Around me swarms of Londoners rushed by, intent on their destinations and sure of their plans. My destination was the small town of Carlton Heath, and my plans revolved around a certain Scotsman who was now officially late.
I tried to call Ian again. His voice mail picked up for the third time. “It’s me again,” I said to the phone. “I’m here at Paddington station and —”
Before I finished the message, my phone beeped, and the screen showed me it was Ian.
“Hi! I was just leaving you another message.” I brushed back my shoulder-length brown hair and stood a little straighter, just as I would have if Ian were standing in front of me.
“You made it to the station, then?”
“Yes. Although I was about to put on a pair of red rain boots and a tag on my coat that read, ‘Please look after this bear.’ ” I was pretty sure Ian would catch my reference to the original Paddington Bear in the floppy hat since that was what he had given to my niece, Julia, for Christmas last year.
“Don’t go hangin’ any tags on your coat,” Ian said with an unmistakable grin in his voice. “I’m nearly there. The shops were crammed this morning, and traffic is awful. I should have taken the tube, but I’m in a taxi now. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes tops. Maybe less if I get out and run the last few blocks.”
“Don’t run. I’ll wait. It’s only been, what? Seven weeks and three days since we were last together? What’s another fifteen minutes?”
“I’ll tell you what another fifteen minutes is. It’s just about the longest fifteen minutes of my life.”
“Mine too.” I felt my face warming.
“You’re at track five, then, as we planned?”
“Yes. Track five.”
“Good. No troubles coming in from the airport?”
“No. Everything went fine at Heathrow. The fog delayed my flight when we left San Francisco, but the pilot somehow managed to make up time in the air. We landed on schedule.”
“Let’s hope my cabbie can find the same tailwind your pilot did and deliver me to the station on schedule.”
I looked up at the large electronic schedule board overhead, just to make sure my watch was in sync with local time. “We have about twenty minutes before the 1:37 train leaves for Carlton Heath. I think we can still make it.”
“I have no doubt. Looks like we have a break in the traffic jam at the moment. Don’t go anywhere, Miranda. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I’ll be here.”
I closed my phone and smiled. Whenever Ian said my name, with a rolling of the r, he promptly melted my heart. Every single time. His native Scottish accent had become distilled during the past decade as a result of his two years of grad school in Canada and working in an architect office with coworkers from around the world. But Ian knew how to put on the “heather in the highlands” lilt whenever he wanted. And I loved it, just as I loved everything about this indomitable man.
I looked around the landing between the train tracks for an open seat on one of the benches. Since none were available, I moved closer to the nearest bench just in case someone decided to leave.
Balancing my large, wheeled suitcase against a pole so it wouldn’t tip over, I carefully leaned my second bag next to the beast. This was my third trip to England since my visit last Christmas and the first time I had come with two suitcases. This time I needed an extra bag for all the gifts I had with me, wrapped and ready to go under the Christmas tree at the Whitcombe manor.
Last Christmas and for many Christmases before that, the only gift I bought and gave was the one expected for the exchange at the accounting office where I worked in downtown San Francisco. Up until last Christmas I had no family to speak of — no parents, no siblings, no roommate. I didn’t even have a cat. My life had fallen into a steady, predictable rhythm of work and weekends alone, which is probably why I found the courage to make that first trip to Carlton Heath last December. In those brief, snow-kissed, extraordinary few days, I was gifted with blood relatives, new friends, and sweetest of all, Ian.
Christmas shopping this year had been a new experience. While my coworkers complained about the crowds and hassle, I quietly reveled in the thought that I actually had someone — many someones — in my life to go gift hunting for.
I had a feeling some last-minute shopping was the reason Ian was late. He told me yesterday he had a final gift to pick up this morning on his way to the station. He hadn’t explained what the gift was or whom it was for. His silence on the matter led me to wonder as I wandered along a familiar path in my imagination. That path led straight to my heart, and along that path I saw nothing but hope for our future together — hope and maybe a little something shiny that came in a small box and fit on a certain rather available finger on my left hand.
Before my mind could sufficiently detour to the happy land of “What’s next?”, I heard someone call my name. It was a familiar male voice, but not Ian’s.
I looked into the passing stream of travelers, and there he stood, only a few feet away. Josh. The last person I ever expected to see again. Especially in England.
“Miranda, I thought that was you! Hey, how are you?” With a large travel bag strapped over his shoulder, Josh gave me an awkward, clunking and bumping sort of hug. His glasses smashed against the side of my head. He quickly introduced me as his “old girlfriend” to the three guys with him.
“What are you doing here?” He unstrapped the bag and dropped it at his feet.
One of the guys tagged his shoulder and said, “We’ll be at the sandwich stand over there.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Josh turned back to me. “You look great. What’s been happening with you?”
“I’m good,” I said. “What about you? What are you doing here?” I was still too flustered at the unexpected encounter to jump right into a catch-up sort of conversation after the almost three-year gap.
“Just returned from a ski trip to Austria with a group from work. Incredible trip. I’m in a counseling practice now. Child psychologist. I don’t know if you knew that.”
“No. That’s great, Josh. I know that’s what you wanted to do.”
“Yes, it’s going well so far.” He seemed at ease. None of the stiltedness that had been there right after I broke up with him came across in his voice or demeanor.
“And what about you? What are you doing in England?”
Before I could put together an answer, Josh snapped his fingers. “Wait! Are you here because you’re looking for your birth father?”
“You remembered.” Once again he surprised me.
“Of course I remembered. You had that picture of some guy dressed as Father Christmas, and it had the name of the photography studio on the back. That was your only clue.”
“So? What happened?”
“I followed the clue last Christmas, and it led me here, to my birth father, just like you thought it would.”
“No way! Did it really?”
I nodded, knowing Josh would appreciate this next part of the story. “The man in the photo dressed like Father Christmas was my father. And the boy on his lap is my brother, or I guess I should say my half brother, Edward.”
“Incredible,” Josh said with a satisfied, Sherlock Holmes expression on his unshaven face. “What happened when you met him?”
I hesitated. Having not repeated this story to anyone since it all unfolded a year ago, I didn’t realize how much the answer to Josh’s question would catch in my spirit and feel sharply painful when it was spoken aloud.
“I didn’t meet him. He passed away a few years ago.”
“Oh.” Josh’s expression softened.
“You know, Josh, I always wanted to thank you for the way you urged me to follow that one small clue. I’ve wished more than once that I would have come to England when you first suggested it four years ago. He was still alive then. That’s what I should have done.”
“And I should have gone with you,” he said in a low voice.
“Why do you say that?”
Josh’s eyebrows furrowed, his counselor mode kicking in. “I felt you needed that piece in your life. By that I mean the paternal piece of your life puzzle. I didn’t like you being so alone in the world. I wish you could have met him.”
“I do, too, but I actually think things turned out better this way. It’s less complicated that I didn’t meet him while he was still alive.”
“Why do you say that?” Josh asked.
I hesitated before giving Josh the next piece of information. In an odd way, it felt as if he needed the final piece of the puzzle the same way I had.
“It’s less complicated this way because my father was . . .” I lowered my voice and looked at him so he could read the truth in my clear blue eyes. “My father was Sir James Whitcombe.”