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Excerpt from
The Captain's Christmas Family

© 2011 by Deborah Hale

December 25, 1814 Nottinghamshire, England

How had that festive symbol of Christmas come to be associated with such an amorous activity? Marian surveyed their handiwork, suspended from the chandelier in the parlor. Was it the invention of some long ago gentleman who'd wanted the opportunity to kiss a number of ladies without committing himself to only one? Or perhaps a single lady who wished to enjoy a kiss or two without ruining her reputation?

Marian could not deny she felt more than a trifle stirred by Gideon's nearness as they'd worked together to construct the kissing bough. The frequent, glancing contact of their arms and hands had made her wonder what it might be like to share a proper embrace with him.

At the same time, she knew she did not dare try to discover. Perhaps if she had not thrown herself at him in the library, she could risk being caught under the mistletoe with him. But after taking such a shocking liberty, any further behavior in that vein would make it appear she was actively pursuing the master of the house. She could not afford to have him suspect that, for fear it would frighten him off before he'd come to care enough about the girls.

That part of her plan was progressing too well for her to jeopardize. Watching him chase Dolly around this morning, as if he were a carefree boy again, had brought her a sweet, secret pang of satisfaction. It was clear the girls' wellbeing and happiness had begun to matter to him. Why else would he have taken such pains to give them a merry Christmas? If anything more were needed to dispose Marian in his favor that would have been it.

“I'm certain it is the finest kissing bough in the neighborhood.” She caught Cissy by the hand and gave an affectionate squeeze. “But we mustn't rest on our laurels. Or perhaps I should say, rest on our evergreens . There is plenty more decorating to do. The mantelpiece and windowsills are still bare and the other rooms haven't even been touched.”

Realizing it might sound as if she were assuming the role of mistress of the house, she added, “Don't you agree, Captain?”

He gave a decisive nod. “Indeed. This may be our masterpiece but we do not want it to be our only decoration.” He turned to Dolly. “What should we tackle next?”

“The mantelpiece.” The child grabbed a fir bough from the pile they had discarded and handed it to him. “One set this way and one the other with some holly and oranges. We spent all yesterday sticking cloves in them. Don't they smell good?”

“Delectable.” Gideon arranged the greenery as Dolly had bidden him. “This should look very festive indeed.”

“What shall we do?” Marian asked Cissy.

The older girl glanced around the room. “Put candles in the windows with ivy and yew around them.”

In far less time than it had taken to construct the kissing bough, the whole parlor was colorfully adorned for the holidays. Then they moved on to another room and then another. On the main staircase, they twined boughs through the banisters and secured them with red ribbons. Still more boughs and holly adorned the sideboard in the dining room as well as running up the middle of the long table.

When Marian glimpsed Gideon lifting Dolly up to add another orange to the mantelpiece decoration, she smiled to herself.

Later when he was trimming one of the family portraits with bay leaves, he beckoned Cissy over. “Do you know who the people in this painting are?”

“No. Who?”

“That is my grandmother.” He indicated a handsome young woman who sat holding an infant. “Her name was Celia, too. The baby in her arms is my father and this little boy beside her is your grandfather.”

“Who is the little girl?” asked Dolly, peering hard at the painting.

“That is their sister. Her name was Dorothy.”

“Like me.”

“Like you.” Gideon cast her a fond look. “Now since we have all worked so hard and the dining room looks suitably festive, I hope you ladies will do me the honor of joining me for dinner.”

Marian was not certain what to make of his sudden invitation. It had not been part of the Christmas plans he'd discussed with her.

But when the girls appealed to her, “Can we, please, Miss Marian?” she could not deny them. The more time they spent in the captain's company, the better.

“Very well. Since it is Christmas, I suppose it will not hurt to alter our usual nursery routine.”

“Excellent.” The captain made it sound as if she had granted him a great favor. “It would be most unfortunate if I was obliged to dine alone on Christmas Eve.”

Marian could not disagree with that.

“The invitation includes you, of course, Miss Murray,” he added.

She opened her mouth to protest that it was not her place when a particular look from the captain changed her mind. It seemed to suggest he was not yet so accustomed to the girls' company that he would be comfortable dining with them on his own.

“Thank you, Captain.” She curtsied to remind herself of her place in the household. Though she might care for the Radcliffe girls like a mother, she was only a hired employee. “If that is what you wish.”

“It is,” he replied, “and the girls' as well, I'm sure. Our celebrations would not be the same without Miss Marian, would they?”

There he went again, referring to her by her Christian name, as the girls did. Was it only a slip of the tongue or did he mean something more by it?

“Of course you must eat with us.” Dolly's brow furrowed as if she was trying to puzzle out why there should be any question. “You always do.”

“Then that is settled.” The captain seemed well satisfied with the arrangements. “Let us retire to dress for dinner and meet back here in half-an-hour.”

After a parting bow, he strode away before Marian could inform him that it took longer to change and groom too little girls than for him to don a fresh coat and linen.

“Come along, girls.” Marian seized them each by the hand. “We'll have to hurry.”

Hurry they did, racing up the stairs to the nursery where they scrubbed evergreen sap off their hands then changed into their Sunday dresses with colorful plaid sashes and kid slippers. While Marian helped Cissy dress, Martha combed Dolly's hair and retied her ribbons. Then they switched.

The three of them made it back to the dining room with a full minute to spare, though Marian regretted having no time to do more than quickly smooth down her hair. She told herself it did not matter. She would only be there to supervise the girls and see that they minded their manners.

Yet she could not help wishing she'd been able to make a better appearance for the occasion when the captain appeared. He was freshly combed and shaved, wearing crisp snowy linen and a smart blue coat that emphasized his fine bearing. It was all she could do to stifle a sigh of admiration.

Until that moment, she had not realized how much his rugged looks had come to appeal to her. Every other man she'd ever met now suffered by comparison. The angular features and firm mouth that had appeared so severe at their first meeting now struck her as noble and courageous. Had she once thought his gray eyes cold? Now she could see the intelligence, honesty and kindness in them, as well as the occasional glimpse of wistful longing.

If he noticed her appearance for good or ill, Gideon Radcliffe gave no indication.

“I hope all our work today has given you ladies a good appetite.” He held out the chair at one end of the table and beckoned Marian to be seated in what was traditionally the place reserved for the mother of the family.

Then he held chairs halfway down each side for Cissy and Dolly. “I believe the cook has prepared a fine meal for us tonight.”

So she had. The soup was followed by slices of savory brawn. Then the game pie was served, its flaky golden crust encasing great lashings of meat and gravy. Though Marian felt too full to eat another bite, she could not refuse the airy lemon sponge cake and fine fruit that were served for dessert.

While they ate, Dolly interrogated the captain further about his ship and his travels while Cissy quizzed her cousin about their Radcliffe forbearers and times past at Knightley Park . Captain Radcliffe answered all their questions patiently and in an entertaining way. He also used the opportunity to draw the girls out, asking about their favorite colors, foods and activities.

From her place at the end of the table, Marian quietly tucked into her dinner while she listened to the others converse. Now and then, she leaned over to catch a glimpse of the captain around the pyramid of fine fruit that served as an elegant centerpiece. Whenever he glanced up to catch her watching him, she ducked back out of sight like a bashful schoolgirl.

Though the steady stream of courses brought by the footmen seemed as if it might never end, eventually their delightful meal drew to a close and their whole pleasant day with it. Marian could have stayed and listened to Gideon Radcliffe for many more hours, but it was already past the girls' bedtime. Duty won out over inclination.

“If you will excuse us, Captain,” She rose from her chair when he paused to take a drink. “I believe the girls ought to get to bed soon, or they will be in danger of nodding off in church tomorrow.”

The captain got to his feet. “We cannot have that, can we? Thank you, ladies, for a most enjoyable evening.”

Cissy slipped out of her chair and went to join Marian, but Dolly's bottom remained firmly on her chair. “But I'm not tired!”

Her claim might have been more persuasive if she had not broken into a wide yawn.

“Come along now,” Marian insisted. She knew it would be a grave mistake to put up with any nonsense so early in the Christmas season. “If you behave well, the captain may be more likely to include you in other holiday pastimes.”

“Will you?” the child appealed to her cousin.

“Without a doubt,” he replied with earnest solemnity, though Marian glimpsed a subtle twitch at one corner of his mouth.

Dolly yawned again. “All right, then.”

She scrambled out of her chair and started toward her sister and governess when something outside caught her attention. She raced past them toward the window. “Look, it's snowing!”

“So it is.” Marian and Cissy followed her to peer out the window that overlooked the garden.

Outside, in the frosty darkness of midwinter, large lacy flakes of shimmering white drifted lazily down from the sky. Whenever a breath of wind stirred, it set them dancing and swirling.

Behind her, Marian heard the captain's footsteps approach as he joined their huddle around the window. “I told you it would snow.”

“Yes you did.” Dolly continued to stare outside. “Now everyone make a wish on the first snowflakes of the winter.”

Cissy shook her head. “It's the evening star you're supposed to wish on, not snowflakes.”

Dolly tilted her chin defiantly. “I think people should be able to wish on whatever they like. I'm going to wish on the first snowflakes.”

Marian had no faith in Dolly's snowflake fancy. But a prayer directed heavenward on Christmas Eve – surely that would have a greater likelihood of being answered.

Intensely aware of Gideon hovering so close beside her, she repeated her often-raised prayer that he might become Cissy and Dolly's guardian. But this time she neglected to ask that he be returned to his ship.

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From the novel The Captain's Christmas Family by Deborah Hale
Publication Date: December 2011  Love Inspired Historical®
Copyright © 2011 by Deborah Hale
® and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

 

Cover art copyright © by Harlequin Enterprises Limited ® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
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