Elisabeth Fairchild
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from the anthology "A Regency Christmas"

by Elisabeth Fairchild

Signet Books
ISBN #0-451-19735-6
December 1998

Felicity's Forfeit

Legs pumping, blood burning, cheeks stinging with the cold, Bingham Kirby, fifth viscount of Westbrook Hall, drew his coat close, shoulder capes billowing in the wind. Before his eyes flashed a blur of dark, leafless trees. Beneath the blades of his skates glittering ice crystals spewed.

Forfeit the wind seemed to whisper. All is forfeit.

It was late November, the weather unseasonably cold, snow on the ground, ice on the pond, Christmas plans to be laid and no Holiday spirit in Bingham.

How to generate anticipation for a Season of giving when so much was soon to be taken from him? The loom of loss, the threat of debts, the weight of responsibilities proved too much for him. He could not see his way clear.

The day was appropriately clouded, the sky too grey. The trees along the pond's banks clutched close a shroud of fog. The ice beneath his feet, too, was clouded, its sheen marred by evidence of his own passage--cut up--like his direction. Where to turn? What to do? Whom to rely on?

For the moment he knew only that he must avoid the dark patch of thin ice at the pond's center. His feet carried him, like his thoughts, in fast, endless, hissing circles.

So focused were his thoughts, so fast his circuitous race to escape the inescapable, he almost ran them down, four who braved the day's icy pinch. The vicar's daughters, apple-cheeked and round as robins, bundled in thick layers of tatty brown wool. They spilled onto the ice directly in his path, scattered, laughing, cheerful, halooing "Good day!" in every way contrary to his mood and direction.

"A cold day," he called to them, unwilling to deem it good.

What had they to laugh about so blithely? The Pendletons were of meager means, as thin of purse as his own was soon to be.

They were young women almost of an age with him. He knew them but little, remembered them as his sister's pig-tailed playmates, one possessed of a beaky nose, another an overbite, the third a mass of freckles. He stood up with them on occasion at the odd holiday dance. There was a fourth female with them today. She wore a red cape. He did not recognize her.

Small surprise. He had been away from Westbrook most of his adult life. First to school, then to college, and finally in his three year Grand Tour of Europe. And in all that time his father had never hinted at the true state of their affairs, had never once suggested he curtail his spending, or concentrate on making Westbrook economically sound. Circles--he skated circles, faster and faster, pulse pounding, no closer to answers.

Like the arthritic limbed trees that flashed darkly before him his father now lived in a state of fog, his mind slipping, glassy as virgin ice. It was rare that the old man's reason sharply surfaced and he spoke for a moment or two with a lucidity that left them all aching in the grim inevitability of its slipping away again.

The Pendletons, he whipped past again--their names remembered--hopeful names in this moment when he felt the loss of all hope--Faith, Comfort and Charity they were--giggling and calling to one another, their cheer a rasp on raw nerves.

Perhaps there was a joy in never knowing what it was one did not have, a joy equal to the misery found in loss. Grief would soon be his--and want. He balanced bleakly on the thin blade of anticipation. How to survive? How to provide for his sisters?

The Pendleton's offered no answers, only laughter. The sound skittered callously across the frozen pond.

The fourth among their number evidenced little acquaintance with the ice. They showed her how to don skates. Arm in arm, they helped her as she slipped, slid and careened, red cape flapping, directionless and laughing in her first windmill-armed, stiff-legged attempts to master the ice.

They got in his way, together went down in laughing heaps, getting themselves up, only to fall down again--ungainly and giggling--bonnets bobbing.

He ignored them after the first shouted exchange. They seemed too interested in their own dearly bought progress to pay him much mind.

Around and around he went, head down, faster and faster, his mind on bills to be paid, repairs long overdue on the hall, his sisters latest requests for new clothes and a Yuletide house party.

Money. He needed money, scads of money, a thick, substantive wad of soft to lift him from the icy waters of impending penury. He considered what to sell. Horses, vehicles, jewelry, art. The flocks? The land? How much land would it take? And without the sheep, the land, whence came an income? They had always depended on fleece, rents and investmens to keep them afloat.

His progress a racing whispered hiss, his skates cut and recut the same track in the ice, the tips of his ears and nose gone numb with the cold, almost as numb as his mind with fear of the future. He was a gentleman well-educated and well-traveled, but had little to recommend him in the way of marketable skill. Without political prowess, not called to the cloth, in no way a fighting man, he might discourse at length about most subjects while being master of none.

The awkward, solo progress of the newest of the skaters dragged his attention away from his troubles. Clumsy as a wooden doll, she took off without the assistance of the others. They scattered like sparrows from a hedgerow when she waved them away. He might not have paid her mind even then, but her clumsy progress took her closer and closer to the center of the pond.

Down she went. He skated toward her, his movements smooth, loose, assured. "Need help?"

She waved him away, head bent to the task of standing, single-mindedly intent on doing it herself.

A muffled, "No, thank you," emerged from the woolen scarf about her neck.

He left her to it, no more than a brief meeting of their eyes as up she rose, stalwart, indomitable, clumsy but unvanquished.

A gliding step or two and down she slid, her movements uncontrolled, awkward, ineptitude inching her ever closer to danger.

Bingham pivoted as he skated away from her, his progress more backward than forward, that he might watch her direction. It worried him.

Red cape aflutter, petticoat revealed, limbs asplay, she laughed, unaware of peril except to her knees in falling. She studied briefly a tear in her stocking, brushed powdered ice from her skirt as she set off, a little more gracefully, managing a short stretch of choppy movement before down she plonked, this time with a cracking noise that alarmed Bingham into instant action.

From his throat he dragged the long, hunter's green muffler, skates carrying him as swiftly as legs could move. She struggled once more to rise.

"Don't move!" he called, unnerved by an ominous creaking noise beneath his skates.

From the far side of the pond came a distant shriek, "Felicity!"

As if she did not hear, one mittened hand planted firmly on the ice, she struggled with her skirts, skates scrabbling for a foothold. "Oh de-ah!" Her accent, the tone of her voice was strange. "The ass is very wet here."

Ass? Good God! Ice! Surely she meant ice?

"Damn it, woman, do not move!" he shouted.

Again, beneath him, the ominous creaking.

Here were eyes, bright as a summer's day, robin's egg blue, a blue that spoke of spring and balmy breezes, a blue made brighter still by the cold scalded scarlet of nose and cheeks.

She was not one of the Pendletons, who raced from the far side of the pond. Her cherry nose was neither Roman nor freckled, her even, white teeth suffered no overbite, and yet she bore resemblance. The hair beneath the brim of her bonnet, was the same mahogonied brown, of the same thick, curling texture, her brow equally deep, her chin identically cleft.

"The ice," he said irritably, his own troubled thoughts coloring the words. "Could you not see it is thin there?"

The blue eyes widened, gaze dropping first to study the ice, rising terror stricken to lock on his.

"You are tawlking to a greenhorn, mistuh," she said faintly, her voice startling--slow and sweet, softly blurred, warm enough to thaw ice. This sing-song cadence was completely unfamiliar to him. An unexpected puzzle.

"Ah am open to suggestion."

Her drawl was sultry. American. She was American. No Englishwoman of unsullied reputation would put words together with such languid heat, such suggestion, without blushing.

He blurted gruffly. "Do not attempt to stand! Your weight is more evenly distributed if you remain as you are. Hold fast. I shall drag you free."

His muffler. He tossed an end to her. She stretched gingerly to take hold.

The ice, in wet silence, gave way as she grasped it fast. Shrieks again, from the Pendletons, closer now as she fell, half in and half out of icy water. He dared not look away. Terror tightened the American's jaw, but she did not squawk or struggle or scream, merely said to him conversationally, mittened hands clenching green wool as the blade of her doused skate splashed up onto thin ice, boot, ankle, and knee dark with the wet.

"I depend upon you, suh, nawt to let go."

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