed her aunt’s lukewarm reception.
“What in the world was all that about?” Ginny asked later, after everyone had dispersed for a little while and Florence was done with her phone call back home. Her brow drew close like the frown pulling at the corners of her mouth.
Florence could only shrug. “I haven’t the faintest. I know it wasn’t a fancy gift or anything, but I thought that a homemade present might mean more to her than anything I could’ve bought. Not to mention it was next to impossible to find something to buy, anyway.”
“I don’t take saying this lightly at all, but I think she’s wrong for reacting the way she did. It was a beautiful present, Florence. Really, it was. I would’ve loved it myself, if you had gifted it to me. That floral work! My mother has an eye for that kind of thing too, but I just could never quite get it down. It’s a special talent you have.”
While Ginny’s words were much appreciated, they might as well have fallen on deaf ears. Either something was bothering Aunt Julia, which didn’t make sense since she’d been perfectly fine up until she opened the present, or she expected something more grand and was disappointed in what she received. It would be a hard medicine to swallow, but perhaps that was the truth of it.
Christmas Day would carry on and the spirit of the day would pick back up as it did, but somewhere inside, Florence couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t pinned her aunt wrong this whole time.