FATE, SNOW & MISTLETOE
December 22, 1931
My head was swimming as we took each hairpin curve going up the Blue Ridge Mountains. Outside, the sky was darker than it should’ve been for early evening, and I rolled the window down for a gulp of fresh air. The wind was wet with the anticipation of snow. Silently, I forced my breath onto the window, fogging up the glass. Staring past the condensation to the mountain range that surrounded us, I could’ve sworn I saw a single flake float past.
“Is it supposed to snow?” I asked, anxiously twirling the new necklace my grandfather had given to me as an early Christmas present around my finger. I wanted to hear the weather forecast. A white Christmas was not on my wish list. Everyone talked about snow on Christmas, but the last thing I wanted to see was snow falling from the sky and sticking to everything—especially the roads. Southern folks didn’t drive in the snow, and my father was definitely Southern.
“We’re in the mountains, Marilyn,” Daddy said without looking into the rearview mirror to address me. “We’re bound to see a flake or two at this elevation.”
I ignored the response, leaning my forehead to the window of his new Cadillac, mindlessly writing my name in the clouded mist. “How much farther?” I asked it as a question, but honestly I wanted my parents to know I wasn’t a willing participant in the plans for the next two days. I hung onto each word with a petulant whine.
He gave me a fleeting glance, turning his chin over the seat. “Just a bit longer, baby girl. I thought you’d enjoy the trip a little more this year—in the new car and all.”
I didn’t hide my fractious attitude. “It’s still the same view. Same curvy mountain,” I sighed, speaking sarcastically under my breath. “Same people.”
“Please stop slouching in the seat, Marilyn. Sit up.” My mother barked in the tone she saved for when she’d had her fill of me.
“I’m sorry,” I snapped. “But I feel carsick.”
“You’d feel better if you looked out the front window instead of the side.”
Sitting up, I wiped my name from the glass, hoping my father hadn’t noticed.
“Tell me again why we have to do this each year?” I knew their answer would have something to do with old friends. My parents seemed to be friends with lots of people. Too many people.
“The Winterbournes are dear friends, and we enjoy their company during the holidays,” Mother said. “It might seem trivial to you now Marilyn, but when you get older, you’ll cherish times like these.”
There it was. Friends.
“The bourbon isn’t bad either,” Daddy chimed in with a grin.
My mother snapped in disapproval. “Mr. Richardson.”
The exquisite Maude Richardson rarely called my father anything but his name, Roger. When she wanted to make sure she was being heard, she referred to him more formally.
She flashed him a condemning look and I watched him shrug it off before glancing back at me in the rearview mirror, looking for an ally. I gave him a smile, because that was the kind of relationship I had with my father. He was a rule breaker, like me. But he was allowed. I was female, which meant I had to act and conduct myself as a Lady. And ladies never broke the rules—but I did. It was what my mother called subversiveness. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been taught to act like a lady, I merely chose when and where to display my talent for being a proper female of the species. When I didn’t live up to the standard in which she set forth, I too was treated to the formality of my very long name—Marilyn Margaret Anne Richardson. Daddy, on the other hand, usually called me baby girl.
“Well, Mrs. Richardson,” he replied. “We’ve nearly made it through 1931. I think we could all use a drink.”
“Yes,” I piped up before I could stop myself.
“Marilyn!” Mother gasped. “Why can’t you be a more agreeable young lady?”
I learned early the easiest path with my mother was the one where I apologized for being an unruly child on a regular basis, thanking her profusely for showing me the error of my ways. If I happened to add in a dose of gratitude, I was good for a few days’ respite from her motherly advice.
“Sorry,” I deadpanned. “I didn’t mean to tease you Mother. I should’ve known how much the comment would upset you.”
“Surely you did. Roger, can you please do something with your daughter? I’m at my wit’s end.”
“I am sorry, Mother. You are a wonderful example of what a proper lady should be. It’s my own fault for not paying better attention but I assure you, I do realize that desirable young men want an agreeable and proper young lady. I promise to watch my actions and words closely this weekend.”
She didn’t reply, but gave me a single nod and I saw the corners of her mouth turn up in complete gratification. Success. Now I might have a few hours without her on my heels where I could partake in the festivities as well.
What was the big deal? I was aware alcohol was illegal. I was sixteen for goodness sake and I fully intended to deck the halls of Winter Lodge no matter how it might shock my mother. The fact the Winterbourne family was in the bootlegging business was the only perk of spending the last few days before Christmas in these godforsaken mountains.
Besides, illegal activity such as the distilling of corn mash had made the Winterbournes wealthy. Very wealthy. They were a proper family, even though what they did for a living was considered breaking the law. People need a drink now more than ever, I’d heard my father once say after the crash of the stock market.
“Are you planning on drinking, Roger?” Mother asked.
“The Temperance Movement is merely a way for those who would never partake to keep those who would, from partaking,” Daddy replied.
“Roger.” She flattened her voice into a low tone. Daddy and I both knew she’d heard enough.
“I expect you to be on your best behavior Marilyn,” Mother said, smoothing her already perfect gloves across her hands before placing them carefully back in her lap.
My mother. She didn’t come from money, like Daddy. I’d once overheard Daddy’s sister Aunt Marie, chatting behind Mother’s back at a tea party about how no one would ever know she came from nothing. My grandfather Richardson once told me not be so hard on her. She’d had a tough upbringing. I decided now that I was older and could cypher her actions better, she put on extra airs so no one would know or think she came from the tobacco fields of North Carolina. After the stock market crashed and we watched so many families lose everything, she turned the knob, tightened her controlling stance on everything—including me. I had a kind of devil-may-care personality, like my father, and that didn’t go over so well with my mother.
“Marilyn,” she snapped again. She had a way of speaking to me without looking at me—as if she was too busy, or perhaps she just didn’t want to look at me. Either way, for some reason I felt as if I’d played along long enough.
“Yes ma’am. Do you mind to call me Lynnie this weekend?” I asked, forgetting I’d made a deal with myself to be agreeable until I could get away from her clutches.
Her face showed no emotion. It was really quite impressive. I knew how much she hated me giving myself a nickname and yet here I was, poking the bear as Daddy would say. “Marilyn, I will not call you by that name.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Marilyn, it’s just all the stylish girls of the day seemed to possess a little extra something I did not. Whether it was the Marcel waves in their hair or the dresses that now accentuated their curves, I couldn’t know for sure. Mother had forbid me to wear anything she deemed too revealing for my age. Still, I wanted something extra and a nickname was an easy way to be different—at the very least, less formal. Marilyn was a mouthful and if I had to be the one to shorten it, then so be it.
“I can call you monkey,” Daddy said, quickly chuckling at his own joke.
My mother took a deep breath, ignoring us both and I watched her shoulders rise and fall as we took the last turn at the stone entrance marked Winter Lodge.
We’d not even made it into the party and I was already dreading the next two days—ready to return home to Shadeland. The whole two-day affair reminded me of the way I felt about pancakes—warm, wonderful and sweet at first, but by the time I took the last bite, I had a stomachache.
To make matters worse, my best friend, Elizabeth, sent me a letter just last week letting me know she wouldn’t be in attendance. Her father had been hit hard by the stock market crash and her family wasn’t traveling for the holidays. When I read the letter to my mother, she gasped saying, “This is why we should be thankful for our blessings.” Then she straightened the seam on the back of my skirt, asking me to be more mindful of my appearance.
Elizabeth’s family staying home meant one thing. I would be alone in the sea of adults with only one other soul considered a child at the party.
Daddy parked in the group of other cars and three men hurried to open our doors and escort us to the enormous log cabin. The lights and sounds from the outside were only a tiny indication of what I knew to be happening inside.
We’d been coming to Asheville, North Carolina for as long as I could remember and it was always the same. During the two days before Christmas Eve, we would gather in the Winterbournes’ very large mountain home made out of logs so huge, I had a hard time believing each was from only one tree. “The trees of the Blue Ridge are as strong as the people,” Daddy had once told me.
My father was loaded down with a stack of boxes and still my mother needed to ask, “Do you have the gifts?” while she straightened the velvet collar on my coat. All the while she never made eye contact with either of us.
“Of course, Maude.”
Before Daddy had a chance to ring the bell, the red double doors of the home opened and the sounds of the last stanza of Hark the Herald Angels Sing rang out. The crowded room applauded their own performance, echoing their pleasure through the mammoth three story timber home. Decorated for the holidays, the smell of pine was thick in the air. The Christmas tree set in front of the floor to ceiling window by the main entrance was so lofty, I knew I’d have to climb the winding staircase and look down on it from above. It was the only way to see the whole thing.
“We were beginning to fret over you,” Mr. Winterbourne said emerging from the center of the crowded room.
My father shook the husky man’s hand, “Please excuse our tardiness, Edward.”
“Not at all,” Mr. Winterbourne replied. “There’s been talk of weather. We wanted you to arrive safely before the snow blows in.”
I tugged at my mother’s mink coat, hoping to discreetly show her the displeasure on my face. If we were stranded in North Carolina for Christmas instead of home in Alabama because of snow, I was going to pitch a fit.
“Marilyn,” Mr. Winterbourne said giving me a nod and gentlemanly bow. “Cecil has spoken of nothing but your arrival since last week.”
Forcing a smile, I replied. “Thank you, sir. That’s very kind.”
I turned away from my parents, watching them glad-hand each of the guests as Mr. Winterbourne ushered them around the parlor. Scanning the room, I looked for the punch bowl—the adult punchbowl. Instead I saw him sitting in the corner.
Last year instead of acting normal, all he did was pull my hair and annoy me. When I complained, Mother told me it only meant he liked me. “He has an odd way of showing it,” I’d replied. With Elizabeth gone this year, all his attention would be directed toward me. Lucky me. He had a difficult time understanding I was six years older than he was, and as cute and perfectly boyish as he was, he was still that—a boy. I kept my eyes on other boys, like the young men in their twenties. The problem was, they were keeping their eyes on the girls their own age. Many were already being matched by their families after performing escort duties at the various debutante balls and I was still two years away from my debut.
I sulked around the room, my parents already celebrating with their friends. The big parlor was filled with Christmas treats, punch and alcohol. Drinking from silver julep cups, I knew they were all getting their fill of the Winterbournes’ Kentucky bourbon. If I was sneaky, I could fulfill my own plan to have a taste.
I felt a warm puff of breath on my shoulder as someone whispered in my ear, “I knew you’d come.”
Turning around, I found him. Cecil Winterbourne stood in front of me. He was eleven, but had hit a growth spurt since the last time I saw him. I was now standing face to face with the sandy-haired boy instead of towering over him as I had last year. “Cecil?”
“Who else would it be?”
“I know,” he said rocking on his heels with pride. “I grew.”
His voice wasn’t deep like the twenty-somethings I’d watched milling about the room. He’d gotten taller, but that was the extent of his growth.
“You’re not going to pull my hair for the next two days, are you?” I asked under my breath as I walked away from him. If any of the older boys had looked my way, I didn’t want to be seen conversing with Cecil. God forbid someone thought we were the same age simply because we were the same size. I couldn’t help being petite.
“I won’t pull your hair,” he said, following quickly on my heels. “Promise.”
I’d found my way into a corner behind one of the many tables filled with food and drink and leaned back into the wall with a sigh, twirling my new necklace between my fingers. “Thank you.”
Cecil took his place beside me. He too, leaned and sighed, in what seemed to be an innocent imitation of my frustration with the situation at hand. I was too young to mingle with the older boys, too old to hang out with an eleven-year-old and too much of a lady to sneak a drink of bourbon—well, at least in my mother’s eyes. Crossing my arms, I stared straight ahead. “What, Cecil?” I finally asked when he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off me.
“What’s that thing around your neck?”
I scowled at him. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“It’s a present from my grandfather. See?” I said, holding the small glass vial attached to a gold chain.
“What’s that inside?”
“That’s what you won’t understand.”
“C’mon,” he whined.
“Fine. It’s a mustard seed.”
“See, I told you.”
“Then educate me. What’s it for?”
“It’s a reminder.”
“Okay. A reminder of what?”
“A Bible verse. Truly I will tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
“Oh,” he scoffed. “Mathew seventeen, verse twenty.”
I gasped. “How’d you know that?”
“Are you kidding? I have to memorize Bible verses for school. Now, what do you want to do for the next two days? Because the way I see it, we’re stuck together.”
I turned my body to face him. “I’m not stuck doing anything.”
His boyish face didn’t go with his long and lanky body. It was as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust on him, stretching him like a piece of taffy while his face remained childlike. He broke out into a huge grin. “Oh, you’re stuck with me all right.”
“Didn’t you hear? A winter storm is moving in. Ice and snow.”
“It’s just the elevation in the mountain, Cecil. It’s not going to snow so much we can’t get home.”
“If you say so. Anyway,” he said, stepping in front of me, nearly pinning me to the log wall at my back. “My mother says I have to be nice to you so, may I get you something to drink, Marilyn?”
“Don’t call me Marilyn.”
“It’s your name.”
“Call me Lynnie.”
“Yes. It’s short for Marilyn,” I said with a nod, finally bringing my attention back to him.
“That’s a horrible nickname.”
“No it’s not.”
He let out a low chuckle and I realized his voice would be changing soon. “It most certainly is.”
Cecil put his hand on the log wall, propping himself up before crossing his feet at the ankles as if he owned the place. It struck me right then that eventually he would. “I tell you what,” he began. “If I can get us both a julep cup of bourbon without anyone noticing, I get to give you a proper nickname.”
“Because I know you, Marilyn,” Cecil said with a grin. “Probably the only reason you agreed to come this weekend was because you thought maybe you could steal a little bit of bourbon.”
I narrowed my gaze and didn’t say a word. He was speaking the truth, but I didn’t want to incriminate myself. At least not in the first fifteen minutes of being there.
“I can tell you’re thinking about it,” he said, stepping away from me to lean both shoulders against the wall, his hands tucked neatly behind him.
“You’re so smug, Cecil.”
“But am I correct?” He tilted his head into mine, still staring straight ahead into the crowded room as I was. “Look, if I get us a little bourbon, you’ll let me give you a new nickname. If I don’t, I’ll leave you alone for the rest of the weekend. You have my word as a gentleman. I won’t tell if you won’t tell.”
I stepped away, turning my back on the crowd and stared into his eyes. “Cecil. You’re eleven. I appreciate the offer, but I can’t spend my holiday vacation in the mountains babysitting an eleven-year-old boy. Besides, you’re too young to be drinking bourbon.”
“Miss Marilyn,” he began. “I may be eleven, but I’ve already had plenty of bourbon. How would I be fit to run the distillery someday if I don’t understand how good—no, excellent—sour mash is supposed to taste? Not to mention,” he said taking a deliberate pause, “this is a very good deal for you. If I get the bourbon, then I only get to give you a nickname—you still get the bourbon. If I fail, you get my silence for the remainder of your time here at Winter Lodge.”
I pursed my lips and considered his offer. He might only be eleven years old, but Cecil was smart and I couldn’t help but think he reminded me a little of myself. He too was a rule breaker and didn’t seem at all afraid of the consequences of his actions. “Fine,” I said. “But if we’re caught, I’m not taking the blame for any of this.”
A grin broke out across his face. “Give me a few minutes, then meet me upstairs. My room is at the end of the hallway. I’ll leave the door cracked for you.”
Cecil strode away with the self-assurance of a young man—a young man twice his age. I glanced around the room as if someone might have heard us and thought of the best way to leave the party without being noticed.
I formulated my plan as I scanned the room for my mother. When I finally spotted her, I walked to her holding my head with one hand and my stomach with the other.
“Pardon me, Mother” I said, touching her on the elbow.
The gracious smile that was plastered across her face dissipated when she saw me standing next to her. “Yes, Marilyn?”
“I think the drive was too much for me. May I be excused to retire for the evening?” I asked, batting my eyes and knitting my brow. It was imperative she believe me as not to be caught later in the evening.
“My goodness,” Mrs. Winterbourne said, coming forward to take me by the shoulders. “I’ll have John, the butler, show you to your room. We put you in the guest room near Cecil. I hope that’s all right, darling.”
Mother gave me a stern look and I knew she feared I would react to the news or the mention of Cecil’s name.
“That would be lovely, Mrs. Winterbourne,” I said with a forced smile. “I only wish I was feeling up to celebrating. Perhaps if I lie down for a bit I might be able to enjoy the party later this evening.”
“Of course, darling. You poor thing.” Cecil’s mother was overly kind and gushed with genuine affection. My mother merely wanted to make sure I wasn’t an embarrassment to her.
“John?” she called out to the black suited man walking through the festivities with an air of importance. “Please take Miss Marilyn to her room and make sure her bag has made its way to her quarters. She’s not feeling well.” Turning her attention back to me, she asked. “Is there anything we can get for you? Bicarbonate?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to appear too ill, someone might want to check on me or God forbid find a doctor in the crowded party who would force some horrid elixir down my throat. I needed to keep this as insignificant as possible. “I think a rest will do wonders for me.”
Before I could leave, a handsome young man walked into the conversation, pausing in front of me as if we knew one another.
“Mrs. Winterbourne, Mrs. Richardson,” he said bowing his head to each of them before looking to me. “And whom might this be?”
“Christopher Marshall, this is Miss Marilyn Richardson.”
In my truest awkward style, I hesitated before giving him my hand. Instead of a formal handshake, he brought my hand his mouth, grazing his lips across my knuckles.
“Mr. Marshall is studying medicine at Transylvania University. I blushed and looked away. No man had ever kissed me before and I was all a titter. His blue eyes were disarming, yet somehow empty, like a bottomless well. His smile, confident.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Marshall.” I sputtered through the words only to have my mother step in to assure the gentleman I wasn’t an idiot.
“Please excuse Marilyn,” she said, gaining his attention. “She’s not feeling well.”
Immediately he looked back to me with a smile that reminded me of the man who’d sold Daddy his new car—opportunistic with an edge of artificial sincerity. “Perhaps I could help with that,” he said.
“No. Really.” I nearly gasped the words, my breath now failing at the idea of him attending to me. “I’ll be fine.”
“Miss Richardson?” John, the dark suited butler, held out his arm for me to precede him. I gave them all a quick nod, dropping my chin to stare at the floor.
“Feel better, Marilyn,” Mrs. Winterbourne said as I walked away.
“Yes,” Mr. Marshall agreed. “I do hope you can return to the celebration.”
I stopped and turned to look him in the face once more before climbing the winding staircase that led to the second and third floors.
“I’m expecting a dance before the festivities are over, Marilyn,” he called after me. He paused, bowing to my mother. “With your permission of course, Mrs. Richardson.”
Batting my eyes, I waited to hear what Mother would say.
“I’m sure she’d love a dance, Mr. Marshall.”
I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks and I knew I was blushing. I gave him a nod, then taking my gaze back to the floor, began to climb the stairs with a newfound skip in my step. Perhaps the Winterbourne Christmas party wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I stared at the enormous moose head that hung over the roaring fire in my bedroom. It was one of many suites I’d been forced to stay in over the years. It seemed that with each Christmas, I found myself in even more beautiful accommodations. I thought at first it had something to do with the increasing number of people no longer making the trip due to financial difficulties, but perhaps it was because I was getting older and a young lady was in need of more room for her necessities.
Lying back on the bed, I looked to the candelabra nailed to the wall on my left made of deer antlers. It was only a decoration as the lodge was fully equipped with electricity and indoor plumbing—something my father called quite a feat for how deep the home was situated in the mountains.
A faint rap of shave and a haircut, two bits came at the door, and I knew it was Cecil. No self-respecting adult would knock on a door in such a manner.
“Come in, Cecil,” I droned, hoping he’d been able to sneak a taste of bourbon and bring it with him.
I sat on the edge of the bed inspecting a stuffed beaver in the corner of the room, not paying attention to the open and close of the door.
“Your father must truly love to hunt,” I said, unable to take my eyes from the gigantic teeth on the dead animal.
“I beg your pardon?”
The voice was deep and I gasped at its unfamiliarity before turning to face Mr. Marshall standing in front of the hearth. The shape of his body was backlit by the glow of the fire, making it seem he was rising from Hell itself.
Swallowing hard, I gave myself a moment to find words and stood to greet him. “Mr. Marshall.”
“I wanted to check on you. I wouldn’t want the most beautiful girl at the party to feign ill all evening.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Come now, Marilyn,” he said, taking a step toward me. “I may not be a doctor yet, but I know a good acting job when I see one. Did you deliberately choose to be sickly tonight on the chance I might check in on you?”
He took another prowling step toward me, the smile on his face widening with each sound of his boots against the pine floor.
“I beg your forgiveness, Mr. Marshall, but I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
I teetered, tripping over my shoes as I took a step away from him and sat back on the bed. He moved swiftly and quietly, pushing me back to lie on the satin covers before laying his body on top of me. Without asking, he pressed his lips to mine, forcing his tongue into my mouth. Grinding himself into my body, I felt a hardness press against my hip as I struggled to free myself from his embrace.
“Please, stop.” I begged him, my breath wheezing in the small space that separated his advances from my refusal.
“Relax.” Mr. Marshall whispered the word in my ear, gripping my wrists tighter.
“Stop it!” Thrashing my face to and fro, I escaped his eager mouth and slimy tongue.
My body tensed and I struggled against his power and weight. Restraining my hands into one of his, he lifted my dress, running his free hand down my leg. Clamping his sweaty mitt to my thigh, he hissed in my face. The bourbon on his breath was strong, but it was the look in his soulless blue eyes that gave me reason to panic.
I took a deep breath, hoping to gain enough power let out an ear-splitting scream. My only hope was that someone would hear my cry over the carol singing downstairs and rescue me. I began to shriek and immediately his hand left my thigh, finding its way to cover my mouth.
“Be quiet,” he hissed. “We don’t want to disturb the party.”
His pressed his hand harder across my mouth, pushing my head into the soft bed. The sting of my tears burned against my chapped face.
“Relax, Marilyn. This will all be over in a moment. For God’s sake, be agreeable.”
Biting his hand as hard as I could, I watched him flinch in pain, holding in his own cry. Still, he didn’t climb off me, or remove his other groping hand.
Then as suddenly as he’d snatched his hand from my mouth, I watched as shock widened his eyes before hearing the crashing sound of glass breaking. Slumping forward, the weight of the heinous Christopher Marshall sank forward, pinning me to the bed before rolling over onto the floor with a thud.
I sat up, frantically pulling my dress down over my knees and found Cecil standing at the foot of my bed.
“You wanted me to do that, right?” he asked without emotion. Still holding the bottom of the shattered vase he’d used to coldcock my intruder, he gave me a reassuring smile.
Abruptly, I rushed to my boy-hero, burying my face in his shoulder as I cried out, “Thank you, Cecil. Thank you! You’re my hero.”
He hugged me tightly. “Shhhh,” he said, trying to calm me. “Christopher Marshall is the worst kind of asshole.”
I couldn’t be bothered to act shocked at his vulgar language. Cecil was right. Christopher Marshall was an asshole.
“I never liked him,” he said, looking me in the eyes as I pulled away and dried my tears.
“Yeah,” I sighed, regaining my composure. “Me either.”
Letting go of me, he walked to the table by the door and picked up two silver Mint Julep cups. The sides were thick with frosty perspiration. “You look like you need a drink.”
I nodded, wiping the last of the tears from my eyes.
“Let’s have a bourbon. Then you can explain to my mother why I broke her Chinese vase.”
Straightening my dress, I composed myself and carefully fingered my mussed hair, giving him another nod. “Okay.”
“You’re sure you’re fine?” he asked again.
“Yes. Thank you, Cecil.”
“The pleasure was mine, Mimi.”
Cecil was so young but already more of a man than most would be in their lifetime. He’d done for me what no other man had—he was my hero. With a bourbon in my hand I raised my silver julep cup to him. I had a new friend. And I had a new name.