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December 23, 1890, 4:30p.m.
"Pushy know-it-alls, those Christmas spirits," Claire Halliday said tartly as she and her friends rose from the tea table at the rear of the book shop. "I feel sorry for Scrooge. I mean, the man was as miserable as he was mean-spirited. His life was as cold as a well-digger's ankleinside and out. And they came along and practically scared him to death."
"I believe that was the point," Fiona, the shop's proprietress, said with a wry smile. "His life was so barren and desolate that the usual channels of change wouldn't work. It took something supernatural to shake him out of his rut."
"Hmm," Claire said with a look of exaggerated cunning, "I wonder how one would go about suggesting people to receive such visits."
That drew laughter from Lady Adelaide Kendall and Fiona MacPherson. The women had been meeting in Fiona's shop for tea and book discussions long enough for the others to know Claire's circumstances.
"No wassail or Yule log at the Mayhew house, I'm guessing," Adelaide said as they donned their coats.
Claire paused in the middle of fastening her coat buttons. "Stephen died four years ago last week. Every year at this time, it's like it happens all over again. Mother Mayhew weeps and haunts the drawing room like a wraith. Uncle Abner stays late at the factory and comes home potted and morose. Aunt Eloise drags out the black yarn and crochets more mourning accessories. Cousin Halbert locks himself in his workshop and Cousin Tillie plays the most god-awful dirges on the spinet."
"Sounds dreadful." Adelaide radiated sympathy. "And you?" Fiona asked, frowning. "What do you do?"
Claire shook off a somber thought and lifted the brown-paper-wrapped package of books she had just purchased from Fiona.
"I closet myself in my room and read. Thank heaven you were able to find the books I wanted, Fiona. Hot cocoa and a good bookI'll be all right. Christmas lasts only a few days. Perhaps on Boxing Day I'll go to the factory and do some cleaning and organizing in Uncle Abner's office."
"Cleaning? Good Lordtell me you're not that desperate," Fiona said in mock horror, looking around at the dusty edges of her shop. "Let me lend you a cat for a few days or something."
They laughed and hugged and several minutes later Claire was out on the pavement, coat collar raised and chin tucked against the wind, striding toward the omnibus stand. The weather was changing fast; the light rain was thickening and becoming clingytrue sleet. Perfect, she thought, with a scowl at the leaden sky; it matched her dismal expectations for the evening ahead.
Hugging her package tightly, she struggled to hold on to the warmth of the afternoon's camaraderie and not allow the deepening chill to invade. But by the time she reached the omnibus that would take her all the way to Breton Cross, a village at the very edge of London, she was already cold. The walk from the final stop to her home would probably chill her to the bone.
The word home stuck in her mind as she climbed into the vehicle, paid her fare, and took a seat. Her home wasn't really hers, it was the Mayhews'. The house, the fortune andshe hated to admitthe grief were more rightly theirs than hers. An orphan from a good family with whom the Mayhews had often done business, she had been taken in at the age of twelve by them and had been grafted into the Mayhew family tree by virtue of her impending marriage to the family scion, Stephen.
Then Stephen died in a carriage accident, just days before their Christmas wedding four years ago, and the Mayhews insisted she stay on with them. She was family, they said. "Our dear Stephen's poor bride."
But she wasn't really a bride, or a widow or any longer a young girl with a head full of dreams. She was something uncomfortably outside all of those, stuck in an ambiguous nether-land between maid and woman, bride and wife, spinster and widow. She had adored Stephen, but after four long years, she was beginning to forget his broad, pleasant face and the sound of his calm, steady voice. Was that because her heart was going numb from these annual resurrections of pain or because she was finally getting past the tragedy?
The omnibus route took them past the cemetery at St John's Church where Stephen had been laid to rest, and for the first time in four long years, she didn't turn away from the sight. The stately, barren trees and forest of stones and monuments no longer tugged at her heart or caused a constriction in her throat. It was simply a quiet, hallowed place that served as comfort to those who needed to remember. With equal measures of relief and regret, she realized that she no longer needed that comfort.
What she needed was a life of her own, one not borrowed or dependent on someone else's family traditions. It was time she took matters into her own hands and began to realize some of the dreams that had made her life bearable these past four years. She looked down at the wrapped package on her lap and ran a gloved hand over the outlines of the books it contained. She wanted to travel and see some of the wonders she'd read about taste the world's different foods, hear the music of other languages and see sunsets untainted by London fog and chimney smoke. And perhaps somewhere in her wanderings she might meet a tall, dark stranger who could make her feel excitement and hope and a sense of intimate connection once again.
It was growing dark by the time she reached Mayhew House, which was nestled in an enclave of sizeable homes built with gardens in the front. A brick-and-wrought-iron fence surrounded the entry garden and rose to a wide arch over the front walkway. The golden glow coming from the windows and the elegant approach spoke of comfort and the trappings of a pleasant life. Unfortunately, behind those impressive black lacquered doors, life was anything but comfortable just now.
Claire paused under the gate arch, looking at the doors, half expecting mourning wreaths would have reappeared in her absence. Inhaling the icy air, bracing for the gloom that was about to descend, she headed for the doors.
"Here she is!" Mother Mayhew's penetrating voice rang out over a large pile of boxes and crates stacked in the entry hall. "Claire is home!"
Claire halted just inside the door, staring at imposing Mother Mayhew's muslin mobcap and dirt-streaked apron. From behind the stack of dusty boxes, Cousin Tillie's birdlike form appeared, swathed in similar protection. Ample, pink-faced Aunt Eloise bustled out of the dining room, wearing an apron and dust guards over her sleeves. Dust was a long-standing Mayhew obsession.
"What is all of this?" Claire asked as they rushed to close the door behind her and draw her into the warmth.
"Look at youyou're half frozen." Mother Mayhew brushed at the moisture on Claire's shoulders and felt her cold cheeks. "You insisted on going out to that 'book group' of yours in the worst possible weather. Let us get you out of those wet clothes before you come down with pneumonia!"
As they divested her of her package and coatwhich, in truth, was damp and coldshe returned to her question.
"What is in all the boxes? Where did they come from?"
"The attic and cellars," Uncle Abner called from the stairs as he descended with another sizeable pasteboard box that was yellowed with age and covered in dust. For the first time in years, he smiled, softening his long, somber face. "Storage, don't you know. Got things tucked all over."
She scowled, trying to make sense of that non-answer, and Mother Mayhew took her by the hand and pulled her into the drawing room, where the remnants of afternoon tea waited. As Claire settled on a chair near the fire, Aunt Eloise pulled Claire's gloves from her hands and Cousin Tillie threw a crocheted coverlet around her, tucking it in as if she were a child. Cousin Tillie had unfulfilled "mothering" impulses.
"Have some tea, dear, to warm you up." Mother Mayhew felt the side of the silver teapot and, judging it to be acceptable, poured Claire a cup. As Claire sipped and wrapped her cold fingers around the delicate china, Mother Mayhew, Aunt Eloise and Cousin Tillie jammed themselves into the settee across from her, leaving Uncle Abner to perch on its arm. Claire closed her eyes for a second to savor the warmth and opened them a moment later to four faces staring intently at her.
"What is it?" She braced herself. "Has something happened?"
Three of them answered all at once:
"We've had a bit of news."
"We're going to have a Christmas."
"We're about to receive a guest."
She gaped at them, unable to merge three separate trains of thought into one coherent picture. Mother Mayhew scooted forward on her seat, taking the lead.
"You recall Cousin Ralph Hutton posted in India?" she asked.
"Of course I remember," Claire responded, looking from face to face. How could she forget? With every letter or package from their estimable cousin-twice-removed, the Mayhews had launched into a recitation of the man's virtues. Cousin Ralph was clever with figures and finance, was born with ledger ink running in his veins. Cousin Ralph could walk around the block with a penny and come back with a pound. Cousin Ralph was as solid as the Bank of England and as sensible as woolen socks. Cousin Ralph was loyal, dutiful, trustworthy and diligentwhich, Claire had always thought to herself, made him sound suspiciously like a sheepdog.
But, however virtuous Cousin Ralph might be, his writing was nothing short of snore-worthy. The half-dozen letters that had sent the Mayhews into raptures had all the charm of a counting-house ledger sheet. Then there were the things he sent. The strange statues and carvings, she learned after some research, were objects of reverence and worship in India and the Far East. Idols, actually. Odd things indeed to send a clutch of aging English gentlefolk mired hopelessly in grief.
Worse yet, it didn't take a mind reader to see that the Mayhews sang his praises in her direction. She didn't want to think about the implications of that.
"We had a letter this morning," Uncle Abner said with more zest than Claire had seen him display in years. "It seems he left the Merchant-Holmes Company a month back. Resigned. He's on his way home to England."
"To us," Mother Mayhew added, touching her heart, clearly transported.
"To this very house," Cousin Tillie added as if she hardly dared hope.
"Arriving Christmas Eve." Aunt Eloise always injected a practical note.
Claire glanced through the open drawing-room doors to the crates and boxes piled in the hallway. Cousin Ralph's announcement that he was coming to visit had somehow snapped them out of their grief and persuaded them to rejoin the rest of the human raceall in the space of a day? As a miracle, it ranked right up there with the parting of the Red Sea!
"How.. wonderful," she said, stuffing a tea biscuit into her mouth to keep from saying anything that might dampen their enthusiasm.
"I never thought to see such a happy day again." Mother Mayhew's gaze fixed on some fair and distant vision. "Our dear Ralph is coming home."
"And at Christmas," Cousin Tillie said, dabbing her eyes.
"By George," Uncle Abner said, punctuating his determination with the swoop of a fist, "we must give the boy a proper welcome."
"All those years away from home, stuck in that awful foreign place, surrounded by heathens." Aunt Eloise's mouth pursed with righteous fervor. "Our dear Ralph deserves a proper English holiday."
And just like that, the house was plunged into producing the most idyllic "English" Christmas possible. The kitchen was set to cooking mincemeat tarts, sugary biscuits and sticky pudding, and the housemaids were ordered to freshen Stephen's old room and see that the fireplaces and bathing rooms were given extra attention.
Uncle Abner hauled Cousin Halbert out of his workshop to assist, and they were soon opening boxes and unpacking festive decorations, serving ware and Christmas linens.
The cleaning, polishing and arranging seemed to go on forever. The grim, black antimacassars and table leg skirts had to be replaced by more cheerful white ones and space had to be made for the creche display. Then the drawing room had to be reconfigured to accommodate a Christmas tree although everyone seemed to have a different notion of where the tree and decorations always used to be. By midnight it seemed that the entire main level lay dismantled like a giant puzzle waiting to be reassembled.
Through it all came a renewed litany of Cousin Ralph's somber virtues, accompanied by not-so-subtle glances her way. It wasn't lost on Claire that "our dear Ralph" was now spoken of with the same reverence and affection as "our dear Stephen." But by the time she dragged herself up the stairs to her room that night, she was so tired that she no longer cared about their behavior.
She could have sworn she heard someone say her name in the upstairs hallway, but when she turned to look, she was alone. The dust from the crates and boxes must have wafted up the stairs, because at that moment she took a sneezing fit and hurried into her room to get away from it.
Later, as she lay nestled in her bed, she seemed to hear a faint whisper. Perhaps just a stray thought of her ownsomething about mistletoe
Periwinkle sat on the bed beside Claire, waiting for that magic moment when her charge's quiet mind stirred anew with dreams. She had tried before to search Claire's memories for someone who might serve as a True Love candidate, and had been frustrated by Claire's dearth of interest in men. Left to her own devices, she'd dream about ships and caravans and spice bazaars not a handsome sea captain or romantic sheik in the lot.
Hours later, Periwinkle sprawled on the floor with her back against a bedpost, feeling drained and dispirited. She had whispered to the dreaming Claire of Stephen and their sweet intimacies, hoping to pull some useful longing out of the pleasures of the past. All she got was a hazy, insubstantial figure who remained stubbornly distant in every scene she resurrected. Even the kisses Claire recalled seemed to have been stripped of passion and emotional weight. The poor girl was in worse condition than Periwinkle had realized; even in Claire's dreams her well of desire was bone dry!
In desperation, Periwinkle tried searching for memories of this "Ralph" who was coming to visit. There were only two or three, and in all of them Claire was quite young. Her glimpses of him had been so incidental that she couldn't actively recall him. He had left Oxford well before Stephen and had gone straight to a post in India.
Periwinkle sighed. What were the odds that he'd be tall, dark and charming enough to melt a frozen heart? Ralph. What kind of name was that for a True Love, anyway?