Stranded in a Carriage on Christmas Eve - Grace Burrowes
Grace Burrowes is the USA Today and NYT bestselling author of The Windham series of Regency romances, one of which, "Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish," was nominated for a Regency RITA, and another of which, "Lady Louisa's Christmas Knight" was chosen as a Library Journal Best Book of 2012.
Places to find Grace:
Many of my readers will recall meeting Gayle Windham, the Earl of Westhaven, and his countess. Anna, in The Heir and subsequent Windham series stories. Westhaven and his lady each play the role of Christmas angel in this little tale, an on three occasions, a shared carriage ride evokes the spirit of generosity and hope that can characterize the winter holidays.
The Christmas Carriage
by Grace Burrowes
“This blasted day wanted only another batch of damned snow.” Frederick Amadeus Itnyre kept his voice down as he stomped his booted feet for warmth. One could not mutter such sentiments too loudly in a city gone stupid with holiday cheer.
“I’ve always liked a white Christmas,” said a pleasant voice from behind him. Frederick glanced over his shoulder at the next patron waiting in line at the hackney stand.
“The snow at least makes things seem clean for a few hours,” Frederick admitted. The fellow was tall and bare headed, with snowflakes catching in his dark chestnut hair. His build was lanky, and yet the elements did not seem to be affecting him adversely. “Only to become filthy again in all the coal smoke.”
“What say we share?” the fellow suggested. “The cabbies have their hands full keeping up with all the holiday shoppers and one can always use good company.”
Frederick took a closer look at the fellow. His clothing was exquisitely well made, and his green eyes held a sparkle. He’d be pleasant company. Pleasant was bearable.
“My thanks. I’m late for work or I wouldn’t be parting with the coin for a hansom.” Really should not be, but with more snow falling, crossing town on foot would take forever.
“Ah, you have gainful employment then,” Frederick’s companion remarked. “A substantial blessing that.”
Frederick said nothing, and the line seemed to shuffle forward more quickly, now that his toes were but a frozen memory. They piled into a cab that sported a surprisingly clean interior, though the poor horse was wearing jingling bells on its collar and a sprig of ivy between the terrets.
“I’m Westhaven,” the fellow said, pulling his hand from a bright red mitten.
Frederick had no gloves, the chill of his grasp in Mr. Westhaven’s warm hand occasioning a frisson of humiliation. “Frederick Itnyre. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“You mustn’t fret about being late for work,” Westhaven said, loosening a red scarf. “If you’re late, your superior is likely to be late as well. Besides, Christmas approaches, and the holiday spirit alone means some lenience is in order.”
“You may not have noticed that I’m Scottish.”
“A fine lineage when winter’s wrath is to be endured,” Westhaven rejoined.
This was… true. Frederick loosened his own scarf, the only gift Lizze had managed to give him. “Not so fine a lineage when one’s superior at the Post Office is a grouchy old martinet who thinks Englishmen deserve every position the government has to offer. I’m the only Scot, and we’ve not a Paddy among us, though they’re notably hard workers.”
“That’s a beautiful scarf you’re wearing, Mr. Itnyre. Has some angora in it, if I’m not mistaken?”
Frederick ran his hand over the aubergine and green wool, a familiar comfort and a torment. “This was a gift from a friend. She was going to make me some gloves to go with it.”
“A dear friend, I take it, to give you something intended to keep you cozy?”
The dearest. The cab lurched away from the stand, but only at a walk. Mr. Westhaven seemed the chatty sort, and as Frederick looked out on the bleak, snowy scene, he gave in to the impulse to share a sorrow with a stranger.
“My Lizzie gave it to me. Her papa did not approve of me, though, because I’m merely a clerk from Aberdeen, though many a clerk has risen to patronage and does quite well, eventually. Her papa told me to make something of myself before I presumed to offer for his darling girl—he wasn’t wrong—but the family has moved and I was not told their direction…”
They passed a church, two children huddled in the doorway, trying to shelter from the wind, if not the cold. “It has been months since I walked her home from services the last time. I expect Lizzie has suitors aplenty by now.”
Westhaven was quiet for a bit, folding his scarf into a muff around his hands. “London is a very large city, but I suppose you might find her papa through his clubs or business endeavors?”
Somebody opened the church door, and the children were taken inside. Churches were not warm, but they were safe.
“Henderson Winklebleck is old school. He does not dirty his hands in trade, and having no club affiliations of my own, I would not know how to find him among the wealthy fellows on St. James.”
Though he’d tried. He’d tried asking the pastor, who claimed to have no specific forwarding address for the Winkleblecks beyond “Mayfair,” so he’d tried walking the streets of Mayfair by the hour on his rare days off. He’d tried drinking hard, and he’d tried praying harder.
“My missus and I had to overcome some difficulties,” Westhaven said. “I had to propose to her at least six times. My brothers put the total higher. Then too, papas are not the most sanguine people when faced with the possibility of losing their dearest treasures. You’re a good looking fellow in a dark, braw sort of way.
Perhaps you’d best affix your affections elsewhere?”
“You’re suggesting I try giving up.” The coach came to a lurching halt, traffic being predictably snarled as they approached Picadilly. “I have tried to give up. Told myself a fellow ought not to have designs above his station, told myself Lizzie would be happier with a fellow from her own set. I’ve told myself she hasn’t tried to contact me, though I’m not sure how she could, and I’ve told myself…”
He trailed off, because some of the things he’d told himself were not fit for the ears of a proper gentleman of short acquaintance.
“You’ve told yourself it’s hopeless,” Westhaven concluded. “And is this approach yielding good results?”
Frederick gave a short, humorless laugh. “Of course not. I love my Lizzie, and love doesn’t give up just because one’s beloved has disappeared from the face of the earth. Love never gives up.”
The coach moved forward at a crawl. Westhaven patted Frederick’s knee, the gesture avuncular rather than condescending.
“The season of miracles is upon us, and you have the right of it: Love is dogged and dauntless. Now, my missus appropriated the town coach today, and said she would not be home until tea time at the earliest.
What do you suppose she’s getting up to in this weather?”
“Ma’am it’s snowing again.”
The shop girl sounded thrilled with this development, while Lizzie felt only dismay. “We don’t need more snow.” New snow reminded her of Frederick, whom she’d met on a snowy day. She’d slipped on an icy patch and fallen headlong into strong arms and the handsomest blue eyes ever to laugh a clumsy girl back to her feet.
“Snow always makes me happy,” the girl said. “I love a white Christmas.” The sentiment was remarkable, given that miserable weather could only make the girl’s existence more difficult.
“I enjoy a fresh snowfall, too,” said another patron. The lady looked up from a bolt of red velvet and sent Lizzie a smile. “My children enjoy it, the boys especially. The girls show every sign of following in their brothers’ footsteps. Does this velvet seem a cheerful color to you?”
The lady was pretty at first sight, and more than pretty on closer study. Her skin was flawless, her dark hair shiny, and her smile revealed perfect teeth. This was Quality, not merely wealthy gentry, like Lizzy’s family.
“It’s quite bright,” Lizzie said. “Reds are tricky. They can look rich, or they can appear garish, depending on light, the wearer’s complexion, and even the way the fabric is cut.” Had her own grandmother not been a mercer’s offspring, Lizzie would not have been as confident in her opinions.
The lady ran her hand over the lovely material. “As a holiday dress for me, do you think it would do? My husband’s family has an open house each year on Christmas Eve, and one wants to look ones best.”
Lizze studied the lady, then the fabric. Took the bolt and held it up to the other woman’s face. Outside the snow was going to make the walk home a challenge, but the red was really not quite right for the woman’s coloring.
“We had best keep looking, ma’am. You’re right to hesitate, because we can do better, I’m sure. And the lace is important too. Lace can make all the difference.”
A conspiratorial gleam lit the lady’s eye. “I’m Anna. Shall we have a spot of chocolate while we deliberate?”
Lizzie adored chocolate. Whenever Frederick had come to call, she’d ordered chocolate, thinking it a treat for him, and a way to make him linger a few minutes longer in her company.
“Chocolate would suit wonderfully,” Lizzie said. The shop girl bobbed a curtsey, and scurried off as Anna moved to another bolt of red, not as bright as the first one. “How about this one? It’s a bit more dignified, don’t you think?”
The lady would want something dignified, for all her friendliness. Something beautiful. “I’ve always favored the purple tones, ma’am. Aubergine is lovely, or a deep, rosy, violet, perhaps?”
The chocolate arrived, the snow came down, and Lizzie lost track of time in the midst of pretty fabrics, good company, and a need to ignore a lonely despair that only grew worse as Christmas grew closer.
“It appears we’re stuck,” Westhaven observed. “Too many holiday shoppers.”
Frederick wanted to pound on the roof, so wroth was his supervisor going to be with him.
“Why the cabbie tried to maneuver directly down The Strand is beyond me,” Frederick muttered. “And the snow isn’t helping.”
“You’re afraid you’ll lose your position over a single incidence of tardiness?” Westhaven asked.
“One can,” Frederick muttered, watching as two footman collided, their packages going everywhere. The passersby stopped and started gathering up the items, restacking each fellows’ arms with presents. “Times are hard, and positions difficult to come by. Then too, my supervisor regards every Scotsman as a potential traitor. His people fought at Culloden, and for him the battle yet rages.”
Westhaven had the look of an Eton man. Polished, clean, tidy, and quietly wealthy. If his people had been at Culloden, they’d have been leading the charge.
“More Scots fought for the crown at Culloden than against it,” he remarked. “Your supervisor sounds like some of my father’s cronies. Set in their ways, mired in the past, and without the sense to see the gifts immediately before them.”
The coach stopped all forward progress again. “We can all get set in our ways,” Frederick said, “and you’re right. It is a blessing to have a job. It’s a blessing to be able to send some coin north for my family. It’s a blessing to share a cab fare I ought not to be splurging on.”
To admit blessings was not the same thing as finding joy in the day, but Westhaven smiled at him as if he understood this.
“You forgot that the straw in our conveyance is clean, and we’ve been good boys this year. Father Christmas might yet have a treat or two for us, right?”
Westhaven was clearly a wealthy man, but he’d admitted to having had difficulties wooing his lady, and his smile suggested a degree of understanding Frederick hadn’t expected to find a simple cab ride.
“Very good boys,” Frederick said. Good, but lonely for his lady, and trying not to despair.
“You must allow me to take you up with me,” Anna said. “I’ve wasted half your day on my fripperies, and all because our coloring is similar. You’re very kind to spend time on a stranger this way.”
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Lizzie said, “and the dress will look spectacular on you.”
“This snow is spectacular,” Anna replied, pulling on white wool gloves. “My carriage will be right outside, and I will not hear of you making your way home on foot.”
Frederick had no carriage. He sent every spare penny home to his family, and walked everywhere. By now, he’d likely found a lady whose father didn’t pinch every farthing, a lady whose marriage portion could ease a young couple’s way in a daunting and difficult world.
“I would appreciate a ride,” Lizzie said. “I sent my maid home earlier with a set of purchases, and she likely has enough sense not to come back for me.”
“We’ll leave cab fare for her in case she doesn’t,” Anna said, linking her arm through Lizzie’s. “My home is in Mayfair, what about yours?”
They lived mere two blocks from each other, and Mayfair was not far from Knightsbridge, but the snow, or the holidays, or something had traffic barely moving.
“If I might presume,” Anna said as they waited at yet another intersection. “You do not seem to be anticipating the holidays with much cheer, Lizzie. Is all well?”
Anna—Lizzie did not know her new friend’s last name—was a mother four times over. This had become apparent in the course of their morning, when Anna had remarked that this fabric would be lovely with her oldest daughter’s green eyes, and that corduroy was sturdy enough even for her sons’ enthusiastic play.
Anna was a mother, and she had kind eyes. “I don’t want to go home. The house is buried in greenery, the servants are all smiles, the holiday callers are an endless stream, and I don’t… even…know… w-where my F-Frederick is and I m-miss him so!”
“I’ll just pop out here with you,” Westhaven said. “Stretch my legs a bit.”
They’d finally reached Frederick’s destination, the snow still coming down, and he doubted very much that Mr. Westhaven needed to stretch his legs. Frederick dug in his pocket for a penny, but Westhaven put a hand on his arm.
“It’s taken care of. Perhaps you’d show me where you work?”
“I can pay my fare, sir. I’ll not take your charity.”
Westhaven glanced about as foot traffic surged all around them, and the cabbie took on new fares. “One ought not be to be too proud, Mr. Itnyre. You gave me company when my coun— my wife had left me to my own devices, and you gave me an idea for her Christmas present. I confess I was becoming desperate.
Can you recommend a good stationer?”
Frederick was being cozened—charmed, Lizze would have said—and he knew it. He also knew paper and stationery, as only a sorting clerk could. “Postlethwaite’s has the best selection and their prices are reasonable. They’re in Bloomsbury, off Madison. They have lap desks and inkwells and more pretty pens than you can properly inspect in a day.”
Westhaven fell in step beside Frederick. “Postlethwaite’s. Thank you. How many siblings did you say you had? I’m one of ten, myself. And who runs this installation of the king’s post? One does wonder about such things.”
Because he was of a height with Frederick, Mr. Westhaven could keep pace even in the snow, which was why when Frederick arrived nearly panting at his place of work, Westhaven was still with him, blethering on about his dear old papa being the perennial Lord of Misrule, and his doting mama hanging mistletoe from every cross beam of the family home.
And this made Frederick smile, because his own parents behaved in exactly the same fashion, each and every Christmas.
“Did you try writing to him?” Anna asked as the coach inched along. “Young ladies are not to be corresponding with single gentlemen, I know, but you and Mr. Itnyre nearly had an understanding, and sometimes desperate measures are necessary where true love is concerned.”
Desperate measures, indeed. “I did try writing to him, but I received no reply. My father said Frederick took himself off because no fellow who respects a lady will pester her with attentions that can’t amount to anything. Papa has never worked a day in his life, and yet he thinks…”
Anna patted her hand. “Old-fashioned. My father-in-law is the same way, but good-hearted. My husband and I had to overcome considerable difficulties on the way to the altar. We were all at sixes and sevens, cross purposes, and widdershins.”
“Widdershins is word my Frederick would use. You and your husband came right, though, didn’t you?”
Anna’s smile would have inspired angelic choruses, so beatific was it. “My husband and I have come right.
You and Frederick will too, but you must not give up hope.”
“I’ve tried attending services at our former church, but Frederick hasn’t been seen there in months. I’ve sent a footman to inquire on the street where Frederick kept rooms but nobody will admit knowledge of him. His family was in Aberdeen…”
So very far away, and this time of year, cold and dark, too.
Anna’s smile faded, her expression becoming earnest. “Write to him again, then. A holiday greeting, something to let him know you’re thinking of him. Gentlemen often need encouragement but don’t know how to ask for it.”
The notion was daring, not proper at all, and Anna seemed like such a proper lady, too.
“I can do that,” Lizzie said. “I can write to him again, but if he’s moved, they’ll just be returned to me, won’t they?”
“Write anyway,” Anna said. “You don’t know that he’s changed lodgings, and if he loves you, he will not have gone haring back to the north with matters between you unresolved.”
Lizzie did not argue, though Frederick was proud, and a proud man might not have wanted to endure begging and pleading when he told a woman who loved him good-bye.
“I’ll write,” she said. “I’ll send one more note, full of holiday greetings. Nothing more.”
Mr. Westhaven apparently was the sort of fellow who could nose around at a postal installation and immediately find himself taking tea with the superintendent in his private, well heated office.
“You getting airs above your station again?” Tims asked.
Frederick took up a stool at the sorting table. “Of course. It turned out so well last time.”
Tims’s smile turned sympathetic. “You still miss her?”
“With every beat of my heart.”
They fell silent as Harlan Bickerman came trotting over, his green visor set low across his brow. “You’re late, Itnyre. Do you think because you’ve been racketing about with a duke’s son you’re no longer subject to the same work hours as the rest of us?”
“I don’t know any duke’s son, sir,” Frederick said, noting that the toes of Bickerman’s fine boots were still wet, suggesting Westhaven had been right: Everyone had run late that morning.
“He who comes in late must stay late,” Bickerman pronounced. “It’s not like you’ve a wife and kiddies to go home to, is it? But then, I forget. You hail from the north, and no proper London girl is likely to have you.”
Across the table, Tims’ jug-ears were turning red.
“You’re exactly right, Mr. Bickerman. I’ve nobody to come home to.”
“So you won’t mind doing some extra sorting,” Bickerman said, He hefted a large canvas stack onto the sorting table. “There’s a bag of Christmas cheer, no doubt, none of it directed at you. Don’t leave until you’ve got it all sorted, or I will have your position.”
As Bickerman’s heels beat a receding tattoo against the floorboards, Frederick stared at a bag twice the size of the usual sorting load.
“The man’s an embarrassment,” Tims said, though quietly. “I saw him dump a load of dead letters into a sorting bag. I’m guessing it’s that lot there.”
Dead letters were a sorting clerk’s worst nightmare. They required checking endless lists of forwarding addresses, trying to guess at awful handwriting, using the quizzing glass on smudged ink…
“He’s right,” Frederick said. “I have nobody to go home to, and the only London girl I fancy apparently does not fancy me.” To be fair, it was Lizzie’s father who had not fancied him, but Lizzie was always going to have the same father.
Frederick reached for the bag.
Twenty minutes later he’d confirmed Tims’ dire prediction involving dead letters as a cheery, “Happy Christmas, Mr. Itnyre!” rang out across the sorting room floor. Westhaven stood side by side with the superintendent, who was apparently walking his impromptu guest to the door.
“Happy Christmas, Westhaven!”
Westhaven offered Frederick a parting wave. “Give your Lizzie a kiss for me beneath the mistletoe!”
“Will do, sir! And the same to your lady.”
Tims watched this exchange in puzzlement. “So who is he? He’s dressed a damn sight better than any postal clerk will ever be.”
“Mr. Westhaven’s lady appropriated his carriage, so he was forced to take a cab. We shared the ride over from Knightsbridge.”
Tims was quiet for a moment, but like any good clerk, he could sort and gossip at the same time. “You still looking for your lady, Fred?”
Frederick had taken rooms in Knightsbridge because he was still looking for his lady. “She liked to shop there. Said the quality was as good as Mayfair, but the prices weren’t as outrageous, though for all I know, her family has moved to Bath.”
They spoke of the weather, of Tims’ sweetheart, Christobel, who was meeting him for a rum bun at supper.
The pile of letters on Tims’s side of the table eventually became a few score, then a few dozen.
As the oldest clerks shuffled out in the darkening evening, Bickerman came strutting by. “Haven’t made much progress with your sorting, have you, Itnyre?”
“Some,” Frederick said. “What a letter to Berwyck was doing in a bundle from Bristol is anybody’s guess.”
Bickerman glanced pointedly at the eight day clock that stood like a warden in the prison yard in one corner.
“Don’t waste coal tonight. I’ll expect that bag to be sorted when I arrive this morning.”
The sorting room was chilly at best. Frederick wiggled his toes in his boots. “I thought I’d attend services tonight.”
Across the table, Tims took eternities to fasten six buttons.
“That is between you and the Almighty, but don’t think piety will excuse a lack of punctuality if those letters aren’t on their way come morning.”
He stomped off, but not fast enough.
“Happy Christmas, Mr. Bickerman!” Tims bellowed. He winked at Frederick, who couldn’t help but smile.
“Yes, Mr. Bickerman, Happy Christmas, and to Mrs. Bickerman too.”
Because, as every clerk in the installation knew, Bickerman lived with his mother, there being no other lady in London who would have him for her very own.
“You’re up late, my dear.”
Lizzie’s mother stood framed in the library door. By firelight, she was a pretty woman still, though strong sunlight would reveal fine lines around her eyes and mouth.
“I spent too much time in the shops today,” Lizzie said, appending a signature to her letter—her holiday note.
“I’m behind in my correspondence as a result.”
“The holidays are frightfully busy,” her mother said, advancing into the room. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about the invitations to next week’s dinner.”
Lizzie opened the top drawer in search of sand for her epistle but found none. “We’re having another dinner?”
Mama took the seat across from the desk, the same seat Lizzie had taken on the occasion of various lectures, scolds, or announcements from her father. Now she wanted to lecture her mother regarding all these invitations sent out to single, young men—even single, not-so-young men, provided the family had a title.
“Lizzie is there no young fellow whom you could see yourself taking an interest in? Many a titled lordling will overlook a girl’s common antecedents if her settlements are generous enough, and you are pretty.”
Mama offered the last observation with a brisk inspection of Lizzie’s features, as if making sure she were still pretty.
“Where does Papa keep the sand?”
“Third drawer,” Mama said. “But why aren’t you using your own sitting room?”
Lizzie opened the third drawer. “Because Papa will not allow my maid to top up the coals on my hearth after tea time, so the fire goes out each night and we waste more coal laying a new fire come morning—morning in a very chilly room, I might add.”
“Your father cannot be blamed for trying to conserve resources, Lizzie. I thought the Porringer boy was a pleasant fellow.”
Lizzie closed the third drawer with a stout thump. “He’s pleasant because he arrives to any occasion half seas over, Mama. There’s no sand—Ah.” She found the ornate little turquoise and gold cloisonné box in the second drawer, all the way back, but when she lifted it out, she spied beneath it a missive addressed in her very own hand.
“Lizzie, you are not snooping in your father’s desk are you? Nothing good ever comes of eavesdropping or snooping, I always say.”
Lizzie barely heard her mother. “What are my letters doing in Papa’s desk?” For she’d found two, both addressed to Mr. Frederick Itnyre.
“What letters? If they’re in your father’s desk, I doubt very much they’re your letters.”
“My letters to Frederick,” Lizzie said, closing this drawer with a bang. “Why does Papa have letters I wrote months ago, letters I very much wanted sent?”
Mama sat forward, looking not at all pleased. “You wrote to Mr. Itnyre?”
“Of course I wrote to Mr. Itnyre! I love Mr. Itnyre, and Papa up and moved us to this house without even giving me a chance to say good-bye to Mr. Itnyre, and now I miss him, and you keep foisting spotty baronets at me, and viscount’s fourth sons, and, and—”
“Elizabeth, calm yourself. Your father had an offer on our other house that required a hasty remove, this location is perfect, and a proper address means so much to one’s prospects in this world. If your father did not have your letters sent on you must trust that he did so in your best interests.”
The edges of Lizzie’s vision turned the exact shade of red that Anna had been tempted to purchase earlier that day. “I am of age, Mama. Papa had no right to interfere with my correspondence. If he didn’t want me writing to Mr. Itnyre, then he should have told me so. This is….” Lizzie clutched the letters, “this is stealing, and I will not have it.”
Mama rose, looking very tall, but also for the first in Lizzie’s experience, uncertain. “You do not tell your father what to do, Elizabeth. I’ll have those letters.”
She thrust her hand under Lizzie’s nose, and Lizzie realized the letters were still sealed. Her father’s perfidy at least had limits, while her mother’s would have none. Lizzie pushed back her father’s heavy, well cushioned chair and tossed the letters in the fire.
“If Papa can keep the public rooms of the house cozy, he afford to heat my sitting room as well. Perhaps then I won’t be tempted to root through that desk to see what other letters of mine he’s also deemed unworthy of the king’s post.”
Lizzie swept out of the room before she said anything she’d regret—anything more she’d regret—and when she got to her sitting room, she did not build up the fire.
She instead went to bed, and for the first time in months, had a reason to be grateful. Yes, Papa had appropriated two pieces of Lizzie’s private correspondence, lifted them right out of the tray in the front hallway where all the family’s letters sat in anticipation of the footman’s trip to the nearest posting inn.
Two heartfelt, sincere, pleading letters had never reached Frederick.
But Lizzie had written three. And seeing those letters had reminded her of something else: She knew where Frederick was employed.
The sorting room went from chilly, quiet and dim, to frigid, dark, and silent, the only sound the soft rustle of the occasional epistle finding its way to a proper pile of similar letters.
Frederick was down to the dead letters, and only a handful of those, though the hour was late. He sat on his stool, two sorting sacks wadded up into a makeshift pillow beneath his chilly, aching bum.
“I should just go home.” He flipped the letter over, and read the last lines scrawled on the exterior. The marmalade mouser curled among the sorted letters twitched an ear.
“Some people don’t put enough effort into their penmanship,” Frederick observed. This lady, for example, did not cross her t’s, and that meant… He reexamined the address, mentally revising the street name from Bellers Road to Betters Road, which happened to be located in Soho.
“I’m falling asleep on my already asleep arse, and Bickerman will just find some other pile of straw for me to spin into gold, and eventually, he’ll have a pretext for sacking me.”
The cat yawned, curled up, and resumed its slumbers.
“I should go home, not to my freezing little room, but to Aberdeen. My family misses me.” And he missed them. “Bickerman will drive me to Bedlam, and for every fellow who gets a promotion, there are twenty who don’t.”
He picked up the next letter and rubbed his eyes to make sure he was reading the address correctly.
“I have a dead letter, Cat.”
Another ear twitch.
A queer feeling came over him as he studied the address, because he knew that penmanship. He turned up the lamp at his elbow, and with shaking hands, broke the seal.
“My dearest Frederick….”
Lizzie had written to him—written to her dearest Frederick—months ago. She’d defied all convention to tell him she missed him, she hoped to hear from him shortly, and hoped her previous letters hadn’t gone astray.
Previous letters. To her dearest Frederick.
Frederick read the letter again, and again, until he had it memorized, and still he sat on his stool and stared at it. The cat rose, and used its furry head to nudge at his hand.
“Back to work, eh?” He folded Lizzie’s letter and tucked it into an inside pocket of his waist coat. “Only a few dozen more letters, right, Cat? I should be able to get through them by morning.”
Tomorrow was Friday, but on Saturday, Bickerman did not come in, and the superintendent often let the clerks leave a bit early. “I can nip around the Mayfair, ask about for the Winkleblecks. There can’t be that many Winkleblecks in Mayfair.”
He’d knock on doors if he had to—kitchen doors, of course. He’d pester the lads in the mews….
A noise interrupted Frederick’s determined planning, a boot scraping against floorboards.
“You still here, Itnyre?”
The superintendent was attired in a great coat, scarf, and gloves, ready to quit the premises.
“I came in a bit late, sir,” Frederick said, scrambling off his stood. “Mr. Bickerman asked me to look over some dead letters.” Thank heavens.
“It’s nigh midnight, lad.” The superintendent came closer, close enough to pull off a glove and scratch the cat under its hairy chin. “I see you aren’t entirely orphaned in your labors and you’ve gotten a prodigious amount done.”
Frederick looked over the sorting table, surprised to see the superintendent was right. “I hadn’t noticed, sir.”
The superintendent, Mr. North, unwrapped his scarf and gestured to the pile left before Frederick. “Are these what’s left?”
“I can do them, sir, it’s just that there were a number of dead letters…”
North pulled up Tims’ stool. “I was a sorting clerk, you know, years ago. It’s not as easy as some people think. You must be quick and careful, for each letter might be some old dame’s only word from her daughter, it might have a father’s final words to his son. What we do is important.”
The words were muttered, but they struck a chord in Frederick. “My father has said the same thing. The king’s post is the envy of the other nations, he says. Would you like a sack to sit on, sir?”
North accepted the offer, and folded it with the same efficiency Tims would have used, then reached for half the stack of unsorted letters. “Bickerman’s being transferred, though I’ve yet to tell him.”
What had Westhaven said, about the season of miracles? “He’s very dedicated, and he’s been with the post for years.”
Frederick sorted three letters before realizing the last cache was not dead letters, but rather, another few dozen pieces of regular correspondence.
“Now this not your common name,” North muttered. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be, you’d better have a look.”
The queer feeling was back, radiating from Frederick’s chest to his very fingertips as he accepted a piece of folded, sealed, foolscap from Mr. North. “It’s… Winklebleck, sir. Henderson… P…. Winklebleck.” And there, right in Frederick’s hand, was the rest of the address.
“Winklebleck? Gracious, I’d never have puzzled that out.” North went back to flicking envelopes into piles—sorting methodology apparently hadn’t changed much over the years, while Frederick gaped and stared and gaped some more.
“You know, Itnyre, I didn’t say Bickerman was being promoted. He’s being transferred. He has no wife or kiddies to uproot, so he’s the logical candidate.”
Frederick continued to regard the most lovely address in all the realm. “He has a mother, sir, and she depends on him, I’m sure.”
“Bickerman’s sister married well, and she dotes on the old girl. Bickerman is entirely free to enjoy a remove to Wick. I’m told it’s lovely this time of year.”
Frederick blinked, and wanted to shake his head, though North, who’d about completed the sorting would think him daft. “Wick? In December?” Wick was North of Aberdeen by a considerable margin.
“Just so. Looks like we’re about done, if you’ll part with the Wanderback’s epistle?” He held out a hand, and Frederick passed him the letter.
“Winklebleck, sir. They’re a very nice family.” Lizzie was nice, and her sisters were too.
“I hear my carriage. Don’t suppose you’d let me give you a ride home? You Scots are so damned hardy, you hardly notice the cold. My grandmother was a Scot, and her shortbread was beyond compare. She lived to be ninety-four, and I full intend to do likewise.”
“A ride home sounds lovely, sir, if it’s not out of your way.”
They left the sorted mail to the guardianship of the sleeping cat, and though Frederick was exhausted in his bones, he also felt a lightness in his spirit that had been missing for months. His prospects had not improved, but he knew where his Lizzie.
And she had written to her dearest Frederick.
“Is there a young lady whose family you will join for Christmas dinner this year, Itnyre?”
“No, sir, not likely.”
They climbed into a snug coach, one made cozy by heated bricks set into the floor. “Then you must join Mrs. North and myself. We gather with my brother and his wife—he’s a bookseller—and any of my unmarried supervisors who have nowhere else to go. Makes us older fellows feel more convivial if you younger gents are on hand to hear our stories.”
Frederick was nearly asleep on his feet, both euphoric to have found his Lizzie, and vaguely anxious: Should he confront her, write back to her? Leave her in peace to find a man whose prospects suited her family’s expectations?
The horses moved off, their hooves muffled against the snow. “Will you join us, Itnyre?”
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
North muttered something about Wick not being far enough north, which made no sense. “I said, will you join me and a few of the other fellows for Christmas dinner? My wife loves to cook for hearty appetites, and you should get to know the others because you’ll be working with them.”
North was trying to tell him something, but the warmth of the coach, the toll from hours of sorting in the cold and dark, and the miracle and terror of having found Lizzie’s direction made Frederick’s brain slow.
“I am always grateful for a good meal, sir, but I wouldn’t want anybody to think I had pretensions above my station.”
North passed him a flask—now, where had that come from? “I certainly did.”
Frederick took a cautious nip. “Beg pardon?”
The stuff was lovely, as smooth a Highland whiskey as ever a homesick fellow from Aberdeen might have tasted.
“I got notions well above my station. Married the superintendent’s daughter, and applied for every promotion that came along, until I had this assignment, which is far beyond the expectations I was born with. My lady likes Town life, so here I shall stay. I assume you’ll take the position? The scenery can’t compare with Aberdeenshire, but your family will cheerfully come visit here, I’m sure.”
This time, the queer feeling suffused every particle of Frederick’s being. “You’re offering me Bickerman’s position?”
“I was inclined in that direction, and then Lord Westhaven professed himself so very impressed with you. Said he had to argue with you over a penny fare, and you were nigh beside yourself over being a few minutes late—when Bickerman can’t be bothered to come in of an entire Saturday. I’ve also seen that the other fellows like you, and you write to your mama weekly—which is a recommendation in itself. Yes, I’m offering you the position, and I doubt it will be the last time you distinguish yourself through hard work and probity.”
An angel chorus could not have sounded more pleasing to Frederick’s ear than old North’s imperious blather.
“I would like to accept the position, sir, truly I would, but there’s somebody I have to speak with first.”
The horses slowed, and Frederick realized he was going to have to face the chilly night once more, but when had a braw, handsome young man from Aberdeen ever taken issue with a little fresh air?
“Think it over, then, and we’ll not expect you first thing tomorrow. A fellow needs his rest if he’s considering momentous decisions.”
Frederick thanked North for the offer, for the ride home, and for sorting letters with him—each in itself no small gift—and sought his bed. Possibilities came to bed with him, and made sleep elusive. On a supervisor’s salary, he could afford a small house.
On a supervisor’s salary, he could afford to send a bit more home.
On a supervisor’s salary, he could afford a wife, though there was one only candidate for that post, and Frederick intended to track her down the very next morning.
“Sir, I tell you she’s not at home.”
The Wicklebleck butler had never struck Frederick as a finicky fellow, but moving to Mayfair had apparently effected a change—and not for the better.
“It’s early, Mims. Too early for social calls, I know that, but it’s urgent that I speak with Miss Winklebleck.”
Mims was old, the sort of old that can look the same—bald, dignified, trim—for twenty years at a go. He regarded Frederick out of his old eyes, then glanced around the foyer, which was festooned with greenery.
“She went out, Mr. Itnyre. I know not where, or when she’ll be back, but she’s genuinely not at this address.
She slipped out quite early, and I gather her departure was intended to be somewhat clandestine.”
Mims should not have told him that, which Frederick tried to regard as a concession, not a crumb of pity.
“You will tell her I called?”
A proper gentleman would leave a card, but Frederick hadn’t wanted to spare the coin to have any printed.
“I will tell her myself. I suggest you take yourself off before Mr. Winklebleck should arise.”
Another concession, and a valid warning. “Good day, then, and Happy Christmas, Mims.”
He’d surprised Mims into smiling. “Happy Christmas, sir.”
Frederick had already paced up and down the block, examining the Winklebleck house from every angle.
The façade was the same as its neighbors on either side, the walkway swept free of snow, a holly wreath on the door. He had no justification for tarrying, and he was already late for work.
The walk across town was… pretty, the fresh snow hiding a world of mud, and putting smiles on the faces of those braving the early morning air. London wasn’t Aberdeen, but neither did it lack for some charm.
Lizzie lived here, that was charm enough for any city. Or it would be if she’d have him for a husband.
If she wouldn’t, then darkest Peru might not be a distant enough posting. Frederick’s sense of wellbeing faded further as he approached his place of employment, for there stood Bickerman on the front steps, arguing with woman in a deep purple dress.
“This is a proper place of business, I’ll have you know. I cannot indulge the fancies of a woman who seeks to accost my employees when about their labors. You will be on your way, madam, before I call the watch to remove you.”
The lady’s back was to Frederick, a straight, elegant back. “At least confirm that he still works here,” she said, her tone very severe, “or I will have words with your direct superior, sir. It’s urgent that I speak with Mr. Itnyre.”
“Lizzie.” Frederick said her name softly, not so much to get her attention, as to enjoy the pleasure of speaking it.
“In a moment,” she said without turning. “You will also please deliver a message to Mr. Itnyre, sir. You will tell him Elizabeth Winklebleck loves him, and wants to marry him. He hasn’t heard from me, you see, and being a man he will have gotten all manner of wrong-headed notions, though I do love him. I love him to distraction, and I miss him. You will tell him this.”
Bickerman’s scowl faltered. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it.
“It’s urgent,” Lizze said, and Frederick heard tears in her voice. “The most urgent communication I’ve ever attempted.”
There on the front steps of dignified a place of business, before all the passersby, Lizzie, Frederick, and even before Mr. North, who was getting out of his carriage, Bickerman smiled. “Tell him yourself, young lady.”
He pointed to Frederick, standing not three yards away from Lizzie, and grinning like a baboon.
“Frederick?” She wiped at her cheeks with her gloves, and Frederick opened his arms.
“Happy Christmas, Lizzie. I’ve been looking all over Town for you.”
She pelted into his chest with a good solid thud, rather like the good, solid thud Frederick had felt in his chest the first time he’d seen her sharing a hymnal with her sister.
“Frederick, I’ve missed you so! I’ve missed you and missed you, and I should have come here much sooner, but I’d forgotten I knew this, and it isn’t the done thing, and oh, I’ve missed you.”
“I couldn’t find you,” Frederick said, breathing through his nose just to catch the rosy scent of her. “I asked the pastor, I tramped all over Mayfair, I watched the Sunday church parade in the park each weekend. I couldn’t find you.”
“You’ve found me now, and I’m not letting you go.”
She wasn’t, either, she was bundled into his arms, there for the world to see. Over her head, Frederick saw a smiling Mr. North leading Bickerman into the building, but against the window, a horde of sorting clerks was grinning down at him, Tims included.
“You have to let me go, Lizzie.”
And wasn’t that just the best answer. “You have to let me go as far as my knees.”
Comprehension dawned in her eyes, their sparkle became luminous. “Only as far as your knees, Frederick, and only for a moment.”
He went down on one knee, took her gloved hand in his bare grasp, and felt his heart soaring. “Miss Lizzie Winklebleck, will you make the happiest of Christmas memories with me, and agree to be the wife of the newest postal supervisor to serve the king’s mail at the Greater Uppington sorting station?”
“Yes! Yes, yes, I shall, and you will make the happiest of Christmas memories with me as well.”
The clerks clapped and whistled, Frederick sprang to his feet, and Mr. North appeared on the office steps.
“I gather there’s good news all around. Well come in and introduce your lady to the fellows who’ll be working for you. The missus sent over a bowl of wassail so we might toast Bickerman on his way, but this makes the occasion doubly fine.”
“I haven’t spoken to the lady’s father, sir,” Frederick said.
“A detail, from the looks of things. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
North winked at Frederick, and as it turned out, the fellow was right. Lizzie’s father accepted his new son-in-law graciously, if gruffly. When the first grandchild came along the next Christmas, a wee dark haired girl named Anna, the doting grandparents made gift of a modest horse and carriage to the happy couple.
As Frederick drove his equipage to and from work, even when he was dignified old fellow superintending several busy offices, he always kept a lookout for a lean, young fellow with no gloves, one who might need a kind word, or a short respite from the elements in the cozy confines of the Christmas carriage.
My parents separated at one point in their dating, and lost track of each other, thinking their problems insurmountable. Absence, however, worked its magic on them both.
When my dad called for my mom at her parents’ house, she never answered the phone, and he was always told she wasn’t there. He’d almost given up when he took a holiday job at the post office, and saw a letter go by addressed to his lady love at the nurses’ training program where she was studying. Over Christmas, Mom’s little sister told her that her long lost swain had been calling and calling….
Dad wrote to her at her school, a letter of such contrition and charm that they got back together, and within six months were married. Their little holiday miracle still makes them smile, sixty-five years and seven children later.
Hoping all your days are filled with smiles and miracles…
No one would ever guess that Lady Louisa, the most reserved of the Duke of Moreland's daughters, had published a book of racy poems under a pseydonym on a dare. Before she can buy and destroy all of the copies, a dastardly fortune hunter seeks to compromise her reputation by revealing her secret identity at a holiday ball.
Before she can be publicly ruined, close family friend Sir Joseph Carrington saves the day by offering to marry Louisa. As he recites poetry to her, waltzes with her by starlight, and showers her with lovely kisses, they both begin to discover that their match may be the best Christmas gift either has ever received...
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