SIXTEEN MONTHS LATER
The new house still smelled mildly of paint so Andy kept the windows cracked when Miranda was over at the Diamond Eye. Even after a month, it still struck her as odd to be in the house alone; she continuously had to remind herself that the house was not just Miranda’s, but theirs. Ours, she thought. Andy had insisted on putting her own money into it, even when Miranda had declared that it wasn’t necessary. Miranda had started out with far more to her name than Andy would likely ever earn, but Andy didn’t want to feel like she was taking advantage. Just knowing that some part of the wood, the paint, the labor, had been paid for by her own hard work was enough to ease Andy’s mind.
She hadn’t made a lot of money from the book of stories she’d written, but receiving that first check from the royalties was one of the best things to happen to her in a long time. She’d handed over almost all of it to Miranda, keeping back enough to be able to acquire Christmas presents for the ones she loved this December. She’d hidden all her little packages in her writing room, where there was a closet that Miranda had installed only for Andy's things. She still had very few personal possessions, even after nearly two years in California, but everything in that cupboard was all hers. The writing room also held a bed, in case they had nosy neighbors. That said, since the ruckus with Jefferson, just about everyone in town had come to understand that Miranda and Andy were some sort of pair, but nobody looked at them sideways. Either way, the extra bed would be handy if they had out of town visitors.
The girls from the Diamond Eye had all been relocated too, into a new building designed just for them. Miranda did not require them to stay there, but most of the girls who breezed into town and found work on the stage or the dance floor had nowhere else to go. It was a haven for newcomers as well as those who had been around for years. The freedom of income allowed these women more choice and independence than most of them had ever had in their lives.
The Diamond Eye had evolved too, with the small rooms the girls had once occupied converted into proper guest quarters for out of town travelers. Sometime in the previous year, word began to spread of an exciting tourist attraction, equipped with gambling tables, nightly performances, delicious food, and comfortable lodging. With the sharp uptick in visitors, Miranda had realized right away this was what she’d been waiting for. She'd jumped at the chance to develop the land she’d purchased long ago into something she’d envisioned for some time. The town’s residents had achieved gainful employment opportunities as well. After one-too-many late nights in the office, Miranda finally hired a business-minded second in command. Already part of the Diamond Eye family, Evie’s husband Lawrence turned out to be an excellent hire, managing the nightly earnings, not to mention payroll for their additional staff like cooks, cleaners, bartenders, and more.
As for Lily, she still thought she might marry Henry one day, but she also wanted to be able to provide for herself and her man if she could. When she had asked for the chance to try something new, Miranda agreed. After hovering at Miranda’s side during daily duties for a couple of months, they both decided her skills would be best utilized in the newly-needed realm of hospitality. Lily took care of all their out of towners, making sure they were comfortable in their rooms and the town. She'd only recently taken on overseeing the staff who tended to the guest quarters and the rest of the saloon as well. She’d started out with some trepidation, but her intelligence, natural confidence, and easy-going personality shone through right away. Miranda had confided in Andy that hiring Lily was one of the best things she’d done in ages, and not just because she had lifted an enormous burden from Miranda’s shoulders. She could trust Lily, who needed almost no direction once she got the hang of things.
As much as Miranda had resisted, she finally recognized they needed to add a full-time restaurant staff to the roster as well. Geoffrey was the easy choice to head up the kitchen, with wife Marian at his side. Roy still tended bar in a pinch, but his unofficial security position became official when newcomers started to flood the bar every night. It was simple enough to do both jobs when it was just miners and locals, but those days were over. Now he stood sentry at the door each night and made sure everyone went home in one piece.
And while on the surface Nigel’s position had not changed significantly, he was doing more for Miranda privately than most knew. He had been the one to help Miranda decorate all the new guest rooms as well as the girls’ quarters. He could also run a sewing machine better than anyone Andy had ever seen. He’d stitched every curtain, every tablecloth, and every bedspread in the place. Andy had been thrilled to realize he could also make clothes and that he was responsible for a few of the more elegant pieces in Miranda’s wardrobe. She hoped he’d make something for her someday when the time was right.
But for now, nearly all of Andy’s clothes (and underclothes) were designed and handmade by Miranda. Considering her head for business, Miranda had remarkable creativity. Of course, taking Andy’s measurements (that rarely changed) tended to be a favorite activity whenever it was time to make something new. With so much help around the saloon, not to mention the money pouring in every night, they each had the luxury of time. Time for choosing material, for fittings, for dressing, and especially for undressing. Andy had never thought of the subject of clothing or fashion to be particularly romantic, but it had turned out to be a hobby she thoroughly enjoyed.
Beyond that, having someone else keeping the saloon’s books meant that Andy had more opportunity to write. She’d taken the story she’d begun when Miranda had “escorted” Jefferson to San Francisco and turned it into a novella. Other stories followed soon after, and by the end of the year she had something worth showing around. Naturally, Miranda had connections in the publishing world, so they’d traveled to San Fransisco together for a few meetings. Miranda had read Andy’s work and approved, to Andy’s incredible relief. She did ask for some minor changes to her novella, since she’d recognized their love story even in the platonic friendship between the two lead characters. Andy didn’t mind a bit and thought the changes made the story even stronger.
The publishers she’d met agreed, and by the time they left Andy had made a deal with three hundred dollars in her pocket and a healthy percentage of the residuals. Having Miranda at her side had made it so much easier; she would have had no idea what her work was worth if not for her presence. They’d celebrated with a night’s stay at an extravagant hotel, where Miranda had ravished her within an inch of her life.
Now Andy felt more confidence in her writing than ever; the royalty checks had gotten larger rather than smaller since publication. Just last month, the publisher had requested new work as soon as possible, since there had been an outpouring of interest from readers. Inspired, lately she spent most days writing the afternoon away and evenings lending a hand wherever one was needed at the Diamond Eye. She sang occasionally, danced less, and learned to run both the blackjack tables and roulette wheels. Then at night she would meet Miranda in the cozy bedroom of their little house, where they would sleep, and talk, and make love.
Somehow, she had made the life she had always wanted. It was not perfect every moment of every day, of course; she and Miranda had their disagreements, like any couple. But somehow even those arguments made Andy feel even more like she had found her place in the world, as part of a pair that could get angry, fight things out, and make up. She liked the last part the best, and she knew for a fact that Miranda did too.
From the desk of her writing room on the second floor, Andy gazed out on the vista of mountains and valleys in the distance. It was cold today as the sun set, and she pulled the warm blanket around her shoulders more tightly. She had done well this afternoon but was distracted by thoughts of the new year fast approaching. Christmas was only a few days away, and soon this most wonderful year would come to an end. She hoped the new one would bring as much happiness and satisfaction as this one had.
“Andrea!” Miranda called out, holding what appeared to be a precious piece of correspondence in her hands. “I’m home.”
She heard the scrape of a chair overhead; that was good news. It meant Andrea was writing, which meant Miranda would have a very pleasant evening indeed. She’d left Lily in charge of the restaurant tonight, and their guest rooms were all full. Life was good.
Andrea greeted her with a happy smile, her hair wild and flowing down her shoulders. She had a blanket around her, which reminded Miranda that she should set a fire before they had their dinner. “Hi. Everything go well?”
“Very much so. Geoff is outdoing himself. Also I learned that Emily has been baking pies for the last three months in the kitchens. Did you have any idea she could cook?” She removed her heavy coat and draped it on the rack near the front door. “Good lord, it’s freezing in here.”
"I had heard about Emily but I wasn't sure how it was going, but I'm not surprised." Andrea headed to the windows along the wall of their comfortable living room and closed them all in quick succession. “I keep thinking I smell paint. Sorry.”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “It’s been over a month, darling. It smells perfectly lovely, especially with the tree.” In the corner stood a young sugar pine, draped with ribbons and popcorn strung by Andrea and their large group of friends a few days earlier. They’d sat by the fire sipping mulled wine, and when Miranda had returned home the noise was so raucous she was relieved their home was far enough away from town that Sheriff Jones hadn’t paid them a visit. “I’ll light a fire, in any case.”
“I have some soup on. Are you hungry?”
“Famished.” Before she began, she handed over the letter. “Nigel picked this up today. It’s for you.”
Andrea gazed at the note for a moment before putting a hand to her mouth. “Oh my gosh, it’s from Charlotte! It’s been months since her last letter.” She tore the envelope open and raced to sit by the small oil lamp lit at the kitchen table.
Miranda gathered her skirt and knelt in front of the stone fireplace. It was the centerpiece of their entire home, designed with Andrea and the lifetime they would share in mind. As she stacked the wood in the grate, she enjoyed the sounds of exclamation Andrea made as she read. Her habit was to devour the letters that arrived from her sister once, then again, then she would deliver all the most interesting points to Miranda. Tonight, Miranda expected to hear the salient points as they ate their supper of soup and bread and tea by the fire before retiring upstairs.
Soon the fire blazed beautifully. Andrea was still reading, so Miranda slipped up the steps to change her dress for night clothes and warmest robe. December in their California town was occasionally pleasant in the day, but freezing overnight. It was nothing compared to Boston winters, but snow capped the nearby mountains and dusted (sometimes buried) their streets until spring.
By the time she had returned, Andrea had set the small table near the fireplace with two bowls of steaming vegetable soup and hearty hunks of bread and butter. “Ready,” Andrea declared, and Miranda joined her with immense contentment.
As she inhaled the scents of pine and spices and fresh bread, she marveled at the life she had created with Andrea. It felt a bit silly to allow the year’s end to bring on a unique combination of sweetness and melancholy, but still, she felt suffused by the comforts of a good fire and the best company. “And how is your dear Charlotte?”
Andrea could barely wait to begin. “She’s engaged! She joined an abolitionist group in the summer and fell in love with one of the printsetters from ‘The Liberator.’ They haven’t set a date but I wonder if they’ll sneak off and elope. My parents are relieved she didn’t end up with someone unsavory.”
“‘The Liberator.’ I’m impressed,” Miranda said.
“I know. She’s become very involved in the movement, which just goes to show how much I know. When we were young, she never seemed to care much about anything except marrying well and having children. She’s matured quite a lot since I’ve been gone.” Andrea looked into the fire, lost in memories. “She’s changed so much and I haven’t been part of any of it.”
Miranda pressed a hand to Andrea’s arm. “You are part of it, whether you’re there or not. You’re in touch. She knows you’ve made yourself an independent life here. I expect that’s had some influence.”
Andrea shrugged. “Perhaps.” She turned to Miranda. “She said they may here someday. Thomas, that’s her fiance, has always wanted to see the west. Right now they have too much work to do, but who knows? Maybe they’ll visit us. I think she would like it here.” She smiled thoughtfully. “I think she’d like you too. She’d be a bit scandalized, but she’d be thrilled as well. She’s become quite the rabble rouser.”
“I approve,” Miranda said. “We need more people like her to fight for the cause.”
Andrea nodded. “Speaking of scandal, the Taylors have finally pulled up stakes and left Boston.”
Miranda straightened in her seat. “Pardon?”
“Well, you remember Jefferson returned home last year with a very well-to-do-wife that he somehow acquired on his sail back to Boston, right?”
“Mm,” Miranda replied noncommittally.
“Eventually the wife realized that she’d been hoodwinked into a marriage for money. Her father came to her rescue and they had the marriage annulled, which left the Taylors short on just about all their debts. Word got out about the gambling and people started to talk. Then one night in August, Father woke up to go on his Sunday morning constitutional and realized that the Taylor house had been abandoned. They disappeared in the middle of the night. The entire house had been cleared out and no one even noticed.” Andrea sipped her tea, deep in thought. “I feel sorry for them.”
Miranda scoffed. “I don’t.” In fact, sometimes she wondered if she should have killed Taylor after all. Then she wouldn’t have to worry that one day, he might return to cause them trouble. But she had to put that out of her mind. She had vanquished Jefferson Taylor once, she could do it again. He was nothing special, after all. Not a monster, but a weak man who had tried to take her happiness away. She would not waste any more time thinking about him, but she would always be prepared nevertheless. She made herself a mental note to speak to Roy tomorrow. Just in case.
“Anyway, no one knows where they’ve gone. Gossip is that they’ve headed to Europe on one of the ships that depart from Boston. Hopefully Jefferson doesn’t take advantage of any unsuspecting widows on their journey.”
“Absolutely not," Miranda agreed. "Any other news of interest?”
“Mother and Father are both well. Mother asked after me when Charlotte received my last letter. She seems pleased that I’ve done well here.” Andrea finished her soup and leaned back in her comfortable chair. “Father hasn’t asked, but Charlotte says he may be coming around. That’s something. I know I’m a disappointment but I hope they can still, one day, love me a little.”
Miranda pushed her bowl away and leaned over to take Andrea’s hand. “They love you. I know they haven’t stopped.” With a smile and a kiss to Andrea’s cheek, she whispered, “I couldn’t stop loving you. Even if you ran off to the other side of the country with all my money.”
When Andrea laughed, Miranda felt the relief of easing her beloved’s mind. “I didn’t take all their money, just the tiniest bit. And they got it all back!” Andrea met her eyes and bit her lip. “I wouldn’t run away from you, Miranda Priestly. Not ever.” She leaned in for a kiss, warm and soft.
“I should hope not,” Miranda quipped. “It would be my greatest disappointment.”
With a chuckle, Andrea kissed her a second time. “Not a chance. I love our home. It makes me so happy to be with you here. Happier than I’ve ever been.”
Sighing, Miranda stroked Andrea’s cheek. “I feel the same.”
“Let’s wash up and go upstairs,” Andrea said, biting her lip again. Her eyes were dark as the fire reflected in them.
Miranda felt a frisson of desire; they hadn’t had much time together for the last few days. “Let’s hurry.”
Later, after they’d loved each other well into the night, Andrea lay quiet in her arms. Miranda had banked the fire downstairs and turned down the lamps. The candles next to the bed glowed as they burned to almost nothing. Thoughts of the coming Christmas brought to mind the silver rings she’d purchased in San Francisco. Would she wait till Christmas morning or offer her gift on Christmas Eve? She had not decided the specifics but knew it would be soon. Perhaps she would wait for Christmas morning to dawn, so they could begin the day together with a tangible sign of their union.
“What are you thinking of?” Andrea asked, just as one of the candles winked out. “You seem so serious.”
Miranda ran gentle fingers through her hair, remembering. “Something you said to me once, a long time ago.” I’d ask you to marry me, if I could.
“What was it?”
Miranda shook her head with a laugh. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why not?” Andrea asked.
“Then your Christmas gift wouldn’t be a surprise.”
“Ooh,” Andrea cooed. “I love surprises.”
“I hope you'll like this one.”
Andrea's knees bumped against hers. “I’d like anything you give me.” There was a pause. “Don’t you want to tell me now?” she pleaded.
For a moment, Miranda was tempted. Very. But she knew Andrea would appreciate the anticipation and the reward at the end of it. She did not even question that her gift would be received with delight. “You’ll have to wait. Just a few more days.”
“Oh, fine.” Andrea snuggled down in their bed, huffing in exaggerated dismay. “I suppose it’s something to look forward to.”
“Yes.” Miranda turned Andrea’s face toward hers when the second candle went out. “Good night, my darling. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” As their lips met, she felt Andrea’s smile against her own.