Hello, my friends! Today I have the lovely Maria Grace visiting the blog with her new book, Unexpected Gifts!
Thanks so much for having me, Candy!
And Happy Twelfth Night to you and yours! In Austen’s day, Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, was the final big celebration of the holiday season. So, it’s not too late for a great holiday story. (I confess, I love writing holiday stories; next to dragons, I think they are my favorite thing to write!)
In Austen’s Day, one of the typical ways to celebrate Twelfth Night was with a masquerade ball. While getting dressed up and pretending to be someone you’re not is always fun, in the Regency Era, it held a special note of excitement and intrigue that is a bit beyond what we know today. With the very strict rules of society and the social order, doing anything which gave the appearance of turning that on its head was quite adventurous, and sometimes improper!
That’s a great foundation for a holiday romance, but I confess, I wasn’t feeling too romancey this year. Not when I’ve caught myself using 2020 as an adjective—as in ‘Then it went all 2020 on me!’ I tried out a lot of ideas until I finally landed on a theme that felt right for the year: redeeming broken relationships.
Many times, we wear masks to pretend everything is all right, when things really aren’t. What a time to strip off the masks and see what was really there. If you think about the Darcy family, there are plenty of spots for broken relationships: Lady Catherine, Lady Matlock, Lydia Wickham, Charlotte Collins. It’s pretty clear what could have broken these relationships, but what would it take to make them right? Now that’s fodder for a Christmas story!
These stories may make you laugh, make you think, and might even make you cry. But they will definitely leave you with the fuzzy-warm holiday feelings that we all so need right now. So why don’t you grab a cup of hot cup of tea/coffee/cocoa/what have you, put up your feet and enjoy this little excerpt.
This is the fourth book in the Darcy Family Christmas series. Remember to check out the other three!
Christmas Eve, December 24, 1815
Good, the lower parlor was quiet and empty.
Darcy closed the door behind him and strode to the large ivory brocade armchair near the fire. Storm clouds blocked out the evening light, leaving the room lit only by the fireplace and three candlesticks. He probably ought to light more before the rest of the party joined him.
Perhaps, in a few minutes.
The warm firelight turned the room more green than blue—odd that the room had such a different character morning to evening. Somehow the evening was warmer, more welcoming.
Or perhaps that thought was utter nonsense brought on by the vexations of the house party. He swallowed back the urge to sigh.
There was no need to step so lightly, quieting his footsteps to avoid notice, but somehow it seemed appropriate. The soft carpet muffled each step.
That woman he now had to claim as sister had invaded nearly every aspect of his life. A few moments without her presence could not be jeopardized, even if it required superstitious and silly means to accomplish.
He permitted himself to fall into the chair. It groaned beneath him, reminding him in his mother’s voice that even in private he should mind his manners and posture.
No, today he deserved just a bit of leave to be uncouth. At least as uncouth as that woman was! He laced his hands behind his neck and squeezed his temples with his elbows.
Thankfully, Elizabeth was resting upstairs. The baby had been restless all day, and Elizabeth had not felt well. Naturally, she did not own to it. But he had noticed. She was pale, restive and had not eaten well all day. Although the midwife said difficulty sleeping was expected and even a sign that the baby would be healthy and vigorous, somehow it did not make sense to him.
And there was not one thing he could do for it. He sprang up, his feet itching for some useful activity. Pacing was also a bad habit, but better than simply running mad.
He raked his hand through his hair as the first bolt of lightning flashed in the windows, followed by a satisfying rumble of thunder. None of her pregnancies had lasted this long. If there were only some way to be assured of the outcome of this one.
The last one, when it ended… He swallowed back the bitter, sick taste in the back of his throat. Dear God, let that not be the case again. So much blood…the tiny cry that lasted only moments…
Another crack of thunder shook his bones and rattled his thoughts.
Was that Providence’s way of reminding him not to dwell upon the nightmare that haunted his sleep nearly every night these last few months? Perhaps that was why Lydia had come, to distract him from his dour and dreary thoughts and give him something entirely different to fret about.
“Do stop pacing, Darcy, no good comes of it. You will wear out yourself and the carpets, in that order.”
Darcy jumped. When had Fitzwilliam wandered in?
Long and easy in his blue coat and buff trousers—how Fitzwilliam hated the cut of breeches—he draped himself along one side of the floral couch opposite the settee. He still looked just like Andrew with his Aquiline nose and heavy brows, but he had filled out a bit since his marriage. That probably was a good thing. When he had left the army, he was positively gaunt. “Anne will be with us shortly.”
“Is that a warning?”
“No, it is a hint. If you have something to say about her, best get it off your chest before she arrives, and I have to puff out my chest and defend my bride against your surly attitudes.”
“Defend her from me? How absurd!”
“It is only absurd because we have a guest who irritates you even more than Anne does. Otherwise you would be grumbling about her.” Fitzwilliam leaned back and folded his arms over his chest.
Darcy grumbled and muttered under his breath as he positioned himself, politely, on the armchair.
“Do relax man, it looks like you are carrying a poker up your—”
“Darcy!” Anne swept in, deep pink skirts of something stiff and formal rustling with her steps. Her cheeks glowed, and she looked healthier—and happier—than she ever had before. Neither might ever admit it, but she and Fitzwilliam had become quite smitten with one another. “I thought you might still be sitting with Elizabeth. How is she?” At least there was genuine concern in her eyes, not cold politeness or morbid curiosity.
“She is tired, I think. And uncomfortable.”
“I should think so.” Fitzwilliam guffawed.
“What would you know of it?” Anne sat beside him, straightened her skirts, and cuffed his shoulder. “You speak of something you do not understand. Yes, I know you have suffered your share of discomforts in this life, but you grasp nothing of what it is like to be waddling about like some great goose knowing that everyone is laughing about it behind your back.”
“Despite your best efforts to school me otherwise, you still insist that I have learned nothing.” Fitzwilliam flashed an eyebrow at her, snickering.
“Absolutely. You have no idea of what she suffers.”
Darcy winced. The last thing he needed right now was a reminder of his mother-in-law’s favorite complaint.
“I know the midwife says her confinement will not be until the new year, but I think she is wrong.” Anne folded her arms across her chest, looking so much like her mother it was difficult to take her seriously.
“Because having a single daughter makes you an expert on these things?” It was fortunate that Fitzwilliam’s wife had spine enough to withstand his incessant teasing.
“Because I have seen the look in Elizabeth’s eyes, and I recall it well. I think she is close. You should call the midwife as soon as may be arranged.”
Rain slammed the windowpanes as though thrown from buckets, backlit by another bolt of lightning.
Darcy stared at the windows. The curtains ought to be drawn soon. “I will send for Mrs. Madden as soon as the weather abates.”
“That is not like you not to argue, Darce.” Fitzwilliam sat up straighter, leaning in.
“Leave him be, Richard.” Anne elbowed him hard. “Can you not see when to leave off your taunting ways and show a bit of understanding?”
“That is not what you married me for.”
“Perhaps not, but nonetheless, it would be an appropriate demonstration of gratitude for a refuge away from both our mothers and their matchmaking machinations for Georgiana this season.”
Fitzwilliam groaned and threw his head back to stare at the ceiling. “At this point, I do not know what would be worse. Mother’s constant parties and outings and dinners or—”
“Do not say it!” Anne hissed.
“Another evening spent in the company of Mrs. Wickham.” Fitzwilliam groaned under his breath.
“Do not be so rude! She is a guest here just as we are.” Anne glanced at Darcy. “Pray excuse him.”
“Just because you are amused by her antics—and I know you only feel that way because you know you should not be—does not mean the rest of us see it your way.” Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes.
What had Lydia done now?
“I grant you; she was a bit … enthusiastic … cutting evergreens today.” Anne’s lips thinned to a very polite expression. It never boded well when Anne feigned politeness.
“What happened?” Most likely, Darcy did not want to know, especially before dinner when such news might spoil his appetite for Cook’s excellent victuals, but he had to ask.
Anne exchanged glances with Fitzwilliam. Anne unsure of what to say? Definitely not good.
“You need not worry about it.” Fitzwilliam flicked his hand, pushing the thought away.
“I absolutely do. What happened?” Darcy stood and stalked to the windows. He yanked the dark teal curtains across the windows.
“Have you seen your front hall?” Anne whispered.
“Do I need to?”
“It is rather overtaken with greenery at the moment.” Fitzwilliam snickered.
Darcy stalked toward the couch. “Overtaken? What does that mean in precise terms? Clear, precise and exact terms, please.”
“Mrs. Wickham is rather fond of evergreens.” Anne shrugged and bit her lower lip.
“That is not a sufficient explanation. Fitzwilliam, perhaps you will clarify for me what your wife will not?” Darcy towered over Fitzwilliam.
Fitzwilliam dragged the back of his hand across his chin. “You need not worry about it. Did I not tell you, Anne? I took care of everything.”
“What did you take care of!” Deep breath, man. The master of the house should not stomp.
“Mrs. Reynolds agreed with me. She was certain neither you nor Elizabeth needed to be bothered with it.”
“Bothered with what?” Now he was shouting. Best stop that. Elizabeth always seemed to know when he was upset—how he could not fathom, but she did. And if she knew he was agitated, she would suddenly appear when she should be resting instead.
“Mrs. Wickham insisted we come home with enough evergreens to fill the front hall and render it largely impassable. She rapidly grew bored with the efforts of decorating the house with them and left it to whomever else had the fancy,” Anne said softly.
“As I said, there is nothing to worry about. I marshaled the footmen and hall boys, and we piled most of it on a farm cart and sent it out to the tenants, who, I am happy to say, received it with gratitude and are strengthened in the delusion that you are the best landlord in all of England.” Fitzwilliam held up open hands. “So, you see there is nothing to trouble yourself with.”
“Was Elizabeth privy to any of this?”
“Is that why she was so distressed today?” Yes, that was a much better tone of voice, low and even.
“I think not. She seemed to enjoy tying bows on garlands with her sisters and I for a quarter of an hour, doing an admirable job of ignoring the unmanageable heap in the front hall. Then she allowed me to help her upstairs to her sitting room for a bit of tea and quiet. That was before Mrs. Wickham left.”
The parlor door swung open, revealing the Bingleys, dressed and polished for dinner.
“If you want to be all glimflashy about things, I suggest you turn your ire on her.” Fitzwilliam pointed at Jane, elegant and poised in a simple blue and white striped dinner gown.
Jane’s eyes grew large and her cheeks flushed.
“Do not tease her.” Anne crossed the room to take Jane’s hands. “She has not the disposition for it.” She led Jane and Bingley into the parlor and shut the door.
“What is all this about?” Bingley asked, pulling a lyre-back chair from the card table close to the couch for Jane. “Are you going on about the cutting party this morning?”
“It was not my idea.” Jane looked at her hands as she sat down.
“As I recall, it was yours.” Bingley nodded his head toward Anne.
“But it was you, Mrs. Bingley, who wrote to Mrs. Wickham of our little house party.” Fitzwilliam wagged a pointing finger.
Jane huddled back into her chair.
Blast! Why could he not understand that not all were of the constitution to tolerate his taunting? True enough, Jane bordered on insipid and utterly annoying in her mildness, but that did not justify Fitzwilliam tormenting her.
“Neither of us suspected she would consider that an invitation.” Bingley scooted his chair a little closer to Jane. “Traveling alone with two small children? Who does that sort of thing?”
“I do wonder where Wickham is. I thought all the troops had been brought back from France by now.” Fitzwilliam’s face grew dark and his tone cold, the way it always did when the subject of France came up.
“Just before we left, I thought I read in the newspaper that there were several regiments still there.” Anne shrugged.
“More likely he has used the opportunity to slink away like the loathsome creature that he is, ignoring his duty to his family until he decides there is some pecuniary benefit that might be gained from attending to them,” Darcy muttered, looking away from his company.
“That does raise an important question.” Bingley leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “What is to be done for them?”
“Done? What do you mean done?” Darcy began to pace again as another wave of rain pounded the window glass. “I have done all—”
“What have you done, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth toddled in, looking so much like her young nieces, still unsteady on their feet, that it was difficult not to smile.
He hurried to offer her his arm and settle her in the large floral armchair.
Educational Psychology and is a 16-year veteran of the university classroom where she taught courses in human growth and development, learning, test development and counseling. None of which have anything to do with her undergraduate studies in economics/sociology/managerial studies/behavior sciences. She pretends to be a mild-mannered writer/cat-lady, but most of her vacations require helmets and waivers or historical costumes, usually not at the same time.