Home > My Oxford Year(32)

My Oxford Year(32)
Author: Julia Whelan

He waves me off. “I’ll take care of it.”

I bristle. “No. Absolutely not. Are you insane?”

“What?”

“I’m not taking your money.”

“Who said anything about taking it? I’m sharing it. ‘Can’t take it with you,’ and all that.”

“Stop it,” I snap. “That’s not funny.”

Now Jamie really looks at me. I’m not ready for jokes about his illness. I swallow, soften a bit. “Look, no one’s ever paid for me, for anything. If you’re going to come with me, we’re going to do it on my budget. I won’t be, like, some . . . kept woman.”

Jamie looks at me. I’m gratified to see that he gets it. He’s not rolling his eyes or belittling what’s clearly a matter of pride for me. He’s just nodding slightly, thinking. Before he even opens his mouth, I know a negotiation is coming. “If any of the plans you’ve already made can’t be refunded, I’ll pay for that.”

So far, so fair. “All right.”

“We’ll take the Aston. A car’s the only way to access some of the more remote hill towns. You can pay for petrol?”

I nod. “Done.”

“And I get five trump cards.”

“What does that mean?”

“Five instances where, if you’re whingeing about how much something costs—hotels, experiences—I get to trump it and we must do it. Because there are some things you’ll regret not doing when you had the chance, and I can’t have that.”

I narrow my eyes. “Three trump cards.”

“Am I a genie?”

“The number three has a nice fairy-tale symmetry to it, don’t you think?”

He snorts. “Deal. And one more thing. If I want to do something for you along the way, buy you something small, take you to a nice dinner, you’ll let me because I’m your boyfriend now and that’s the sort of special preferment boyfriends are afforded.”

I’m unable to contain my smile, excitement bursting through me like a supernova. But almost immediately it’s doused. I peer at him. “Don’t you need to be with your family for the holidays?” A whisper-like sound comes from the foyer, followed by the gentle slapping of something landing on the floor. Before I can question what it is, Jamie stands, unconcerned, and walks out of the room. I call out after him, “Because we could leave after—”

“I really have no need to be with my family at present.”

I chew on this as he reenters the kitchen carrying a pile of mail. I persist. “But you’re . . . you know.”

“Dying?”

I give him a reproachful look and he drops back into his chair and starts sorting the mail into three neat piles. “All I’m saying is if my mom lived in the same country and I didn’t show up for Christmas, I’d hear about it for the rest of my life.”

“Yes, but if you knew the rest of your life was to be significantly abbreviated, I should think you could bear it.”

He actually has a point. Sarcastic, macabre, but a point nonetheless. Eventually I want to discuss his family, especially his father, but not right now. Right now I’m too excited. The possibility of traveling with him is a dream come true that I didn’t even know I had dreamed.

Jamie drops the last piece of mail on what’s clearly the discard stack and stands, going to the counter for more coffee. It’s a very ornate card to be so casually thrown onto the discard pile. It’s square, gilded around the edges, and made out of a thick cream-colored card stock. There’s calligraphy on the front. I pick it up as Jamie says, “Would you like a spot more?”

“Huh?” I turn the card over in my hands.

“Coffee.” Then, in a bad truck-stop diner accent, “‘Warm up on the joe, darlin’?’”

I smile but don’t look up. The card I’m holding is a final invitation. A reminder invitation. To the very ball Charlie mentioned when we were trying to help Maggie: the Blenheim Ball. The don’t-tease-me-with-something-I-can’t-have Blenheim Ball that’s happening in two weeks. “Jamie?”

My voice has him side-eyeing me suspiciously. “Am I correct in assuming my name is going to be followed by a request of sorts?”

I hold up the card. “This invitation, it’s to the Blenheim Ball. I’ve actually heard of it, and, well . . . I’ve never been to a ball. And actually—”

“You can’t imagine how much I detest these things,” he interrupts.

I soldier on. “But it’s a palace. And I’ve never been to a palace.”

Jamie waves his cup dismissively. A drop splashes over onto the floor. He uses a socked toe to wipe it, and says, “We shall see many palaces. Wait until you see Versailles. In fact, let’s go there first. We’ll start in Paris, take the train out, I know a lovely little inn in the village there.”

“I want to go.”

“And we shall. The weather might be crap, but—”

“Jamie!” He finally looks at me. I hold the postcard up with fervor, like it’s a map to some buried treasure. “I want. To go. To the ball.”

He looks appalled. “Why?”

“Because I’ve always wanted to!” This is probably true. I guess. I mean, who doesn’t want to go to a ball? “I’m from Ohio!”

Jamie shakes his head, sitting back down. “Ella, these things are dreadful. Awful rich people affirming to each other how awful and rich they are.”

“Right! Great!”

“And my parents will be there.” He says it like a warning.

“So?” Jamie sighs, looks at the floor. I go coy. “Unless . . . you don’t want them to meet me.”

“Oh, you are a sly one. You know it’s not that.”

I switch effortlessly into wheedling political-operative mode. “Are things so bad with them that you can’t fulfill the simple dream of your American girlfriend”—I stutter slightly over the word—“because your parents might be on the other side of the room?” Jamie levels a look at me. I push it further. “Either tell me why it’s impossible to be in the same room as them or take me to the ball. Your choice.”

Jamie’s jaw flexes. After a moment, he sighs. “Fine. We’ll go.”

“Really?!” I’m surprised by his response and even more surprised to find that I’m genuinely excited.

“Just let me—” But I’m jumping into his lap, coffee splashing everywhere. Jamie lets out a laugh as I kiss his face all over.

“Thank you, Jamie. Thank you so much.”

Jamie adopts a princely affectation. “’Twill be my sincerest pleasure to escort you, madam.” Then he drops it, looks at me seriously. “But do understand, I may find it necessary to leave early.” I tilt my head at him. “If I’m not feeling well I won’t stay there making a spectacle of myself, providing grist for the gossip mills.” I can understand that. These are the things I need to start considering. Jamie tips his head back slightly, eyes thoughtful. “You know, it might be wise for you to bring along a companion, just in case.”

“Excellent idea!” I say, a bit too quickly and loudly.

Jamie looks at me, suspicious or confused, I’m not sure which. “Yes, a buffer of sorts.”

I bite my lip. It’s time. “Can there be more than one buffer?”

Jamie looks imperiously down his nose at me. “How many buffers?”

“I know three buffers that would make some seriously questionable, Faustian-level bargains to go.”

“I knew it!” he says with a smile, oddly triumphant. “I knew you had some ulterior motive.”

“No, I really do want to go, it’s just that—”

His smile broadens. “I’ll put the tickets on my parents’ tab.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. The shock of my attendance will cause them to buy everything at the silent auction just to gloat. A case of Rothschild, a chef’s-table dinner at the Dorchester, yet another round of golf at St. Andrews my father will never use. We’re single-handedly contributing to the prosperity of the foundation.”

I throw my arms around him.

He mutters into my hair, almost to himself, “I ought to see if Cecelia will be coming.”

“Cecelia?” Even now, after everything, her name still doesn’t sit as well with me as I would like. Which I’m not proud of.

“Yes. I’m sure my father took care of it, but I’ll ask.”

I pull back and look at him. “Why would your father take care of Cecelia?”

“He does whatever he can to be kind to her.”

“But why?”

Jamie quirks his head at me. “Because Cecelia was Oliver’s fiancée.”

Chapter 21

What is he buzzing in my ears?

“Now that I come to die,

Do I view the world as a vale of tears?”

Ah, reverend sir, not I!

Robert Browning, “Confessions,” 1864

Blenheim Palace is mind-bogglingly big. Trying to understand how the massive horseshoe-shaped structure used to be—and a portion of it still is—a home, makes my brain hurt. Yes, America has its great mansions, but they’re provincial by comparison. Cute colonial attempts. Summer cottages. Cabins in the woods. And we’re only twelve miles from Oxford. It was a fifteen-minute drive. A drive in a sleek, black Mercedes limo.

With Jamie’s family crest on the door.

Which he tried to block from view by standing in front of it and insisting, “No, please, by all means, after you.”

Today is a “good day.” He woke up feeling normal, much to his chagrin. I know he would have loved to have an excuse to cancel.

But damn, does he look good in his tux.

Everyone looks good. The gowns aren’t sparkly and flashy, they’re understated, the material thick and sumptuous, the cut impeccable. The suits are throwbacks to double-breasted days of yore. As we follow the crowd toward the front door, two giant braziers on each side dart firelight across the guests. Maggie slips her hand into mine and squeezes.

   
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