‘‘Christmas is in three weeks, Karolina. How do I not have a perfect gift by now?’’
The thought had been an itchy tumbleweed in his brain for a long while, and he still hadn’t come up with a plan. After everything Gerri did for his birthday, how was he ever going to get her anything as meaningful?
‘‘Calm down, Roman, you know she doesn’t care about these things, a nice dinner at Le Chevalier or something will be enough for her, trust me on this.’’
‘‘Yeah, I know that, obviously, but this is Gerri. Put yourself in my shoes. If Luke got you something that literally makes you feel like he gave you the moon…wouldn’t you want to give back something equally awesome, make him just as fucking happy as he made you?’’
Karolina nods, agreeing to his point.
‘‘How about a weekend getaway? She loves Luzern. Or Morcote, by lake Lugano, that’s where she gave birth to Laura.’’
He nods, deep in thought.
‘‘It’s a start. I never thought I would say this, but Nan Pierce was a godsend. I have been able to get Gerri to sleep in three days this week alone. I can only hope the trend continues so we can actually take those few days off right before Christmas.’’
‘‘You could call Laura. I mean, I know Julia is off limits for the moment, but Laura would be willing to help.’’
His eyes lose focus against the sunlight of a dying day, snowflakes meandering their way in front of the windows of his office. He is still uneasy at the thought of Julia, hopes that the tension between her and Gerri will subside, that after Christmas, they will be able to come to mutual ground. Gerri was hurting, and he was not above making Julia regret her actions if she continues down the path of before, just like he promised her in Chicago.
‘‘You’re right, I’ll text her.’’
Gerri is trying to catch her breath after her treadmill session as she hears him enter.
‘‘I do not have the slightest idea why we brought this thing into the bedroom, it’s clearly sent here from hell to torture me.’’, she pants out, hands on her knees, then reaching out for her water bottle.
‘‘Don’t look at me, you’re the one who has it in her head that she needs to lose weight even though I keep telling you daily that that is the furthest thing from the truth.’’
He’s fighting off a playful Molly as he walks in, working at his tie, smirking at Gerri as she watches him throw his clothes every which way.
‘‘The cleaning service does come by daily, but this is just you being a brat.’’
‘‘And you love me for it.’’
She rolls her eyes but presses eagerly into him as he comes over to hug her, kisses down the column of her throat.
‘‘I am sweaty, Rome.’’
‘‘So? Let’s take a bubble bath, hm?’’, he wiggles his eyebrows, fingers already hooked into the band of her yoga pants.
‘‘Nuh-uh.’’, she nudges him away gently but firmly. ‘‘We have dinner with Cyd and Frank in two hours, separate showers this time. And maybe, when we get back, if you’re good…’’, she lets the words peter out as she saunters into the bathroom, leaving him half-hard and smirking.
‘‘One of these days wife, you will not be able to escape my caveman hold maneuver after teasing me so hard.’’, he calls out to her.
She giggles and closes the door behind her, and Roman falls back onto their bed, Molly jumping up to curl near the pillows.
‘‘What do you think, Molls? What should we get for Mommy? What’s the winning item?’’
Molly just stares at him as if he’d grown another head and sniffs into her sizeable paws. He laughs as he runs his hands through her fur and picks up his phone, scrolling for Laura’s number.
‘‘Hello, my favorite child!’’, he exclaims, the rapport he built with Laura stronger than ever since their almost daily online video game sessions became a thing, even managing to get Gerri to join them as they played, though usually she just stuck to droll commentary rather than the actual controller.
‘‘Pater familias, long time no chat. Already hungry for another defeat? I thought you and mom had that dinner planned for today?’’
‘‘We do, but I am actually calling because I need your help on something.’’
‘‘Sure thing, shoot.’’
Laura is in a bit of a rush when he calls, but promises to e-mail him something that would hopefully help him decide what to get Gerri, and that night when they come back from dinner, he waits until Gerri falls asleep to slip out of bed as quiet as a church mouse and into the study to see what she had in mind.
‘‘No, you can’t right now, Geraldine, you need to do your chores first.’’
‘‘But Momma, Mrs. Fines said we have to practice every morning if we want the muscles to get used to the position.’’
Mrs. Fines said no such thing, but her mother didn’t need to know that.
When her father’s lumbering form darkens the doorway, 12 year old Gerri hunches in on herself, knowing what was coming.
‘‘Did I hear you say no to your mother, bubba?’’
How she hated that nickname. It always came right before she got punished for things she wasn’t even guilty of. She yearned for a sibling, but then realized that would be too cruel, wishing a father like Jossiah on anyone.
Sometimes she almost wanted him to hit her, wanted some tangible reason for her to run away, without being called a brat, and an attention seeker. At nights, she would squeeze her forearms so hard, trying to imagine the welling bruises if he ever did decide to lay a hand on her, but was too cowardly to actually provoke him into anything. The potential for bloodshed sat just below the surface of her father’s sun-weathered skin, but Gerri knew better than to prick her thorns into it, knew better than to summon the demon.
No, she would have to wait this one out. Sometimes it felt like all she was doing in her life was waiting her father out.
‘‘The horses need a good brushing, go on now.’’
She doesn’t know what exactly it is that she does, how she reacts, but his face morphs into the kind of glee that always preceded one simple act. A progression of jaunty inflections of his smoke-laced bass with the side order of trilling taunts, boiling down to one singular screeching punchline:
‘‘You wouldn’t want your precious Ebony to suffer now would you?’’
She hates that he can own her like that, that he can manipulate her into obeying like a robot, but the fact remains that he does.
She leaves the kitchen towards the stables as ordered, her eyes fixating on the wood chipper in the furthest part of the front yard. She doesn’t know why, but her whole body is itching to run to it. However, a little voice in her head is telling her to be patient.
The eagerness in her gut settles back on its haunches, for the moment satisfied at snacking on the brittle annoyance constantly perched there.
She guesses only time will tell if the voice had been right.
Hey secondary caregiver, here I am, as promised.
Ugh, today’s PTA conference was a bitch, I am seriously considering never having kids of my own if that’s the shit I’m going to be dealing with lmao.
Anyways, back to the matter at hand. I didn’t want to outright say what I think you should get her because that’s not my call, but I think this bit of reading material will help.
I normally wouldn’t share this with anyone else, and maybe Mom already hinted at some of this, but I don’t think she has. It’s you so I think I’m safe, though. It’s just that Mom likes to keep a lot of her own burdens on her own back, as I’m sure you already know, and as was proven by the way she handled that medical scare.
Anyways, when I moved out I realized that along with some of my old school stuff, Mom had accidentally packed one of her old journals, because the covers were almost identical and we stored them all together in one big-ass container in the attic.
I am most likely breaking several mother-daughter codes of conduct by giving you this, but, something tells me she’ll forgive me.
Just make sure no one else sees this, and we’re good.
I scanned the lot into a readable Kindle file.
Hope this helps!
Let me know when you’re ready to get your ass handed to you in whichever PS5 adventure you pick for us next.
By the time he startles out of a doze he fell headfirst into at about 4am, it’s already morning and Gerri is prying his iPad out of his hands, trying to coax him out of the chair he blacked out in.
By the time he’s conscious enough to see she’s a hair’s breadth away from looking at the screen it’s almost too late. Luckily, he somehow manages to lose his balance as he gets up and falls face first into the rug, the motion distracting her long enough to get it out of her hands without making it too obvious what he is doing. Or so he thinks.
‘‘You’re being weird. Is there porn on the iPad? You should know by now I don’t care.’’
‘‘And I told you that nothing but you turns me on, so porn is the last thing I would have on my iPad.’’, he says, swallowing against a sleep-parched throat.
‘‘Then what’s got you all jittery?’’, she asks, slightly worried now, a lifetime of being lied to and stabbed in the back making her cautious. The almost pained look on her face and the memory of everything he read in her journal makes him hurry and tell her the truth. Well, the base of the truth anyway.
‘‘I was browsing for gifts, if you must know, m’lady’’, he says, as she sits back down, coaxing her onto his lap.
She leans in softly, places tiny kisses across his forehead, and he burrows further into her warmth, taking a deep breath against her collarbone, feeling the coolness of her necklace against his cheek.
‘‘It’s Christmas in two weeks, and I want to get you something blingy and perfect. So, please, until said holiday is here, try to keep from peeking into any and all of my folders, devices or underwear drawers. Okay?’’
She laughs brightly at his request and nods sweetly.
‘‘Will do. The appeal of your underwear drawer will have to wait. Now, get your ass up, we have a tete-a-tete with Nan, and then later- finally - lunch at that new Italian place, somehow Liz managed to get us a table. When not even namedropping the CEO of Waystar worked last time I knew we had to try it out.’’
‘‘Okay, but first…kiss?’’
She slides the back of her hand down the side of his face, notes the little indentations the leather of the chair left behind and observes the puffiness of his eyes, a sign of a deeper sleep than she thought. He is beautiful, she thinks, for the hundredth time since she married him.
The kiss is slow, warm and addictive - as is almost every embrace they share. New and fresh, and yet, coated in that mellow, gooey familiarity that makes her want to physically glue herself to him forever.
Reluctantly, she pulls away and up out of the chair.
‘‘Come along Rockstar, your Starbucks is on the kitchen counter.’’
The mention of his favorite macchiato gets him out the door faster than she herself can reach it, the sound of his excited giggle trailing after his gangly features.
The room feels off the moment she steps inside.
It’s not the fact that her curtains are open, even though she left them closed that morning, nor is it the fact that her bed has been made even though she left it in complete disarray when she left for school. Her mother scolded her enough times about the two things, Gerri knows that she’d must have been tidying up.
Her brain struggles to solve the riddle of why she was feeling like her entire skin is prickling just as a pungent smell of roasted coffee grains attacks her senses, making her stomach turn.
She flings open her closet door, rummaging around in the box she stashed in the back.
‘‘Looking for this?’’
It’s the way he manages to make the ominous tone of the words crackle down her spine that makes her almost freeze in place.
She forces herself to turn around, calms her breaths, knowing he rejoices in fear, refusing to let him see any of it.
‘‘Oh yeah, I was looking for that!’’, she smiles, tries to take the piece of paper in his grasp.
At the last moment he snatches his hand away.
‘‘Love letters at 15 already, Geraldine? Shall we expect a happy announcement soon? The pitter patter of tiny feet? What do you think it’ll be - church bells or single motherhood? It’s all a gamble with you, isn’t it?’’
He always sounds happy when he catches her doing something he disapproves of. She has no idea why that is, except she does. The sinister streak in him grows in her as well, as genetics doesn’t allow her to back away, a smirk planting itself firmly on her lips.
‘‘I guess we’ll see, won’t we?’’
Any and all good mood disappears without a trace from her father’s posture, replaced by an ugly sort of hunger, his palm stretched out across his thigh, the other hand clutching at a huge mug of Folgers. For a second, the drink shakes so hard she thinks it’ll explode in his hold.
‘‘There she is’’, he mutters without any of his previously shown humor – as false as it may have been.
‘‘My daughter, the rebel. You know what we have to do now, don’t you?’’
She does, she has no idea why she ever thought to mock him in the first place, knowing what his go-to punishment is for these situations. Taking away the one thing that’s as important to her as breathing.
She watches him walk away with her lifeline, breathing deeply, banning herself from crying.
‘‘Just three more years, three more years, three more years…’’
The soothing chant follows her to sleep that night, giving her strength and hope for the future.
She burns the boy’s letter immediately. She didn’t even like him, what was she thinking accepting the thing in the first place? Nothing was worth this loss.
He has trouble focusing on any of his Waystar related tasks in the days to come, always somehow replaying the words written in her journal, in the perfect tidy Gerri Kellman script.
He knows it’s a box of hurt best left untouched, because he knows Gerri. The threads of that pain would just come back in a vicious hurricane of emotion, and that is the last thing he wants.
He does know what he will get her now, what will hopefully revive the part of her left behind in Kentucky before she left for law school, the bound, controlled part of Geraldine being finally set free.
He glares unseeingly at his office windows as the fact that they have had almost identical fathers hits him square in the chest. Well, minus the inclination for physical injuries, a fact he can’t help but be infinitely grateful for. Jossiah Kellman, apparently, preferred only to gaslight and belittle, unlike a punch-happy Logan.
His heart skips a beat, a trove of nerves bubbling in his gut, but then he has no time to think on it in more depth, Frank arriving at his office for their weekly debriefing.
‘‘Okay, what’s the rundown?’’
His assistant, Jennifer, looks through the notes on her iPad, before swiftly firing off a list of all the completed tasks.
‘‘You fly out on the 18th, returning on the morning 22nd, just in time for Gerri to review all the party prep work. I booked the villa in Morcote – the very one you requested. It was a bit touch and go as the owners that once held it as a private resort now live there 6 months out of the year, but they weren’t able to say no to the amount of money.’’
He knew that wouldn’t be an issue. Man is a predictable animal.
‘‘Your pilot is set for all the flight details, pre-approved by flight control. I coordinated with Liz, we managed to clear Gerri’s entire roster for the days while you’re away, and of course I managed to de-burden you as well. Karolina emailed me to let me know she needs you to courier the spare keys of the penthouse to her place ASAP – just in case you miss each other in the office – and she will take care of Gerri’s luggage on the day, you just need to make sure you leave yours prepped as well, and not let Gerri in between 1 to 3 pm on Friday. This won’t be an issue because I went ahead and told Liz to schedule her hair appointment for that very time slot. And you wanted me to remind you to pack your passports today, because you are too scared you’ll forget on the day. Oh, and Molly’s paperwork is all settled, Karolina will get her to the airport as well.’’
‘‘What about the customs permits and transport of the gift?’’
‘‘All taken care of, and I hired one of the locals – vetted and everything, no worries – to go ahead and prepare the villa exactly as you instructed. Not a speck out of place.’’
‘‘If I wasn’t nauseated at the very idea of having to find and hire another assistant you’d so be promoted to such a better position right now!’’, he smirks, teasing her, knowing full well he means to promote her after New Year's, and by the look on her face, he isn’t fooling anyone with his trademark humor.
‘‘You will miss me so hard, and I will refuse to help you when you get stuck with whatever pre-makeover Andy Sachs you hire as my replacement. We’ll see who’s laughing then.’’
‘‘Sure kiddo, now, do you mind getting me my smoothie, the one I asked for like a fucking hour ago?’’, he fires off mockingly, trying to keep the laughter in.
‘‘Right away sir, I’ll even add a very special secret ingredient.’’, she taunts back mock-menacingly, and his eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline in surprise.
‘‘You do know who my wife is, right?’’, he threatens.
‘‘Who do you think gave me the idea?’’
And then he does laugh, a big resounding burst of air echoing in the spacious office as she leaves to finish her work for the day.
‘‘Ugh, of course she did’’, he murmurs fondly to himself, picking up the phone to ask Gerri if she’s ready to go home.
Day of the trip
‘‘Roman, we have a million things on the roster for before Christmas, and how on earth are we meant to leave Karolina with organizing the office party on her own?’’
He steals a kiss between bites and slips another egg roll onto her plate, sees her eyes light up.
‘‘Don’t try to bribe me with egg rolls. I mean, I will take them, but it won’t work.’’
‘‘It doesn’t need to work, you physical embodiment of Queen Dolly Parton’s Nine-to-Five, because everything has already been sorted. As soon as we finish lunch we are going to the airport. And all you have to do is stop worrying and enjoy yourself. You’re a ship captain who has trained her crew well. Now you just gotta fuckin’ trust ‘em. Starting with me – your awesome, loveable and scrappy second-in command. Can you do that, oh holy one?’’
She pats her lips with a napkin, leaning back in her office chair, trying to stare him down over the containers of takeout. In the end though, she gives in. As she knew she would.
‘‘There better be copious amounts of vodka where we’re going.’’
‘‘Mhm. The best kind, all for you. Bourbon, too’’, he winks knowingly, the teasing arch of her eyebrow now back in the game.
‘‘You’re awfully sure you’re getting laid, but I wouldn’t be so cocky.’’
‘‘You married the fucking definition of cocky, you know that.’’
‘‘First time for everything, let’s see if I can humble you.’’, she retorts, getting up to fetch a bottle of water.
‘‘Oh shit! My present for you is back at home!’’, she remembers.
‘‘Karolina was way ahead of you. You happened to tell her where you hid it and she packed it along with the rest of your stuff. So, chill. We got this. We are both more than equipped to spend four days away together without worrying our multibillion dollar company is going to fall apart without us holding our employees’ hands all the time. Okay?’’
She rounds her desk, and he sees her throw a cautious look at the glass walls, deciding in the final moment, not to care if anyone sees her sitting on her own husband’s lap in her own office.
‘‘Thank you’’, she whispers, brushing his nose with hers, kissing his cheeks, his forehead, finally moving towards his lips. He can taste the salt and the various spices of their meal, along with that one unique twist only Gerri’s kisses carry in them. If he didn’t think he’d sound sappy, he’d tell her he thinks he discovered what love tastes like.
‘‘Okay, then, Rockstar. Shall we?’’
He tightens his hold on her, arms securing firmly around her waist.
‘‘Give me five more minutes. Besides, if our private jet flies away without us, then we’ll know we weren’t made for the jobs we have.’’, he says and sighs into her neck as he feels her fingers scrape gently down the back of his head and settle, warm, inside his shirt collar.
‘‘Do I get any hints as to where we’re headed?’’
He shakes his head, enjoying the perfectly chilled sip of pre-flight champagne.
‘‘Fuck no. You need to find your chill, Gerr, and stop trying to seduce it out of me. I have no issue with your hand hovering so close to my crotch, but if its aim is to get info out of me, we’ll both end up disappointed.’’, he keeps teasing and she leans back in her seat in mock petulance, reaching for her own glass.
‘‘I thought I was supposed to be the strict one in this marriage?’’
‘‘It’s a taking turns situation, you know that, Gerr, I’m maturing. Now get some sleep. The flight is almost nine hours long, and I want you refreshed and eagerly taking in all the wonders of your surprise Christmas destination.’’
She giggles, closing her eyes, getting more comfortable in the soft leather material. She accepts a blanket he holds out for her, deciding to not overthink it. Four days alone with him would be a gift no matter what country they take place in.
The smooth glide of their jet through the December air lulls her to sleep pretty soon, made better by the sensation of his fingers entwined with hers.
She cannot believe it. It’s been decades since she’d visited. Laura’s first cries marked her memories of those days, the fretful, unsure first mother she’d been at the time marveling at the pink bundle in her arms as Baird was outside with the rest of the Waystar team getting patted on the back, smoking cigars proudly like it was him who’d had his body ravaged by searing hot pain.
But she didn’t care. Didn’t care about the murmurs outside the room, barely listened to the broken English of the midwife they’d called to help her in labor as the birth started two weeks early, in the middle of one of Logan’s family/work trips.
All she had eyes and ears for was her perfect little baby girl, now swaddled securely in a mauve cotton blanket, looking up at her with those almond-shaped, inquisitive eyes, the first cries at the sight of this new world she had been prematurely pushed into now set aside, precarious inquisitiveness in their place.
Gerri felt like her daughter was assessing her, this new person now in charge of guiding her through life, and she kept hoping she passed the test, terrified of failing.
She walks about the villa as if in a daze, and he knows she is overwhelmed. But not her usual, ‘‘pile of work’’ overwhelmed. This was the good, feel it in your bones kind of emotional overstimulation.
He lets her peruse the grounds, goes to the eastern-most part of the villa to check on her surprise.
Getting it was an issue. For the first time in his entire life, he found something that was hard to buy. So many rules, and regulations and unwilling sellers. When he finally managed to acquire one he hoped she would like, he felt like a giant burden had been lifted off his back.
He checks on the other two parts of her present and turns to get Molly from the living room and show her where her temporary crate is.
Morcote is as dreamy as ever and she can’t help but admire the tiny ripples of the clear lake sparkling in the winter sun, the thin blanket of snow covering the ancient stone perimeter of the villa giving the scene a true Christmas feel. The view from the glass terrace is breathtaking, especially that early in the morning.
She leans back in her plush chair, observing a dervish-like Roman tending to the fire. She had told him they didn’t need it that early in the morning, but he insisted. Somehow she never thought he knew how to start one, voices as much.
‘‘One of my English nannies was very hands on. Or maybe she was just lazy I don’t know. She has us doing everything. By the time I was seven I knew how to get a fire going, how to brew a ‘‘proper strong cup of English breakfast tea’’ and even how to knit.’’
A morsel of prosciutto from the breakfast canapés goes down her windpipe at hearing that and she nearly manages to evade spitting on him, coughs into her cup of coffee.
She tries not to let the giggles out, but once her airways are cleared, she can’t help it, and he looks up from the fireplace, completely unbothered.
‘‘My present isn’t a home-knitted quilt or something?’’
He manages to make the saddest face known to man and she sobers up, mortified.
‘‘I…Rome, I’m so sor-’’
He cuts her off by literally rolling on the floor with laughter.
‘‘Oh you fucking demonic prick! I thought you were serious!’’
‘‘Gerr, I don’t know who you think you married on that yacht in Croatia but it most definitely was not a spritely English lassie with a penchant for arts and crafts, relax. No, your gift…’’, he looks up, seeking eye contact. ’’Your gift is currently in the far end of the villa. I was going to wait until tomorrow but…do you want to have it now?’’
There’s an unexpected amount of seriousness in his eyes, the mocha-brown of them almost flickering in a simulation of the biggest sugar rush ever, the faux casual way he observes her a dead giveaway as to just how nervous he is.
‘‘Rome, you know that whatever you got me I am going to like beyond reason, right?’’
He nods, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with anticipation. She grasps the spear pendant on her necklace that was his wedding present to her and realizes that a portion of his love language is gift giving. And because it’s part of hers too, she understands the jitters all too well.
It had been love at first sight for her. Or, well, sound, really. Lucy had insisted on going, so Gerri begged her mother to let her join her best friend.
Jossiah needed a fair amount of needling, and to this day she has no idea how she managed, but her mother gave her the best gift she could have ever given her child.
If she was being honest, Gerri never really expected to like those classes as much. But as early as the first moment her and Lucy spent in the room that would become home away from home for Gerri for years to come – she was hooked.
‘‘If you make me put a blindfold on I’m going to turn around and go sightsee without you.’’, she teases, and he wraps a gentle arm around her waist, moving them in the right direction.
‘‘No blindfold, Gerr. At least not for now, he smirks, winking in that sultry way that never fails to make her stomach twirl in anticipation.
‘‘Like I keep saying…promises, promises, Mr. Kellman.’’
He makes a sweeping arm gesture for her to follow him into what is apparently their destination.
The grand oak double doors open outwardly, and they make their way through what looks like a ballroom.
‘‘The acoustics are meant to be perfect.’’, he says and before she’s had time to think why on earth acoustics should matter, she sees it and recognizes it on the spot.
She walks towards it in a daze, feels Roman follow closely, letting her take it in.
The day she gets accepted to Yale she hides the letter under the actual loose floorboard she uses as a hiding spot, ten boards to the left of the obviously fake one she set up for when Jossiah came snooping, which he did regularly.
She would slip the occasional high school game brochure or pep rally poster in it, for appearances sake, him completely unaware that the actual jackpot he was hoping to find each time round was closer than he ever imagined.
She only tells her mother of her full ride to law school when she has enough money for a flight. One way ticket to freedom.
It’s two days before her departure that she notices Jossiah a little too smug for her own liking. She backs away from the dinner table slowly, before he can meander his usual path to his punishment, whatever his reasoning or lack thereof may be.
She doesn’t really know what she wants to do if she manages to get her hands on Ebony. When she does, and as she runs out onto the front porch, the mesh screen smacking loudly against the wood of the door frame, she takes a deep breath of the night air, humid and sour, despite the fall coming on strong.
September, she supposes correctly, has already made her future home of New Haven rain-slick, the petrichor strong in the air of an evening, a smell so strong she imagines it now, almost able to bite into it like an overripe apple.
Her feet pound against the dirt as she listens and then tunes out Jossiah’s angry drawl.
‘‘Geraldine, get back here you fucking miscreant!’’
He never swore. She is inordinately happy she made him angry enough.
She has no memory of getting to the end of the yard but once she gets to her destination, the trusty ol’ wood chipper shut down for the day, she knows it’s the right one.
She stops abruptly, her left shoe slipping, almost making her ankle twist sideways.
Breaths coming in short, sharp bursts, she feels the tears coming, because she knows what she has to do. Symbolic, yes, but also practical. There would be no place for Ebony where she was going.
She turns to her father, now not ranting anymore, walking slowly towards her, his expression mellow again. The mask he thinks no one sees through. He is livid, and she thinks maybe this is the night he hurts her till blood pours out of her and curdles against the remnants of her last high school summer.
She maintains eye contact for a while, the blue of his gaze painfully identical to hers. There were days she refused to look in the mirror because of that color.
She takes a deep breath and slams her palm against the start button of the chipper, a death knell if she ever heard one.
This stops him in his tracks. He arches an eyebrow, seemingly calling her bluff.
Unwavering, but with uncontrollable tears streaming down her face, she viciously hurls Ebony into the machine, unable to stop a shudder running through her entire body at the almost human shrieks the dark wood and the strings make as they let out their final melody.
Music won’t sustain her. The violin cannot be her way out of this. Her other passion, law, would have to do.
And as painful as it was, she was free. For the first time in eighteen years.
There’s so much pain in her eyes and Roman stops himself from embracing her at the last minute, seeing the memories of her childhood and the rancor firmly embedded into them morph into pure joy, blooming and overflowing in the tears now spilling down her cheeks.
He lets her walk on ahead, Molly tap-tap-tapping her way next to her, Gerri’s left hand absentmindedly getting tangled in the St Bernard’s soft fur.
‘‘She’s grounding herself’’, Roman thinks to himself, following them further to their destination. He feels a surge of anger at remembering the confessions in her diary and tamps down a nonsensical urge to deck the long-deceased Josiah Kellman.
The staff had done an amazing job setting everything up, and he makes a mental note to leave a sizeable tip. It’s not something the Roman of before would have ever even thought of doing and he keeps marveling at just how much Gerri was instrumental in making him an actual human, is thankful every single day for the fact that she stuck through it all, unlike running that mile everyone else chose when dealing with him.
He is snapped from his thoughts by the sound of her subdued gasp, palms now gliding reverently over the midnight blue velvet of a violin case, slowly undoing the silver latch, picking up the item underneath the lid with care akin to that of holding her children. He knows, he’s seen the home videos of the Kellman-Grant household.
Petting Molly and leading her away to her crate, he lets his wife enjoy this first moment of re-acquaintance, knows she would do the same for him.
He can only hope to be able to elicit a reaction as powerful as this every time he gives her anything in the future. A task he is more than happy to undertake.
She hadn’t allowed herself to so much as look at another violin since the pitiful noises of Ebony being chopped into fine wood grain carved themselves onto her brain, but now, all she can think about is how good it feels to hold an almost exact replica of it in her hands.
It’s so overwhelming, and yet she manages to keep her hands steady as she lifts the beloved instrument from its case, the gleaming midnight black of the lacquered wood almost shiny enough for her to see her own reflection in it.
The bow sits beside it and she picks it up, a torrent of ancient melodies flooding her brain along with muscle memory of how to create them, make them fill the space she now realizes Roman chose for a reason.
As he re-enters the room, he watches her position the violin under her chin, closing her eyes, bow at the ready. And then, she starts sculpting Antonio Vivaldi’s Winter in a way which far surpasses any and all other virtuosos he’d ever been forced to listen to in his tenure as a Roy heir.
She is a differently brilliant creature in that moment, a new facet of his wife shown to him through a prism of yet another talent he is so lucky now to be privy to.
She takes him through a a feeling which is Siberian-ice cold, snapping frozen tree branches underfoot and along heaving snow banks all the way to the sensation of thawing next to a roaring fire, all within the span of mere minutes, her entire body becoming one with the notes she is creating.
As the final syllable of her music dies out, he sees her slowly relax her shoulders, arms falling to the sides, stance very much that of a professional violinist. Roman’s heart breaks for the choices a practical, eighteen year old Gerri was forced to make.
It’s too much. She feels like she can’t breathe but also like she has taken a first real gulp of air in ages.
She doesn’t really know why she banned herself from ever experiencing the utter joy of playing, but she surmises it has something to do with the memories of Jossiah. They always soured any notion of a well played concerto or an expertly executed turn of musical phrase - and she was prone to them, if she does say so herself.
‘‘So what’s different now?’’, she asks herself, and when her gaze lifts to Roman’s, she smiles through the urge to sob. Of course the unknown in the equation would be him. He blindsided her by appearing in her life in the roles of both protégé and husband, why should the entire journey along the path of marriage be any bit different?
She carefully places the instrument back in its case, eyes now scouring the rest of the offerings on the table. She couldn’t even imagine what else he may have gotten her, feels him sidle up behind her, warm arms going round her waist, chin snuggled softly in the crook of her neck.
She nods, not trusting her voice quite yet, but she does turn her head sideways, then making a questioning motion to the rest of the display.
He takes her hand and moves them to the left where an easel is placed, with a maroon velvet cloth over it. He removes it and she is struck once again by his thoughtfulness.
It’s a painting of Ebony against a backdrop of viridian. It is the spitting image of the instrument, in fact, right down to the little divot on the left upper bout from when she accidentally slammed it against the edge of its case trying to hide it from Jossiah. It hadn’t worked of course, but the little dent had become a reminder to her eleven year old self to wise up to his sneaky, tormenting ways.
‘‘Laura helped. And that’s all I’m saying. She can tell you the rest.’’
She nods and continues to marvel at the technique of whichever artist Roman hired to do the piece and she is surprised by his hand gently guiding her to the third and final installment of her present.
‘‘The previous owners were not too willing to part with it, but a Kellman-Roy donation with a substantial number of zeroes made them see the green-hued light. I knew you’d be reluctant to actually play any violin worth more than your medium range one – hence your lovely replica over there. This one I got because a violinist should always be in possession of an instrument worth precisely their talent. Even though I know you’ll be storing this in our safe, right here in Lugano, visiting it on occasion like the prudent business woman you are.’’
The violin in question is embedded in a box resembling a block of white marble speckled with gold veins and the light of the winter morning briefly bounces off it as the clouds outside begin to move over the rays.
Roman places it before her and she opens it with surprisingly steady hands, eager to lay her eyes on what’s inside.
A soft, navy blue piece of cloth is the remaining barrier and when she uncovers it she is stunned by the beauty of the workmanship, the little plaque on the side of the container declaring it to be The Lady Blunt Stradivarius, crafted in 1721.
Gerri swallows against a lump in her throat because she knows that she is holding an instrument three centuries old, one that a master like Yehudi Menuhin himself used to play, once upon a time. A violin that was last sold a decade ago, for a staggering amount of almost sixteen million dollars.
‘‘I don’t-’’, she tries, but falls short of any words strong enough to express what she is feeling.
He smiles at her, then his eyes avert to the floor, seemingly inspecting each nook and cranny of the parquet boards. She knows this is just the amount of emotional she can make him feel right now.
She knows the Roy children were forcefully made to be stronger, more resilient, been put through the rings of fire more hellish that those of Hades, but she also realizes on a daily basis that none of that can touch him now. Not now that she is with him.
‘‘Thank you, Rome. No one, and I mean, no one has ever…’’, she takes a deep breath before placing the Lady Blunt back on the table.
He obeys and soon, her arms are around his neck and she is kissing him like she hasn’t touched him in weeks, even though it was precisely an hour ago he was inside of her, giving her so much pleasure she was sure the dictionary definition of it might need to be amended to include his picture.
She moves away just long enough to take care of Molly and close the priceless violin case.
Then she turns to him again, takes his hand and revels in the shortness of his breath, in the remarkably dark, dilated pupils, mesmerizing to the point of dizziness.
‘‘Take me to bed.’’
He does. And they do not emerge for hours, and even then only because starvation has rendered them completely useless.
It’s the best Christmas vacation she’s ever had.