Under a Christmas Sky

Under a Christmas Sky

by Sharon Sobel

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611948479
Publisher: BelleBooks
Publication date: 12/08/2017
Pages: 156
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

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CHAPTER 1

LORD WILLEM WAKEFIELD wondered why anyone in his right mind would wish to leave a tropical island in the middle of the bright blue Indian Ocean to endure an English winter. True, the island of Java was in near ruin as a result of the eruption of Tambora a year and a half before. And the amount of debris thrown up by that volcano had created a cloud so vast and thick, it was near impossible to find a clean surface, even within one's own home. But linen was infinitely more comfortable on one's flesh than thick Scottish woolens, and daily life was a far more casual affair than he could expect in England, even at the home of one of his oldest friends.

And yet, it was precisely because he was well-regarded as being in his right mind, and having a very fine one, that he was asked to depart from that exotic, warm island on a diplomatic mission many months before. Now, he not only had to negotiate with men who might not be amiable to his suit, but had to negotiate his journey through the unrelenting snow that had buried England and the Netherlands since October. This too arrived from Java, for Tambora's great volcanic cloud spread over much of the globe, influencing temperatures and causing great irregularities for fauna and flora. No one still living could recall anything quite like it.

But people persisted in their habits, no matter the climate, and Christmas festivities were not to be denied.

He would have been perfectly content to remain in his warm home on Edgware Road and raise a glass of rum to the portraits of his Wakefield ancestors over the mantle. After all, he had already survived several years without a Christmas, much as his family and friends had endured this year without a summer. The holiday was barely noted in the Dutch East Indies, except by those emissaries from Europe determined to replicate the traditions they had always known. And in London and The Hague, people spent the cold and dark days of July and August alternating complaints with measures of pride at their own hardiness. But life did go on.

Will circled the fingers on his left hand on the carved ring he wore on his right, noting that it fit loosely in the cold air. He pulled on his gloves to hold it in place. Yes, life did go on.

As did his tenacious driver. The snow must be brutally assaulting any man who rode aloft and into the wind, but Milton was a stubborn fool.

Geoff Howard, his old friend, was just as stubborn, but had the advantage of not having to travel at all this season. Lord and Lady Howard were determined to end the year with a Christmas gathering, to celebrate their endurance through this cold and sunless year and to introduce their new heir, born on a frosty morning in early September. But for Geoff and Will, and a few others, there was business to be done, best accomplished far from the clubs of London or in the dark halls of the Ridderzaal in Holland.

Some of that business concerned Lt. Governor Thomas Raffles's expected elevation to the knighthood, and the various means by which the process could be hastened. Raffles was quite capable of achieving his own ends, but it was not expedient for an official of the British government to abandon his devastated colony while its people were still recovering from injury and assessing their losses. Therefore, Raffles asked Will if he would precede him to London and campaign on his behalf. Will, who lived all his life in diplomatic circles, now knew enough of tragedy and despair that went well beyond the marble halls where the fate of individuals was often discussed and decided. He, himself, experienced great loss in the great eruption of Tambora. It was time to return to Europe.

And so he seized both the opportunity and the large manuscript Raffles presented to him, believing that having a purpose and mission would cure him of his current despair. Though Raffles's manuscript proved to be a weighty travel companion, as it was the man's memoir of his heroic deeds in the days and months since that devastating morning a year and a half ago, it would soon be out of Will's hands. He'd promised to present it to Princess Charlotte as a gift from a loyal servant of the Crown, with the hope that the generous lady would urge her father to reward Thomas Raffles with the knighthood he very much desired.

Will knew that the princess would be a guest at the Christmas party at Seabury, which provided an excellent opportunity to make the presentation, for all men and women of influence were likely to be most generous — and perhaps not entirely sober — during the holiday and at the start of a New Year.

The task should not prove difficult, as a man who was Lt. Governor of an English colony was not without his own influential connections. Raffles considered himself a confidante of the princess, who already promised to speak to her father on his behalf. He wisely dedicated his memoirs to her, though apparently cautioned that she might be fearful to read his vivid descriptions of molten lava raining down upon villages and their inhabitants.

Will thought the princess was made of sterner stuff than that.

But he had another mission in sight, of greater consequence than the vanity of one man, no matter how deserving. In the days immediately following Tambora's angry eruption, it appeared another one of his countrymen had taken advantage of the confusion to steal away many of Java's historical treasures, the legacy of the people who had lived very rich lives before the Dutch and the English started to contest their rights to the island. Lord Nicholas Hawkely was one of Will's oldest friends, a relationship made even stronger during the time Will sailed to Java on the Renown, Nick's own ship. Will thought him an excellent companion and an honorable man. And Thomas Raffles trusted Nick with the treasures he himself acquired during his tenure as Lt. Governor. Will saw no reason to dispute that.

Until the Renown arrived in London without the contents of those carefully packed and catalogued shipped containers.

Nick had remained elusive while the investigation was in progress, but Will had received word from Geoff Howard, the master of Seabury, and host of the season's festivities, that the man would attend his Christmas party.

Will closed his eyes, reflecting on the great journey he had already undertaken, and how complicated were the roads to his destination. In this, he was not just thinking metaphorically, for rarely had he endured such arduous travel, not even in the midst of a typhoon.

But he did not doubt they would reach Seabury, Geoff's fine estate near Rye, and in good time. He had little reason to doubt it and even less power to do anything about it.

As the coach was jostled back and forth by the storm, Will gave up trying to read the essays written in Raffles's tight hand and stared out the window. He had lived most of his life in the Netherlands and was well accustomed to the sound of snow mixed with ice. As a child, he delighted in the sound, for it meant that the canals in The Hague would freeze over and he could skate his way around the city.

But this snow was different, a nasty mix of frozen material and the debris of volcanic ash, scratching angrily at the windows. He thought of the horses and his driver, undoubtedly traveling blind on a road no longer distinguished from the fields through which they passed. Will sent up a brief prayer that they would soon arrive at their destination, preferably without crashing right into it.

As if his Maker had nothing better to do than concern Himself with the concerns of one suppliant, the coach came to a lumbering halt. Surprised but nevertheless pleased, Will glanced out one side of the coach and then the other, hoping to see the welcoming lights of the posting inn. There was nothing visible but the stark branches of nearby trees, rising eerily against the last strains of twilight.

Perhaps they were lost. Or the wheels could no longer trample through the snow and were stuck in a drift. The horses might have refused to take another step. Perhaps the driver had become blind in the storm and fallen off the seat.

No indeed, the driver was at the door, banging on the wood as if to wake the dead.

"The door is frozen, my lord," Milton shouted. "Push out, if you can."

Surely the man did not think him so utterly helpless he could not open a carriage door. On the other hand, Will briefly reflected on his first thoughts when the coach stopped and realized that the past year in Java had made him see disaster at every turn. Perhaps he would be stuck in the carriage all night.

He dismissed the cowardly thought as unworthy of him, and threw his shoulder against the finely polished wood.

They would persist, even though he might have just broken his collarbone.

"Well done, my lord! You're almost out!"

With renewed hope, Will shifted to the facing seat and hit the door with his other shoulder. In this, he succeeded, for he fell out on his companion, landing them both into the snow.

"Did I hurt you, Milton?"

Surprisingly, the man laughed. "Fear not, my lord. I'm nearly frozen and can't feel a thing."

Will rolled over and squinted up to the sky. It was impossible to fully open his eyes, for fear of being blinded.

"Come within the coach for a few minutes, then, where you can warm yourself. The heating pan does not have much more to give off, but the space is well fitted and is tolerably warm," he said.

"Nothing ever sounded more inviting, but we will be at the inn sooner if we just forge ahead."

"I am ready to go whenever you, or the horses, feel ready to proceed," Will said, thinking ahead to a warm bed and a hot meal. "Why did we stop?"

Milton sat up and brushed snow off his shoulders.

"That is where I need your help, my lord," he said, and shook his head. "Someone else has passed this way and was not as lucky."

He rose awkwardly to his feet, slipping in his tracks, and held out his hand to Will. "I will get the lantern."

Will looked around, seeing nothing until Milton grabbed the bright metal box, burning all the brighter because of the darkness that surrounded them. Something rose up before them, not yet fully enveloped in the snow. They approached it cautiously.

"It is a fallen tree," Will guessed. "Perhaps we can make our way around it if we can dig a makeshift road."

"It is not a tree," Milton said with certainty. "It is a coach, nearly as large as this."

Will realized what he thought were branches were the spokes of the wheels, and the trunks were the heavy harnesses, poking up from the snow.

"The horses?" he asked.

"They were released," Milton said quickly. "See, there is the disturbance in the snow, and tracks. Perhaps the driver and occupants rode away, abandoning the coach."

"One could only hope so," Will said quietly, impressed with Milton's calm assessment of the situation, and happy to accept a solution to the mystery that allowed for a happy ending. God knows, he had witnessed enough misery lately. A wrecked carriage, struck down by harsh weather conditions, could have been more.

They stood in silence, listening to the rustling of the few leaves left on the trees, and the sound of the heavy snow hitting the still-exposed wood of the fallen vehicle.

And then, barely discernable, a cry came from the carriage. Will looked at Milton, wondering if he heard it, too. But the man said nothing as he seemed to contemplate their next step.

In the next moment, Will took his and he heard the sound again. Perhaps it was an animal, seeking shelter. But no animal he knew was capable of speaking English.

"Help me, Milton," he cried as he descended on the coach. "There's someone still inside."

Will climbed over a wheel and nearly stabbed himself on a broken spoke. A steady thumping sound guided him to a cracked window, and that gave him bearings of the site. He used his hands to dig until he found what he looked for, and as Milton held the lantern aloft, Will found the outline of a door, and then the handle to open it.

But only trap doors are made to open to the sky, and this one — like his own, ten minutes before — was frozen shut. Milton lowered the lantern to warm the wood as they hammered against it with their hands until they heard the gentle release of air that told them the door was freed. Standing with his legs secured against the sturdy railing, Will pulled the door open, and fell back onto the window with a broken handle still in his grip.

He saw her arms rise first from her frozen prison, slim and oddly graceful in their gesture. Will scrambled to his feet and stood above her as he grasped her ungloved hands. Even through the leather of his gloves, he could tell they were dangerously cold. With a sense of urgency, he pulled her up, as her caped head was followed by a small form wrapped in a plaid blanket, by the drapery of a wool gown, by boots too elegant to get far in these rough conditions. He lifted her until her pale face was even to his, and then he gently lowered her onto the side of the coach.

No sooner did her feet touch the slippery wood than she cried out again, and fell against him. He caught her in her bundle of garments and jumped to the ground, thinking it nothing short of a miracle they did not slide down the embankment.

But Milton caught them before they were in any danger. "Well done, my lord!" he applauded him. "Is the woman still with us?"

Will looked down at her still face, catching a glimpse of a reddened cheek and dark hair. She was indeed a woman, and a very beautiful one. She also looked like someone he had once met before, though he could not place her. "She does not appear to be sensible at the moment, but one can hardly fault her for that. She must be near to death."

Milton pushed them a little desperately toward their own coach, where the horses patiently watched the whole show. "Get her in the coach. I'll shovel and cut close to the embankment, and we'll be on our way. Perhaps her people await her at the inn."

Will did not think so, but he was not of a mind to argue the point with Milton, or offer to help with the task of clearing the road. Her people apparently cared so little for her, they did not take her with them, or return to see if she lived or died. She appeared to be a woman who mattered to no one, like the thousands of others who were victims of the catastrophe on Java.

He had not been able to save those others, or alleviate their misery. But he could save this one. And suddenly that mattered a great deal.

Stomping away from Milton, each to their own anxious concerns, Will maneuvered his way to the coach, propping the woman's limp body awkwardly against its side as he struggled to open the door. Bracing it open against the wind and driving snow, he pushed her into the coach with only somewhat more care than he would a rolled-up rug, managing the business with more strength than grace. Once she was within, he scrambled over her, and pulled her onto the seat he recently vacated, hoping it might still be warm.

It was not.

She hadn't moved. He feared they were too late, that she had used her last bit of strength to call them to her, and that was all she had. Feeling defeated, Will sat down heavily on the opposite seat and pulled off his gloves, along with his ring. Then came his coat, now made heavier by the snow. Beneath it, his jacket was dry and surprisingly warm. He could only hope that the woman's garments had served her as well.

He contemplated her still form, buried beneath layers of cloth, and realized there was only one way to find out. Therein was the challenge; he knew something about undressing women and removing languid arms and legs from tangled blankets and clothing. But they had all been willing partners, and very much alive. He was not so sure about his Lady Frost.

The coach rocked from one side to the other as Milton resumed his place. Two knocks of the whip's handle against the wood was answered by Will's own signal, and so they were once again on their way through the treacherous snow.

As he studied his companion, the bundle of blankets shifted and started to slip off the seat, as snow might fall off a gabled roof.

Will moved quickly to catch her, and then set her down beside him as he reclaimed his own seat. He reached across her still body to pull together a pile of velvet pillows, allowing her to slump against them. He thought she sighed, very softly, and took some hope in that. But that was his only cause for hope as he started to unfold her from her voluminous blankets and heavy cape.

Her garments were dry but as cold as the cloths he might find in the Wakefield winter lodge before he lit a fire in the hearth. There, he would pile the bedclothes on the warming racks and busy himself about the property until he could breathe in warm air to comfort his chilled body, and bury his hands in the heated blankets.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Under a Christmas Sky"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Sharon Sobel.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
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