Christmas Excerpt from
A Gentleman of Substance
© 1999 by Deborah Hale
December 25, 1812 The Lake District, England
She looked for all the world like an angel, Drake thought as he held out his arms to lift Lucy down from the sleigh. How fitting that those celestial beings should appear in blue and white and gold - a compound of sky, clouds and sunshine. Lucy had wrapped a soft white shawl over the shoulders of her blue pelisse. At the brow and nape of her matching blue bonnet, fine curly tendrils clustered, like filaments of shimmering gold.
His hands closed around her waist, nearly able to span it even through the thick fabric of her pelisse. She felt so light in his arms as he eased her to the ground -- almost incorporeal. Alarmingly so.
The concern must have shown on his face, for Lucy flashed him an encouraging smile. "It won't be as bad as you think, Drake. You'll see."
Scarcely had the words left her lips when she suddenly went limp in his arms.
"Lucy! What is it? Are you all right?" He gathered her up, holding her close to his chest, as he had on the night he'd found her weeping in the churchyard.
With a weak apologetic laugh she pressed one gloved hand to her brow. "Just a passing dizzy spell. I'll be fine." So he alone could hear, she added, "Expectant mothers are prone to them, you know."
The tone of her whispered confidence was warm, but for some reason her words chilled Drake. Why had she suddenly seen fit to remind him she was carrying another man's child?
"Oh well, if that's all..." Abruptly he set her back on her feet.
She clung stubbornly to his arm, nodding toward the path. The light snow had been trodden repeatedly underfoot and the resulting slush frozen by the icy upland wind. "It looks slippery." Again she lowered her voice confidentially. "I'm sure you would not want to risk my taking a fall and jeopardizing your future heir."
She cast him a mischievous look, together with a bewitching smile that twined around Drake's heart. "Besides, it's chillier than I expected. I need you to shield me from the wind." With a movement as quick and graceful as a dance step, she insinuated herself just under his shoulder.
Instinctively, he placed his arm across her back, crooking around to hold her securely under his wing. Unbidden images flashed in his thoughts. Of that dark hour before dawn when she'd supported his broken frame down from the High Head mine. Now it was his turn to support her.
"There now, I'm warm and safe." Lucy snuggled tightly against him.
For an instant it occurred to Drake what a slippery emotional incline he was treading in his feelings for this woman. Resolutely, he banished the thought, committed to honoring his promise that he would help her celebrate Christmas.
"Talbot. Mrs. Maberley," he called to the cook and butler, struggling out of their fleece lap robes. "The overseer's countinghouse is over there. We'll leave it to you and the others to prepare for this evening's festivities, while we pay our calls 'round the village."
"It was so kind of you to offer your help," piped up Lucy. "I'm certain this will be the most splendid Christmas celebration High Head has ever seen."
Mrs. Maberley beamed. "My pleasure, your ladyship, I'm sure. I do fancy cooking for a crowd at Christmastime. Puts me in mind of the old days.The puny little geese I've roasted the past few years were hardly worth the trouble." She shot Drake a look of mild reproof. "Come along, Mr. Talbot," she fussed at the butler. "I must get a kettle boiling if I'm to steam those puddings proper."
"We must be on our way too, Drake," said Lucy. "If we are to pay all our calls and invite everyone for our little revel this evening."
She peered around at the junior servants, unloading provisions from their small fleet of sleighs. "Now where do you suppose Father is? I thought he meant to come with us."
"You know what he's like." Drake hoped he sounded convincingly innocent. "Got talking to some old dame about her rheumatics and forgot all about us. I vote to be on our way. He'll catch us up sooner or later."
To himself, Drake wondered whether his absentminded father-in-law would follow through on their carefully laid plan. If he did, would Lucy approve? She hadn't shown any sign of disappointment when no presents had been forthcoming at breakfast or at luncheon. He might not have given any thought to a gift, if Mrs. Maberley had not posed an innocent question about it. Drake had spent any number of days pondering what he could possibly buy for his wife.
It had finally occurred to him that, unlike the few other women of his close acquaintance, Lucy always appeared more happy to give than to receive. In that realization had been born his plan for today. For a solid week afterward he'd been quite useless at business matters, preoccupied with secret visits to shops in Kendal and clandestine conferences with Vicar Rushton. Drake had never approached the Christmas season with such a sense of anticipation. Now that the moment was at hand, he felt a certain misgiving about how Lucy might react.
A shiver went through her, communicating itself to Drake. "Let's be on our way. The wind here makes it feel so much colder than at Silverthorne."
Word must have gone forth of their arrival in the village, for they were met at the door of their first stop with a cordial, noisy greeting and speedily drawn inside to sit by the fire and take a cup of mulled cider. Drake gratefully curled his fingers around a mug, toasty from the introduction of the host's hot poker into the cider. He watched with quiet gravity as Lucy launched into an animated dialogue with the family. She inquired after the soundness of their host's ankle, which he had injured in his brave effort to dig out the trapped miners. The lady of the house she commended on her tireless help at the aid station that night. The children she praised for their size, beauty and cleverness. Basking in the warmth of this exchange, Drake wondered that they needed the cheerfully crackling hearth fire to fend off the winter chill.
>While he was savoring the last drop of mellow, spicy cider, the baby of the family staggered over and clung to his knee. A sturdy boy, not yet in trousers, he lavished Drake with a wide, wet smile - all but toothless. Some mysterious impulse prompted Drake to lift the child onto the toe of his boot and bounce him up and down several times. The boy responded with an infectious gurgling chuckle in which Drake joined.
It suddenly occurred to him that in a year's time he might be sporting with a young one of his own. A son to clasp his fingers in a chubby fist, grin adoringly and call him Papa. The thought warmed and intoxicated Drake more thoroughly than his cup of cider. He was scarcely aware of the silence that had fallen in the room.
"Will ye look at that now." The child's mother spoke in a tone of hushed wonder. "Our Colly's right strange of folks as a rule. When me own Ma comes, he screws up his eyes and sets to howling the minute she's through the door."
Drake worked hard to keep a sober face. Clearly this wee lad's grandmother was cut from the same cloth as his own.
Ignoring the astonished interest caused by his behavior, the little fellow wriggled up onto Drake's lap. There he settled contentedly, popping a plump thumb into his mouth. Gradually, Drake became aware of Lucy's gaze fixed on him. Her eyes shone with a radiance she must once have turned on Jeremy, to beguiling effect. What could it mean? Had the sight of a small child in his arms smitten her with the reality of the one growing within her? Whatever had made her look so, Drake only knew it made him long to kiss her.
Just then a hearty rap sounded on the door, and a deep masculine voice boomed from outside the cottage. "Are there any good little boys and girls in this house?"
"Father Christmas!" The children scrambled for the door, fighting good-naturedly for the honor of opening it.
A short portly figure made his way inside. The children clung excitedly to his fur-trimmed red robe, assuring him repeatedly of their impeccable behavior.
"I see I've come to the right place." He patted small heads and shook small hands.
Drake hoped his eager admirers would not tear the beard of brushed fleece from their guest's chin. He caught Lucy scrutinizing Father Christmas with a gleeful grin of recognition. When she cast him a questioning glance, Drake could only avert his eyes sheepishly.
The family exclaimed in loud, appreciative tones over their gifts. Toy soldiers for the oldest son. A daintily painted fan for a girl on the verge of womanhood. Poppets and books for the younger ones. Mother received a pretty work basket and father, a fine leather pouch of tobacco.
Master Colly surveyed the scene with suspicious solemnity, from his sanctuary on Drake's lap. At last he did condescend to accept a brightly colored spinning top. When his sisters turned it for him, he crowed with delight.
As each gaily wrapped parcel emerged from the bulging pack of Father Christmas, Lucy's smile widened and her eyes grew more starry. A sense of fulfilment swelled in Drake's chest.
It was the same at every house they visited that afternoon - a cordial welcome, modest hospitality, eager greetings for Father Christmas and ardent appreciation of his bounty. After all their calls, the villagers crowded into the countinghouse for a short service of lessons and carols. If any of the older children saw a likeness between the ruddy little vicar who read the lessons and the jolly figure of Father Christmas, they tactfully refrained from sharing this intriguing information with the little ones.
There followed a merry supper of Mrs. Maberley's best board, crowned by the very choicest of plum puddings. Groaning with repletion, the diners helped to clear the floors for dancing, while mothers spirited their young ones home to bed, under the watchful eye of a grandparent or a trusted older child.
Only when they had paused for breath after a succession of spritely line dances was Lucy able to corner Drake for a private word.
"Papa told me you financed his little turn as Father Christmas today," she remarked softly as they stood in the doorway. "I was hoping we could do something like that, but I hadn't the face to ask you - what with all you've done for me already."
Drake kept his eyes studiously fixed on the dancers. "I was at a loss for a Christmas present to give you." He shrugged, unable to frame the proper words to explain his intentions. No doubt Jeremy would have found the perfect bauble to delight her, and delivered it with the proper gracious flourish. Suddenly his own Christmas surprise seemed to Drake the height of ridiculous sentimentality.
"You needn't have gone to so much trouble," Lucy persisted. "Father told me you got a list of all the villagers from Anthony Brown, with his guess of their ages. He said you haunted the shops for miles around, hunting up just the right gifts for everyone."
"I enjoyed it." Drake pretended to spare their conversation only a crumb of his attention. "This is the first year I ever looked forward to Christmas." Try as he might, he could not sound indifferent.
Beside him, Lucy chuckled. "As my Christmas present to you, I promise to refrain from saying, 'I told you so'."
"A rare gift from any wife," Drake quipped wryly, venturing the dangerous luxury of a sidelong glance at her.
The final notes of the music were fading away. He knew it would be his duty as a good host to take the floor again, when the musicians struck up their next tune. Yet he could scarcely bear to break the spell of quiet intimacy between them.
"I could not be better pleased." Her eyes glittered like tawny gemstones, and Drake sensed a tremulous thickness in her voice. "Not if you'd showered me with diamonds. Hearing those children laughing, watching their faces glow...this has been my happiest Christmas ever."
Before Drake could trust himself to reply, she pointed to the door frame above them. Someone had secured a wilted sprig of mistletoe there. The leaves almost brushed the top of his head. How had he failed to notice it until now?
Lucy reached up and curled one hand around the nape of his neck, drawing his face down to hers with gentle insistence. As she kissed him, Drake held himself severely still. It was a soft kiss, utterly chaste. And for a wondrous instant, Drake felt himself gifted with a treasure of inexpressible sweetness.
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From the novel A Gentleman of Substance by Deborah Hale
Copyright © 1999 by Deborah Hale