The PerfectChristmas Entanglement
London in winter was an odd place indeed.
For starters, most of the ton had retired to the country for the unfashionable months. The Season was over, and without the lure of friends and social occasions to keep people in town, they quickly abandoned the smelly, dirty London streets for the fresh, clean countryside.
Augusta envied them. London was an unpleasant place at the best of times. The streets were clogged with dirt, and bad smells floated through the air, impossible to escape even in the safety of a carriage. Smog hung over the streets, blocking out all but the clearest and brightest skies.
Now the long, cold trudge towards the dead of winter had begun, London had become grey. Grey skies, grey streets, grey rain. The last ball had been danced, the last piece of gossip had been shared, and the last supper eaten. The colour and music had faded out of the world, leaving Augusta behind, alone.
Not quite alone, of course. That was rather unfair to the rest of them.
The Duke and Duchess of Radford, Patrick and Dorothy, had stayed behind, of course. Timothy and his wife were still in town, too, although Augusta didn’t see them very often.
Patrick’s work had kept him in town when the Season ended, so he’d been forced to remain. Dorothy, of course, did not want to leave her husband, and so naturally, Augusta had stayed too. Their pleasant little country-seat, far away from the clamour and dirt of London, stayed shut up in the country for the time being.
Augusta had no reason to complain, however. She knew she was lucky. She was reminded of her good luck every time her carriage drove past beggars in the street, cold and wet and begging for coins. It made Augusta’s heart twist. She always insisted on giving them whatever money she had available, even though Ambrose told her not to.
“They’ll just spend it on gin,” he chided almost every time. And almost every time, Augusta smiled and said that she doubted it.
It was more than a little embarrassing, actually. He always made the accusation loudly, usually well in earshot of whichever poor person was currently receiving Augusta’s charity.
There wasn’t much to dislike about Ambrose, but Augusta hated it whenever he did that. In fact, he always pressed his lips together and sighed heavily when she insisted on giving away her money.
As always, Augusta’s thoughts wandered when she thought about Ambrose. He was a good man, but not exactly an exciting one.
Well, what was wrong with that? Exciting men tended to make bad husbands, or so her mother kept telling her.
“Don’t fidget so much, miss,” Betsey chided gently. “You want your hair to be just so for your engagement party tonight, don’t you?”
Augusta smiled weakly. “You always do a marvellous job, Betsey. No need to fuss.”
Betsey clicked her tongue. “As if I’d let you go out looking less than perfect on tonight of all nights, miss! We’re nearly done, just hold still.”
It felt as though Augusta had been sitting in her dressing-table chair for hours. Her back ached, her neck twinged, and she was so bored. Betsey wouldn’t even allow her to read a book while her hair was being done because she tended to crane her neck downwards, she said. Augusta smiled at that, wondering whether other ladies would let their maids set such standards.
Not that Augusta minded, of course. Betsey was a skilled maid, and she’d waited on Augusta since she had come out of the schoolroom. At the age of twenty-one, Augusta was now a far cry from that schoolgirl, and she could pride herself on having her fair share of feminine beauty.
The fashion was for dark beauties at the moment—glossy black or deep-brown hair, flashing onyx eyes, and dark brows. That made the fair beauties look pixie-like and ethereal in comparison.
Augusta fell somewhere in between. She had medium-brown hair, not dark enough to be a “dark” beauty, but not light enough to be pale and interesting. Her eyes were pale-brown, a colour most often compared to honey, and the whole picture was finished off by a spray of freckles on her nose. Plenty of the Season’s beauties—the Season’s Diamond included—were visibly horrified at even the notion of freckles, but Augusta had gotten used to hers. If she wanted them to fade, she’d use a parasol.
All in all, Augusta was happy enough with her looks not to think much about them. She was no competition to the Diamond and the other highly praised Belles, and that was quite all right. Why would she want to collect conquest after conquest as they did anyway?
This Season’s Diamond, a young lady by the name of Miss Rebecca White, was a dark beauty, and a fine one at that. She was beautiful and had a decent dowry to her name too. Men threw themselves at her feet, and she received dozens of offers of marriage.
That was all very nice, but Augusta couldn’t imagine why anyone—man or woman—would need so many hearts offered on a plate. When it came to conquests of love, you only needed one—the right one.
She couldn’t help but feel a little smug that Miss White had ended the Season still unmarried. By that time, Augusta had met Ambrose Finch, the Earl of Firnsdale, and their relationship was already progressing rapidly towards engagement. He was a good man, and Augusta saw no reason why she couldn’t be as happy with him as with anyone. Even if he wasn’t . . .
She would not allow herself to think that way. It had been five years, and Augusta told herself that she ought to grow up and move forward with her life. He wasn’t coming back. Even if he was, what good would it do her to wait? What would have changed by the time he returned?
“All done, miss!” Betsey said, standing back with a sigh of satisfaction. “You’re ready.”
Augusta eyed her reflection complacently. Her hair was long, almost waist-length, which made Betsey’s daily job of dressing her hair much harder. Augusta knew she ought to get it cut—most ladies favoured hair that ended at their mid-back—but she’d always liked her long, warm, silky curtain of hair. At the moment, it was piled neatly on top of her head in elaborate braids and curls, with one thick, long ringlet draping down her neck. Her dress was watered silk, a pretty lavender colour with expensive lace at the cuffs and neckline, and she’d chosen opals for her jewels.
“You’ve done a marvellous job, as always, Betsey. Thank you.”
Betsey beamed. “Enjoy your party, miss. Oh, and congratulations!”
Augusta smiled weakly. She’d been getting a lot of congratulations recently. Her writing desk was overflowing with notes and letters from friends in the country, congratulating her on her engagement, and scolding her for not getting engaged during the Season so they could attend her party.
As it was, Augusta’s engagement party would be a sorry affair. It was small, of course, and few of her friends would be in attendance. There were always a few members of the ton who stayed in London all year round—strange creatures that they were—and they would be there, of course, along with Patrick and Ambrose’s various business acquaintances. All of Augusta’s friends in the country had made their apologies, and she couldn’t really blame them. Who wanted to make an uncomfortable carriage journey of several laborious hours simply to attend an engagement party?
It wasn’t as if it was the wedding. Besides, in a day or two’s time, the family would finally, finally pack up to leave London behind and head to the countryside. Augusta was relieved. Christmastide was fast approaching, and she didn’t want to spend it in London. It wouldn’t feel the same. Even the snow would feel dirty.
It would probably look dirty, too. People still threw their rubbish and waste out of their windows, not caring who it landed upon in the streets. The richer areas of London, where the ton preferred to live, were kept a little cleaner by the street sweepers. But Augusta knew that the dirt and tide of human misery lay just beyond the hastily swept streets. Christmas was a time for giving, but there were just so many people who needed help. It was overwhelming at times.
Ambrose would tell me not to worry so much. He’d tell me they are poor for a reason. He never tells me what reason, though. I wonder if he even knows.
She paused in front of the full-length hallway mirror on her way to the ballroom, checking over her appearance one last time.
The truth was that Ambrose’s offer had come at the perfect time. This was her third Season, and it was getting a little embarrassing now. Augusta had received plenty of offers, but none that were deemed suitable.
No one she could see herself marrying, at least.
And, of course, none of them were you-know-who.
Augusta didn’t even let herself think his name anymore. He wasn’t coming back, so why waste time thinking about him? She’d already wasted her first Season and at least half of her second living in hope that he would return and sweep her off her feet.
She was relieved to be a more realistic, practical sort of person these days.
The door to the ballroom opened, and Dorothy popped her head out.
“I thought I heard footsteps. There you are, Darling! We were just about to send out a search party. You look lovely, by the way.”
Augusta smiled. “Thank you, Mama. Is everyone here?”
“More or less.”
Dorothy was one of those unfortunate women who had gone grey early on in their youth. Augusta couldn’t remember a time when her mother didn’t have iron-grey hair. She was still a handsome woman, with the oval face and high cheekbones she’d bequeathed to her son and daughter, and the ice-blue eyes Timothy had inherited, and which Augusta had always envied.
“I suppose I’d better go in,” Augusta said, drawing in a breath. Now the moment had arrived, she felt nervous. This was it—her official outing to the world, the announcement that Lady Augusta and Lord Firnsdale were engaged, and planning their nuptial trip down the church aisle.
Was it normal to feel nervous? Surely, it was.
Dorothy smiled at her daughter and held out her hand.
“Come on, we’ll go in together.”
It was a modest party. Pleasant, warm, and well-catered, with polite if unimpressive guests. Augusta mingled, as was expected of her, answering polite, frequently asked questions. She wondered, not for the first time, if she could write up some sort of card to hand to people when they asked the same questions over and over again.
Are you excited to be getting married?
Yes, I am. I think I’ll make a good wife.
I daresay you can’t wait to have children.
I am fond of children, yes. “Can’t wait” may be an overstatement, however. (She’d have to edit that last part out. Ladies weren’t permitted to look on motherhood with anything but doting, thrilled excitement.)
Will you miss your parents when you leave?
Yes, terribly. I am fond of my parents.
Are you quite rushed off your feet with wedding preparations?
Not particularly, Mama is handling most of the preparations. We haven’t even started on most of them.
Married by Christmas! How exciting!
Not quite. We’ll be married after Christmas, about a week after Epiphany. I’ll have one last Christmas with my family.
Augusta didn’t let her boredom show on her face. She answered query after query smoothly and calmly, every bit the mature and contented betrothed lady.
Still, it was a relief when the music started up. There were just a few couples planning to dance, and Augusta found herself missing the Season, when ballrooms would be crammed with couples, every lady’s dance card full of gentlemen’s names. Augusta wasn’t the finest dancer around, she knew, but she was good enough, and she enjoyed it.
There was really only one man she could dance with that night, though, and Augusta craned her neck to look out for him.
Ah, there he was. Augusta watched Ambrose push through the sparse crowds to greet her, wishing her heart would skip at the sight of him. But no, the beat of her stalwart heart continued as evenly as ever, entirely unmoved by the sight of her betrothed.
Oh, well. One couldn’t have everything.
Ambrose was around thirty years old, with a widowed mother who did not seem to like Augusta very much. He had straw-coloured hair and matching whiskers, and pale-blue eyes that seemed to have had the colour leeched out of them. He was of average height, with a genial, pleasant face. He wasn’t considered a very handsome man, but neither was he plain either.
“Good evening, my dear betrothed.” Ambrose made a flamboyant bow, and Augusta laughed, just as she was expected to. “You look lovely.”
“Thank you. And you look very dashing, Ambrose. That’s a pretty cravat pin.”
Ambrose fingered a ruby pin, a drop of blood-red nestled in the folds of his cravat.
“Thank you. A present to myself. Silly, I suppose.”
“Not at all. Are you going to dance, Ambrose?”
“I shall if you want to dance.”
Augusta raised an eyebrow. “It is our engagement party, after all.”
Ambrose laughed self-consciously. “That is an excellent point. The first dance is to be a waltz, I hear. Shall we stand up for that? I’m not sure I can manage more than a set or two, though. I’m rather tired today.”
Augusta nodded. “One dance will do.”
They moved to the dance floor together, and Augusta noticed with a twinge of embarrassment that everyone had been waiting for her and Ambrose to start the dancing. They took their positions, and the music began in earnest.
Ambrose wasn’t a natural dancer. He was stiff-backed and uncomfortable, and Augusta was sure he’d refuse to dance altogether once they were safely married. She told herself that she didn’t mind—a husband and wife didn’t have to agree on everything, did they? Dancing was a pastime—a popular one, true, but still just a pastime.
“I imagine you’re reluctant to leave London,” Ambrose commented a minute or two into the dance.
“Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t mind London, but once the glamour of the Season is gone, it’s a very drab, dull place.”
“Really? How differently we think. I enjoy London much more once all the garish ton have packed up and gone, leaving London to the true city-lovers. I shall stay in London all the time once we are married, I think. You can stay in the country if you like, of course, but naturally, I’d much rather you stayed with me.”
Augusta swallowed. “I’m sure I’ll get used to London.”
“Oh, you will! You’ll love it all year round, I’m sure. Although, when the Season ends, the card-tables are never quite so good. Not that it matters, of course. Oh, and I have something else to tell you. Bad news, I’m afraid.”
Augusta raised an eyebrow. “Bad news?”
“Yes. I know I was supposed to come with you to the country, but something has come up. Business, you know. Dull stuff. I’ll have to stay in London, I’m afraid.”
Augusta didn’t feel disappointed in the slightest. She wished she could feel disappointed.
“That’s all right, Ambrose. I understand.”
“I’m glad. You are very sensible, Augusta. I knew you wouldn’t throw a tantrum or sulk. You’re never ruffled—that’s one of the things I like about you.”
Augusta forced a smile. Yes, that was right. Sensible, unruffled old Augusta, who always maintains a degree of civility. You could disappoint her as much as you liked, and she’d never bat an eyelid.
Or perhaps it was that someone had disappointed her so badly once before, she’d never been able to get over it.
Rasbury Village, Just Outside London
The coach jolted over a particularly nasty pothole, shaking the whole structure and jerking Silas awake. He sat up, blinking groggy eyes and wincing at the pain in his neck and back. Sleeping in the coach had been a terrible idea. Truly horrendous. Part of Silas thought his sea voyage home from the Americas had been less uncomfortable than this trip from the dock to his parents’ house.
He missed his home. Not his parents’ home, where he was heading, but the little apartment he’d set up for himself while he studied. It was small and serviceable, but it certainly felt like home.
And, of course, there was the lovely English weather. He hadn’t missed that at all.
It was snowing, or something close to snowing. A soft, slushy sort of cold rain was falling and being churned up into filthy mud beneath the horses’ hooves and the coach wheels. It was icy cold even inside the carriage, no matter how tightly Silas pulled his shawl against him.
He was riding alone and had been for the past few stops. It was colder that way, but at least he didn’t have to deal with talkative passengers, most of whom smelled a little ripe. One old lady had smelled so unpleasant he would have sworn she was carrying manure in her basket. It had been a thorough relief when she had left, although the unpleasant scent had lingered for quite some time.
The Mitchell family had never been the wealthiest, and Silas knew it was high time to return home and help the failing family business. His father hadn’t asked him to do so, of course, but Silas could read between the lines. He would never have had the opportunity to educate himself in the Americas if it hadn’t been for a bequest in his grandfather’s will, so now was the time to make use of his good luck.
He leaned forward with a sigh, his breath crystallising and hanging in the air in front of him. Through the misty window, he could see Rasbury House in the distance, almost hidden by trees and hills. He’d known the Radford family very well once upon a time and hoped his parents had kept up the acquaintance.
Although, if Augusta had told them about the kiss he’d stolen from her on Christmas Eve five years ago, perhaps he wouldn’t be well received.
Silas sat back abruptly, not wanting to see Rasbury House anymore. He thought of Augusta every day, and often berated himself for being so selfish, so stupid as to kiss her like that. She had been sixteen, and he had been eighteen. She hadn’t even been out yet, and he’d had no idea his grandfather was about to die suddenly and leave him a priceless opportunity. He’d been planning an apology letter to Augusta when news of his grandfather’s sudden illness had arrived, and the whole family had rushed to be by the old man’s side. Then, the will had been read, and Silas was packed off to the Americas without ever returning to Rasbury Village, without ever seeing Augusta again.
Silas closed his eyes, seeing Augusta’s shocked face after he’d kissed her, one hand lifting to her lips, eyes wide as a startled rabbit’s. They’d had no time to say anything because the rest of the guests had come trudging out onto the terrace at that moment, keen to look up at the stars and toast the Christmas festivities.
Silas had retreated red-faced, and he hadn’t spoken to Augusta since. Was she still angry at him? Perhaps she’d completely forgotten the kiss. Either way, Silas wasn’t sure if he wanted to see her again or not. He hadn’t heard much about her since he’d left England and was too afraid to ask his brother and sister for information. Augusta would certainly be out, and possibly even married, by now.
The coach lurched to a halt.
“Rasbury Village,” the coachman announced, sounding bored.
Silas peered out of the window. The coachman had stopped on the edge of town, leaving Silas with an estimated mile-long walk to his home, through a fast-growing blanket of snow.
“Couldn’t you take me a bit closer?”
“No,” the coachman responded bluntly.
Silas sighed. This was it, then. He climbed stiffly out of the carriage, wincing as he straightened his cramped limbs, and the coachman tossed his case down to him, letting it thump into the snow. Silas shot the man a glare which the surly fellow didn’t seem to notice. He simply cracked the reins, and the coach rolled forward, scattering a spray of snow over Silas.
He hauled the case up onto his shoulder and started the final stretch of his homeward journey on foot.
The imaginatively named Mitchell Cottage was glowing with light and warmth. Silas, who was thoroughly chilled from his trek, was already dreaming of the delightful moment when he’d step over the threshold.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Helen Mitchell, his mother, saw him coming, and she threw open the door with such force that it dislodged some snow from the roof.
“Silas, there you are! Come in, come in! Supper is almost ready. Charles, look, Silas is home! Eliza, Colin, come and greet your brother!”
Silas stepped inside, setting down his heavy case with a sigh of relief. Five years had etched themselves harshly on his mother. There was more grey in her brown hair than before, and more wrinkles around her eyes and forehead. There was a line between her eyebrows that hadn’t been there when he went away.
Colin peeped out of the parlour door, eyeing his older brother.
Silas sucked in a breath. “Goodness, Colin, you’ve grown up.”
“Well, yes, Silas.” Colin retorted. “That’s what people do. I’m eighteen now, you know.”
Eighteen! That didn’t sit right with Silas. After all, Colin had been only thirteen when Silas had left, a gawky young man with ears too big for him and a habit of saying exactly what he thought. Colin was just as tall as Silas now, with the same blue-green eyes and poker-straight black hair. Somehow, he still looked young, and the idea of sending Colin overseas to the Americas, alone, made Silas feel sick.
How had his parents let him go?
“Silas, you’re home!” Eliza came next, racing out from the parlour in a flurry of brown curls and green satin, flinging her arms around Silas in a choking hug. “I missed you so much.”
Eliza is nineteen, Silas reminded himself. Not the schoolgirl I remember.
He wasn’t going to know how to treat his siblings. It would certainly feel strange.
Last, but certainly not least, Silas’ father appeared in the doorway. Charles Mitchell had changed the least of all, only filling out a little around his middle, and growing a few silver streaks in his dark hair.
“Silas, my boy!” Charles boomed. “Home at last. And just in time, too—Mrs Brigham is just setting out supper. Let’s eat, and Silas can fill us all in on his adventures.”
Adventures. Silas thought about it. Day after day, week after week, he’d spent closeted in libraries and poring over old books. He wondered if his family would consider that an adventure.
“Who was feeding you over in the Americas?” Helen demanded. “You look as thin as a rake.”
“No, he doesn’t. He looks fat as anything,” Colin commented. “Ouch! Mother, Eliza kicked me.”
“Hush, Children. Well, Silas?”
Silas pushed some more apple pie onto his fork. “Nobody, Mother. I fed myself. I had my own apartment, and I either made my own food or I paid for meals at a lodging house. I didn’t have much time to eat, really.”
Helen tutted. “You should always make time to eat. Well, Mrs Brigham is still with us, as you can see, so be sure to ask her for some of her old recipes. Remember how much you used to love her jam roly-poly?”
Silas grinned. “I don’t think I could ever forget.”
“We should have had jam roly-poly tonight. Shouldn’t we, Charles?”
“You never make my favourite puddings especially!” Colin complained.
“That is because you are a thorn in my side, Colin, and your sweet tooth will result in rotting teeth and a growing waistline if you are not careful. What other things would you like to eat, Silas?”
“I don’t mind.” Silas laughed. “I’m just glad to be home.”
“Was the journey terrifying?” Eliza asked eagerly. “Were there storms? Were you nearly wrecked? Were there pirates?”
“There were storms, yes, but we didn’t come close to being wrecked. But the storms were unpleasant enough. There wasn’t a whiff of pirates, I’m afraid.”
“Oh.” Eliza sighed. “That’s very disappointing.”
“What about all of you? Come on, it’s been five years. What have I missed? How are the orchards?”
Silas had asked light-heartedly, almost as a joke, but an odd sort of stillness came over the room. Even Colin didn’t seem to have a witty quip to make.
Then Eliza muttered something he couldn’t make out, and the lively conversation resumed. The silence had rattled Silas, however. Something was wrong, he knew it. He glanced from face to face, finally settling on his father’s. Charles’ expression was grim and set as he ploughed his way through his food determinedly. He’d never been one for chat at the dinner table, but surely his eldest son returning after a five-year absence warranted some talk, didn’t it? Something was on his mind, and Silas was beginning to feel worried.
The meal ended, and the family got up to move through to the drawing room.
“Stay a minute, Silas,” Charles said pleasantly. “The rest of you go on, we’ll join you in a moment. I want to have a word with my boy.”
Silas sat down again, and the rest of them filed out. The door closed, and silence descended.
“I’m glad to have you back, Son,” Charles said finally. “You’ve been missed here, very much. By all of us. Even Colin, although he pretends otherwise.”
Silas smiled weakly. “It feels strange to be back, but I’m so happy to see all of you. What’s wrong, Father?”
Charles chuckled dryly. “Nothing gets past you, does it?”
“It’s got something to do with the orchards, hasn’t it?” Silas leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. The Mitchell orchards had supported the family for years—generations, even. Silas had never thought much about them, except that one day he’d have to come home and tend them, to carry on the family business and continue earning a living. The Mitchells employed a lot of local workers and earned enough money and had enough status to merit invites from the ton. Most of them, anyway. The Radford family, for instance, had always seen fit to be friendly with the Mitchells.
And now something was wrong. Very wrong, judging by the new worry lines etched on his father’s face.
Charles sighed. “I didn’t intend to burden you with bad news so soon after your return. You’ve barely shaken the travel dust from your feet, for crying out loud.”
“Father, just tell me, please. I’ve been away long enough.”
“Very well. The truth is that our orchards are not doing well. I am concerned. We’ve . . . we’ve rather backed ourselves into a financial corner.”
Silas swallowed hard. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing good, as I’m sure you can imagine.” Charles leaned forward and picked up the decanter of port. He poured himself a generous measure, and after a moment’s hesitation, poured Silas one too.
That was a compliment which Silas treasured despite the worried tone of his father’s voice. Charles would never have offered eighteen-year-old Silas good port. Eighteen-year-old Silas would have swigged it instead of sipping it and wouldn’t have appreciated the aged alcohol in any case.
Silas took a sip.
Yes, he still didn’t like port. But that wasn’t the point. He kept his expression straight and appreciative, and carefully replaced the glass on the table.
“What are we going to do about it, Father?”
“Truthfully, I don’t know.” Charles raked a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture that Silas copied whenever he was anxious. “We can discuss it in detail tomorrow. I’m rather tired now, if you don’t mind, and I’d like to enjoy your company for one evening at least before we go plunging into business matters. It’s almost Christmastide, after all.”
“Yes, people keep reminding me of that. Father, why didn’t you tell me all this before? You and Mother wrote letter after letter, and so did Eliza and Colin, but nobody breathed a word of any of this. Why didn’t you say?”
“What exactly would you have done about it, Silas?”
“I would have come home immediately. I would have booked passage on the earliest ship sailing to England and returned to help you as best as I could.”
Charles chuckled. “And that is exactly why I didn’t tell you. I told the others not to tell you, too. You’re a clever boy, Silas. Your grandfather wanted you to study, and an opportunity like that wouldn’t have come again. I had no intention of letting you cut short your studies. And since I wasn’t going to allow you to come back, what would be the use of telling you? So you could worry about it, all the way over in the Americas? No, I think not.” Charles tipped back his head, drinking his port in one gulp, the way he’d always forbidden his children to do with their beverages.
“Well, I’m here now,” Silas said as firmly as he could. “I have my education behind me, and I’m here to help. We’ll get out of this corner, Father, I promise.”
“That’s my boy. You’re giving me confidence already. Now drink your port, don’t let it go to waste.”
Silas eyed the unappetizing ruby liquid and sighed.
Five Days Later, Rasbury Village
“What do you think, Augusta? White or green? I really can’t decide,” Dorothy mused, holding up two rolls of ribbons.
Augusta blinked, suddenly aware that she’d spent the last fifteen minutes letting her mind wander and not paying attention at all. She cleared her throat, hoping she’d looked wisely lost in thought and not like a slack-jawed idiot.
“Um . . . the green, I think. White will get dirty easily. People reuse these baskets, you know.”
Dorothy gave her daughter a pointed look. “Yes, Augusta, I do know. I’ve been making up the poor baskets since well before you were born.”
Augusta flushed. “Sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Dorothy tutted, patting Augusta’s shoulder. “You weren’t rude, my dear. I’m not a fool, you know. This is about Ambrose, isn’t it?”
Augusta stiffened. “What do you mean?”
Surely, Dorothy couldn’t know. Augusta had assured her parents that she felt strongly for Ambrose, and it wasn’t necessarily a lie, even though she’d known her parents meant love, or something close to it, and Augusta’s feelings toward Ambrose were . . . was tepid the right word?
Then Dorothy sighed, lifting a new roll of ribbon—purple this time—and inspecting it closely.
“It’s a pity he can’t be here with us, sure enough. Still, lots of businessmen end up being extra busy around Christmas. He’ll be here for the day itself, I’m sure. I remember how I used to feel when your father wasn’t around during the holidays. There’s nothing quite so miserable as being without your other half at Christmas.”
Oh, of course! She thinks I’m missing Ambrose.
She didn’t bother to correct her mother.
“Well, I’m sure concentrating on the poor baskets will help to cheer me up,” Augusta said lightly, and Dorothy chuckled.
Every year, the Radford family made up dozens upon dozens of baskets for the poor around Christmastide. The baskets themselves were sturdy and good quality, suitable for use after the holiday, and pleasantly decorated. They filled the baskets with food and goodies, a mixture of treats like pastries, sweetmeats, sugared fruits, and more practical groceries, like bread, flour, salted meats, and so on. The baskets would be delivered to the church on Boxing Day, whereupon the vicar would distribute the baskets to whomever he and his wife thought needed them most. In the months running up to Christmastide, he would make a rough calculation of which families were likely to need a Christmas basket from the Radfords and would ask the Duchess to make up the required amount. Then Dorothy and Augusta would make them up.
Augusta enjoyed the work. It kept them all busy, and she liked putting in extra treats and presents for the families to enjoy. Sometimes it was just a few pairs of mittens, or expensive sweetmeats, or tiny pieces of marzipan shaped like fruit, or something similar. She liked their tenants and enjoyed giving out some little extra surprises.
“Let’s have white, green, and purple,” Dorothy decided. “We can alternate colours.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea, Mama.”
They gathered up their rolls of ribbon and swathes of fabric they would use to decorate the handles of the baskets and headed to the counter to pay for their purchases.
“Your Grace! Lady Augusta! I thought it was you!”
They paused at the familiar voice, turning to smile at the lady who had hailed them.
It was Mrs Helen Mitchell, an old family friend. Augusta had many happy memories of Mrs Mitchell’s warm, cosy little house, and her rambunctious children.
The oldest of whom had stolen a kiss from Augusta, five whole years ago, and she’d never quite been able to forget it.
She should have been able to forget it quite easily since it had clearly meant nothing to him. Perhaps he’d had too much champagne and it had made him bold that evening. He’d left for the Americas only a week or two later, so she was quite certain the kiss had meant nothing at all.
Strangely enough, the idea was more upsetting than anything else. Because the sad truth was, the kiss had meant something to Augusta.
But that was her fault, not his. And, of course, she had no right to take it out on his poor mother. Mrs Mitchell was a lovely woman, and very kind.
So, Augusta pasted a polite smile on her face and turned to greet her.
“Helen, how lovely to see you!” Dorothy smiled. “And please, it’s just us—Dorothy will do quite nicely. I hate all this Your Grace nonsense.”
Mrs Mitchell chuckled. “Well, it’s good to see you. We’ve missed having your family around the Village at Christmastide. So much has changed!”
“Certainly. How is Eliza? And Colin?”
“Colin is tall and gawky now; you’d hardly recognise him. He’s got quite the sharp tongue, too—sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh at him or scold him!”
Dorothy laughed at that. “That reminds me of Timothy when he was young. And what about Eliza?”
“Oh, she’s so beautiful now. She’s here with me now, in fact. Eliza, darling, come over here!”
Augusta craned her neck to spot Eliza. All in all, they hadn’t gone back to Rasbury House for at least three years. Her grandfather had been ill, and they’d spent every Christmas since with him in the wilds of Scotland. Augusta had enjoyed her visits, although it hadn’t been pleasant to watch her grandfather fade away with every successive visit, and now he was dead. At least it hadn’t been in London.
Eliza must have been around sixteen when Augusta saw her last.
The same age you were when Silas Mitchell kissed you.
She came skipping over, the epitome of grace and beauty. She really was a beautiful young woman. She had chestnut brown curls and large, expressive eyes. Augusta didn’t believe she was out yet, but when she made her debut, no doubt she would be a huge success.
“Your Grace, what a surprise! And Lady Augusta, it’s good to see you again,” Eliza greeted them, entirely free of any sort of affectation or shyness. She dropped a neat curtsey, and Augusta bobbed one in return.
“Hello, Eliza. You look very grown up.”
Eliza beamed. “Thank you! I’m coming out next Season, all being well. I’m quite thrilled. Can you give me some tips on how to move in Society?”
“Eliza, don’t be so forward,” Mrs Mitchell said sternly.
“Not at all, she’s quite wise to ask,” Augusta assured her. “There are lots of unspoken rules in Society, and you ought to know them before you start out. People expect you to know them. Many a debutante has ruined her social career by saying the wrong thing or dressing in the wrong way.”
Eliza’s smile faded a little, and Augusta felt a little guilty. Still, the fact was that she knew the truth. Society during the Season wasn’t enjoyable, not for ladies. It was a vicious place, and an unforgiving one. Finding yourself alone in a quiet room with a gentleman could destroy a lady’s reputation forever—not that the gentleman would suffer very much besides a few gossipy comments and a few glares from the more protective mamas—and there was nothing to be done about it.
The ton had a long memory, and mistakes weren’t forgiven. Not easily, at least.
“What should I know about?” Eliza asked, looking a little concerned now.
“No waltzing at Almack’s for debutantes, no dancing if you refuse a gentleman’s invitation to dance . . .”
“But what if I don’t like him?”
Augusta smiled pityingly at her. “That doesn’t matter. Country manners are very different from Town manners. If you refuse to dance with a gentleman, for any reason at all, you mustn’t dance again for the rest of the night.”
“Don’t force your attentions on a gentleman, even if you’re already friends. You ought to wait for the gentleman to approach you. Catch his eye if you must, but don’t be too bold. Be careful with your opinions—people remember what you say, and it can be twisted. Read the gossip columns, even though they’re absolute nonsense and quite malicious. Pray you don’t get mentioned; it’s safer that way. Don’t spill your tea, don’t slurp your soup . . . that sort of thing.”
Eliza pulled a face. “That sounds tiresome.”
Augusta had to laugh. “I agree, but there it is. If you want to catch yourself a decent husband, you need to play by the rules. It’s just a game, but there are serious punishments if you don’t follow the rules.”
She glanced at Mrs Mitchell’s anxious face and her mother’s impassive one and wondered if she’d said too much. Probably. But it was worth it if Eliza went into Society a little more prepared than Augusta had been. She had enjoyed her first Season but hadn’t approached it with any real seriousness. Debutantes were usually terrified, and for good reason.
It was a game, but one ladies had to take very, very seriously.
Augusta cleared her throat, taking a little step back to indicate that she’d finished terrifying Eliza about the London Season.
“Well, I’m sure Eliza is quite equal to handling herself in Society,” Dorothy said quietly, and Augusta nodded.
“I know, Mama. But it’s not a nice place for a debutante.”
“Charles and I will be there, of course,” Mrs Mitchell added. “Eliza won’t be alone. Can we expect to see you there too, Lady Augusta?”
“Well, I’ll have one friend in London then, at least,” Eliza said with a short laugh. Augusta smiled weakly. The truth was that a pretty girl like Eliza would have more enemies than friends. Plainer ladies and their aggressive mamas would resent Eliza’s pretty face and easy manners, and they were the sort of people who could start unpleasant rumours or cause trouble. Eliza was a good-natured, kind girl, raised in the country by a delightful family, and she only saw the good in the world. She would find the unpleasant undercurrent of London Society something of a shock.
“Oh, Helen, I almost forgot to say. I hear that congratulations are in order. You must be thrilled to have him back after so long,” Dorothy said, clearly eager to change the subject.
Mrs Mitchell’s face brightened. “Ah, I wondered if you had heard! Yes, we are delighted. Silas has been gone for far too long. Five years, can you believe it?”
Augusta sucked in a short breath involuntarily. She glanced subtly around, assuring herself that nobody had noticed her reaction. They hadn’t, thankfully.
Silas Mitchell was home? Why had nobody told her?
Well, why would they? It wasn’t as if you told anyone about the kiss. No doubt he wasn’t foolish enough to tell anyone, either.
Augusta forced herself to regain her composure. So, Silas was home. That didn’t mean anything, did it? It wasn’t as though she was going to see him. Perhaps he was just in England in general, not necessarily home.
“It’s so odd to see his old room occupied again,” Mrs Mitchell continued blithely, oblivious to Augusta’s discomfort. “I know it was a wonderful opportunity for him—for any young man—but it was a wrench, having him so far away.” She glanced down, fiddling with the lace on her sleeve cuff. “Mothers worry, you know. Well, I don’t have to tell you, Dorothy. But I hated having him so far away. If something went wrong—well, he was all on his own, wasn’t he? By the time a letter even arrived, weeks or even months could have gone past. Then it would take more months for our reply to arrive. I’m sure he wasn’t afraid at all—young people are so bold, aren’t they? But that’s all in the past now.” She drew in a deep breath. “He’s home. I keep reminding myself of it and smiling like a fool. He’s home.”
“I can’t imagine letting Timothy or Augusta go to the Americas for so long,” Dorothy admitted. “I daresay I would have let them go, if it came to it . . .” she trailed off, giving herself a little shake, then drawing herself up again. “I am grateful Timothy only wanted to go to Eton. Now, we really must get going—we have the poor baskets to make up for this year. But we really must have you all over for dinner one day. A nice, informal occasion, where we can all laugh and talk and catch up.”
“Oh, that sounds wonderful! I’m sure we’d all love that. Silas especially—he’ll be thrilled to see how you’ve all changed since he left.”
Augusta’s heart sank. A quiet, informal dinner with wretched Silas Mitchell. She couldn’t think of anything she’d find more uncomfortable.
Dorothy didn’t seem to pick up on her daughter’s discomfort.
“Excellent! Well, let’s set a date at once—you know what this season is like, we’ll all be busy every day until Christmastide, won’t we? How about tomorrow evening?”
Please say no. Please have an engagement. I don’t want to see Silas Mitchell!
“That sounds wonderful!”
“Then it’s arranged. We must dash, but we’ll see you then! Goodbye, Helen, goodbye, Eliza!”
Augusta forced herself to bid her goodbyes, but her head was reeling.
She didn’t want to see Silas. It had taken her years to get over her feelings, her disappointment. She’d missed countless opportunities because of Silas and his thoughtless kiss. Now, she had a fiancé and a decent future ahead of her.
Augusta was determined not to allow those feelings to be stirred up again.
Silas Mitchell, good luck to you.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“The Perfect Christmas Entanglement”. Get your copy on Amazon!