Elisabeth Fairchild
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by Elisabeth Fairchild

Signet Books
ISBN #0-451-19841-7
November 1999

What other writers say:

"What a delicious Christmas treat!"
- Mary Jo Putney


There was no getting away from it. Not on Regent Street. Not since the new shops had gone in. Well dressed patrons brushed past, liveried footmen following, parcels stacked high. Christmas.

Charles Thornton Baxter, fifth Viscount Balfour, ice blue eyes narrowed against the rush of cold air, refused to bend to the brunt of the wind as he stepped from the doorway of his London home, a grand old Georgian building soon to be torn down to make way for more of Nash's interminably slow improvements along a street Baxter no longer cared for, garbed in the season he disliked above all others.

Baxter did not want to think about Christmas. He did not appreciate the peal of bells from St. Phillip's two doors down. Today was December sixth, St. Nicholas's feast day, and he with but nineteen days till the last ball he would ever hold on Regent Street! Without Temple! Poor old Temple.

A gust of wind flung itself at Baxter from the north, chilly as the thought. A lesser man might have stepped back, into the shelter of the doorway. Not Viscount Balfour, fair locks swept smoothly from his forehead, every hair pomaded into place, as wind proofed as his snow white neckcloth, tied in the Mathematical style, ends tucked neatly away.

His buff colored coat hung equally unswayed. He had approved each line and seam and stitch, perfectly tailored to fit his straight-backed, perfectly postured form. Like all of his clothes it bore the prestigious trademark of Mssrs. HJ and D. Nicoll, court tailors. No flapping capes for Baxter, who insisted upon setting his own fashion, along lines to make him look tall, clean, neat, orderly and unobtrusively high quality.

Baxter's only concession to the powers of Nature's blustery breath that morning might be witnessed in the spotless buff glove securely grasping the brim of his sleek, black, beaver top hat. His head tilted, too, that the wind might the more firmly press hat to head as his high alabaster cheekbones colored faintly pink.

Eyes narrowed to a squint, Baxter examined the blur of oncoming traffic, and addressed his companion without turning.

"You said the carriage was sighted?"

"Yes, my lord." Knob-kneed young Temple, crouched beside him like a half-emergent turtle in a flapping, triple caped, unevenly dyed black overcoat.

"Downwind, if you please, Mr. Temple," Baxter instructed after the capes twice slapped his arm.

"My lord?" Temple shifted his position uncertainly.

Baxter leaned close to sniff as he sidled past, nose crinkling. "What the devil do you stink of, lad?"

Temple blushed almost as deep a shade as the mulberry muffler wrapped about his neck. "Dye, my lord, to make the coat proper mourning."

"I cannot think your father would have wanted you to reek," Baxter suggested dryly.

Temple's shoulders rounded. "I am told the odor will fade..." his voice squeaked uncertainly.

"Before Christmas?" Baxter grumbled.

The tips of Temple's ears flamed red.

"No slouching," Baxter insisted. "If you would reek to high heaven for good reason, do so with pride."

"Yes, my lord," Temple unfolded himself reluctantly, teeth chattering. "It p-p-promises to be a c-c-cold Christmas, think you not, my lord?"

"Is not every Christmas bitter?"

Charles Thornton Baxter's sarcasm was lost on Temple, who had yet to learn his ways, yet to learn exactly why the other servant's slyly referred to their master as Lord Thorn.

Mary Rivers tucked her Gran more securely into the Merlin chair, clutched billowing cloak tighter against the wind, and smiled at the two gentlemen standing by the street. She was in the habit of smiling at everyone--and accustomed to having most people smile back.

Lord Balfour stood stiff-backed and proud in front of his enormous townhouse. He ignored her, frowning into the wind, too great a personage to recognize his neighbor with so much as a good morning, or how do you do. A coldly handsome man, fair hair pomaded to a muted shine, clothes molded to his fine figure, posture as noble as his lineage--she thought he looked like a young lion. A lion whose eyes passed over her absently, as if there were more interesting prey to hunt.

Beside him, huddled deep in a flapping black greatcoat, expression melancholy, his companion resembled a carrion crow, ready to feed on the lion's leavings. These creatures inhabited a world unfamiliar to her. She considered it vaguely disquieting, just standing on the street with them. They were not at all the sort of neighbors she was accustomed to in Glastonbury.

But this was not Glastonbury, she reminded herself as a mud spattered mail coach rattled by. The post boy, cherry cheeked, blew a lone voiced tarantella. Rows of limp black turkeys, feathers fluttering in the wind, dangled from the upper rail, Christmas dinner on the way. Mary wished she might be on her way, too. Home for the holidays.

"Well, Mary, how do you like London?" Gran asked from her cocoon of blankets, rheumy blue eyes sparkling, the wind catching tendrils of wispy gray hair from beneath her cap and bonnet, batting them about like thistledown.

Mary forced a smile. Gran would ask just that question in a moment of overwhelming homesickness, a moment when she hesitated to reply lest her voice give way to the ache, the clingy longing in her chest. She was a vine transplanted, without support.

Mary twisted wide the brake handles, kicked the back wheel of the three wheeled chair into alignment, grabbed up the handle placed inconveniently low on the back of the chair, and set off with a push, wheels clacking. She did not like London, certainly not Christmas in London. She wished she were home.

Gran seemed to require no answer. "It is going to be a wonderful Christmas. I feel it in my bones," she chirped gleefully.

More than a dozen times she had said as much since Mary's arrival a week ago Friday. Gran loved Christmas. She loved it when one of her grandchildren came to stay with her for Christmas. Mary's mother, knowing this, made a point of sending one of her many children to London every year. Mary had been twice before, but not since she was a very little girl, not since Regent Street had been rebuilt, and not since Gran's rheumatism had forced her to depend on the Merlin chair.

Mary stopped the chair at the streetcorner, clutching closer the billowing folds of her cloak, as chill and uncertain as the wind. Here she was friendless, without the company of so much as one of her seven siblings, who might have helped to push this contrary chair, helped lift it up and down the curb, and steps, and stairs.

Any one of her them might have kept her company in the hours when Gran slept. A bit of conversation, a card game or two, was it so much to ask? She voiced none of her feelings. Gran took too much joy in her presence. She could not go two hours without thanking her for coming, her gratitude like a thorn in Mary's side, with which the old lady unknowingly pricked raw her loneliness.

The carriage cut off any reply, sweeping to a halt just beyond them, a clatter of hooves and a thunder of wheels on pavestone. Sleek matched chestnuts champed their bits, nostrils flaring, heads testing the well blacked bearing reins that kept all necks contained in the same perfect arch, the animal's breath pluming as if dragons drew the vehicle.

Mary waved to Mr. Twee, the crosswalk sweeper, as she examined the beautiful team. She wished her brother, Grant, might see them. He loved horses above all else, and these were remarkably well matched animals of the finest conformation, as sleekly groomed and high-headed as their owner.

A gleam caught her eye. Lord Balfour drew from his inner pocket an embossed gold watch.

"Good morning, my lord," the coachman called with a tip of his hat, neckscarf blowing like a kite tail in the wind.

"Is it, Woodrow?" The young lion growled.

"Aye. The lads are feeling their oats this fine, brisk morning." Woodrow nodded cheerfully toward the horses.

"I am quite cognizant of the temperature, thank you. You keep us standing in it."

Was this the way of the London ton? Horrible, condescending fellow, she thought. He did not deserve such excellent creatures, nor such doting servants.

Two footmen, as well matched in stature and coloring as the horses, equally matched in the scarlet color of their noses, and wind watery eyes, leapt from their perch at the back of the coach to open the door, let down the steps and assist their master's entry into the vehicle.

"Beggin' your pardon, milord." Woodrow called down at his master's glossy black hat. "Traffic leaving the mews, don't you see. It's a topsy-turvy mess Nash and Burton have made of the street."

"Takes a bit of a mess to change things, for good or evil," Balfour murmured to his black coated companion.

Gran had been listening as much as she. "I for one do not weep to see the higgelty-piggelty jumble of Swallow Street undone," she said far too loudly, throwing the words over her shoulder like a challenge.

Lord Balfour turned regal head as he mounted the steps to his carriage, enough that Mary knew he heard, not enough to indicate any real interest on his part. The lion, annoyed by midges.

"Take care, Gran," Mary said, between her teeth, returning her attention to the chair, that they might make their escape before the Viscount settled himself to a clear view through the carriage window. "The curb is always a bit of a jolt."

"Onward, my dear," Gran urged with a cough that ended in a breathless laugh, "I am not made of spun sugar, so brittle that I will break."

As buff colored lap blankets were tucked snugly about their knees and hot bricks placed between their feet, silence stretched uncomfortably between Baxter and his new secretary, but for an occasional watery sniff, and the faint clacking of Temple's teeth.

The door slammed shut.

With an elegant turn of the wrist, Baxter whipped a spotless white handkerchief from the pocket of his coat.

Temple accepted the offering with garbled thanks and thoroughly blew his nose.

Baxter fastidiously refused to accept its return, saying curtly, "Consider it a gift."

"Bless you, my lord." Temple carefully folded and tucked away the square of lawn as if it were cloth of gold. "Is it true, my lord, as my father once told me, that Christmas is not your favorite Season?"

Baxter snorted. "An understatement. But then, your father was always the consumate conservative in expressing himself. I consider the Christmas holidays maudlin, expensive, and a great deal too much trouble."

Temple gaped at him fishlike. "I thought him in jest, my lord," he protested.

"The Temple I knew was no jester," Baxter said flatly, jaw set, no room for tears--no handkerchief.

"But you hold annually the Balfour Christmas Eve Ball, my lord! The most sought after...."

"Yes, yes," Baxter cut him off impatiently. "With one grand gesture I obliterate all obligations to family, friends, and society, and have done with the Holidays."

"Have done, my lord?"

The wistful pity in the boy's voice galled, almost as much as the stench from his coat, the foul odor thickening unbearably in the warm, contained air of the carriage.

"Exactly!" Baxter rose abruptly to slide the window down. He longed to toss the boy out on his ear.

Every year he suffered an inadmissible sadness, a deepening loneliness, a despair as unpalatable as the odor of black dye, as unbearable as its purpose. He did not want benumbed emotion brought to fresh life, certainly not by a boy he employed out of pity.

"It is your job," with gloved fingertip he rubbed a peephole on the frosted windowpane, "as it was your father's, to create the impression I enjoy the festivities. With all haste. The invitations are, already, a week late."

Temple cleared his throat uneasily and consulted the day's schedule. "Your appointment is at ten, my lord. We've plenty of time. And then we've to pick up the invitations."

"I shall miss him." Baxter said, as the clear spot his finger had rubbed sent humid tears trickling down the pane.

Temple's head rose abruptly, eyes shining like glass. "Thank you, my lord, for saying so. Christmas won't be the same without him."

"Indeed it won't. The funeral is Friday, did you say? It is penciled in on my schedule?"

Temple nodded, blinking furiously. "Yes, my lord."

Baxter waved at the air above his head. "The trap," he said dryly.

Temple looked up. "You wish me to pull the string, my lord?"

Baxter's brow arched. Was it a hopelessly foolish notion, letting this lad fill his father's shoes? "Pushing it will do no good."

"Of course, my lord."

The trap door admitted a gush of cold air, the sounds of passing carriages and the thin cry of the flower girl on the corner. "Holly. Fresh holly. Straight from the country. Buy a sprig. Buy a bundle. Holly. Fresh holly."

Baxter waggled gloved fingers at the sound. "Another detail to attend to, Temple."

"My lord?"

Did the boy perpetually wear that puzzled look?

"You will write to each of my stewards asking if I've a fallen tree on any of my land suitable for the Yule log. Ask, too, about greenery for the mantles, picture frames and stairway banisters. All must be arranged and hung by St. Thomas's Day."

Temple made note.

"All to be taken down the day following the ball."

"You do not wish to leave it up until Twelfth Day, my lord?" Temple's voice shot high.

Baxter sighed. Temple's father had never needed to be told anything twice. Indeed, he had proved at times, a mind reader. "I do not care for the look--the smell of half dead things--cluttering up the place, shedding berries and leaves."

Half-dead things. The phrase resounded. Had old Temple been a half-dead man and he not keen eyed enough to notice?

"Woodrow?" he called impatiently.

"Aye, my lord?" Woodrow sounded almost as if he sat beside them in the coach instead of on the box above.

"There is, I trust, good reason why we do not move?" Baxter suggested caustically.

"Indeed, my lord," Woodrow agreed.

"That reason being?"

"I've no desire to run down a pretty woman, my lord."

"You are a man of honor, Woodrow." Sarcasm laced Baxter's voice. "This woman? She blocks our way?"

"'Deed sir."

Through the trap filtered a woman's voice, of a Southern counties dialect, calling blithely, "And a good morning to you, Mr. Twee. How kind of you to assist."

A metallic clacking sound accompanied the voice.

"But of course," Baxter sighed heavily, peeved. "Her!"

"Her, my lord?" Temple leaned forward to peer out of the window.

"And her Grandmother. And Twee, the old doddard. Invariably in my way whenever I am in a hurry."

The "her" in question warned, "Watch the back wheel, Mr. Twee. It has a mind of its own."

"Hold on. Hold on!" Twee shouted. "She's veerin' to starboard."

Baxter flung away his lap blanket. Confound the woman! "Why will they venture out?" he demanded of no one, kicking aside the hot bricks at his feet. "None but the chit to propel her." His hand found the doorlatch. "Blasted Merlin chair's anything but magical. It's a wonder how she manages to move the thing at all."

He wrenched at the doorhandle.

"May I assist, my lord?" Temple offered gamely, too late. Baxter had already flung himself out. The wind slammed the door behind him.

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