Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Spring is in the mail


Spring must be right around the corner!

I opened my mailbox this morning and there it was—the first breath of spring—and the soft, sweet fragrance of a summer garden. Yes, the first garden catalogue of the year has arrived, and it’s my favorite.

Richter’s Herbs is in the middle of the Ontario countryside just outside Toronto, a stone’s throw from where I grew up. When we lived in our first married home in Markham, Ontario, I used to visit the herb farm every spring. I’d wander through the greenhouses and dream of a day when I’d have a garden big enough to grow all these marvelous plants.

When my kids were born, I planted herbs in our Ottawa garden for them—things to touch and taste and smell and discover. We grew Woolly Lamb’s Ear for the soft furry texture of the leaves. We planted globe thistles and teasels for the shapes. There were sunflowers for the birds, and morning glory vines, and we even dyed t-shirts with tansy flowers one summer. We nibbled mint, sage, fresh raspberries, basil, and chives, and exulted in the scent of lavender, bergamot, and roses. We planted a hedge of catnip for our cats so they could spend sultry summer days in the garden too, hidden under the shady leaves, listening to the bees and the birds in the ultimate feline happy place.

Now we live in Calgary, and I get my annual Richter’s haul by mail, and count the days until it arrives each spring.

My kids are grown, and my son uses fresh herbs to cook with (he’s 21, handsome, charming, and single, ladies. He speaks three languages, and he cooks delicious, wonderful things). He chooses some of the plants we order now, exotic things to experiment with, like Thai Basil, Cilantro, Mexican and Greek Oregano, Zaatar, and hot peppers.

It all sounds perfect, doesn’t it? An urban oasis of scent, color and taste. In my imagination, and here in the dead of winter with a cup of tea in one hand and the Richter’s Herb catalogue in the other, it is perfect, a magazine-worthy backyard landscape of sheer magnificence.

In truth, my garden doesn’t look like that. The seasons here in Alberta can be wildly unpredictable, and the intense heat and dryness of the climate make it a hard place for a gardener with an Ontario-variety green thumb to make things grow. My catnip patch here is scraggly and bare most of the summer, rolled on, crushed, chewed, and much loved by five cats.

The rest of the garden suffers under the giant feet of my unruly chocolate lab. Flowers get broken in the heat of dog play, and prime canine napping spots are carved out in the warm dirt, regardless of the fact that things are trying to grow there. Squirrels eat my sunflowers, and crows nip the buds off my roses. The basil is well plucked for cooking, the chives snipped, and the black currants are stolen by birds, deer, voles, and jackrabbits. For all those creatures sake, there’s no pesticides, herbicides or commercial fertilizers, so weeds abound. 

Still, I wouldn’t change a thing, because it’s home. My garden is part of the family, and it grows and changes as our family does, and that, to me, makes for one prefect garden, a reflection of who we are, and who I am.

This year, I’m going to order a new variety or two of rose, and give up on tomato plants that never do well here, and add a new variety of mint, perhaps. Sweet Pear Mint, anyone? Or maybe I’ll just make space for some extra Genovese Basil, or try growing a Chicago Fig tree, or Jasmine. Perhaps it’s a good thing there’s weeks yet until spring, and lots of time to pore over the catalogue before I decide.

Richter’s has a wonderful on-line catalogue, and they ship across North America. For your breath of summer inspiration, Richter’s web address is www.Richters.com

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On The Seventh Day of Christmas...


On The Seventh Day of Christmas My True Love gave to me…

7 Festive Meals

How did the folk who celebrated all twelve days of Christmas do it? Food-wise, I mean. It’s only the day after New Year’s, and I am thankful that the Christmas food festivities are over.

Our holiday food fest starts early—on December 13, with my husband’s birthday. This year we had shepherd’s pie made with ale and mashed potatoes with smoked cheddar and mustard, and birthday cake of course.

Then came tree-decorating day, and since my father-in-law, a trained hotel chef, joins us, we go all out to impress. This year we made Boeuf-en-daub, with a lavish cake made with chocolate and Irish whisky for dessert.

Next, there’s Christmas Eve dinner (Chicken cannelloni this year, and my husband’s famous Caesar Salad), then Christmas breakfast (Homemade Quiche, fresh fruit salad, Ukrainian delicacies including Kutya, Kolbasa, and homemade Kulach, served with Kir Royale).

We have a lovely Christmas dinner at my sister-in-law’s house, with good food and excellent company, as merry as a dinner can possibly be, and then make our own turkey dinner a few days later, so we can enjoy the leftovers. We’re going to try Jamie Oliver’s delicious looking Boxing Day soup this year, made with the leftovers no one can face any longer, in the usual way, peeping out from between two sheets of bread. 

On New Year’s Day, we have Scottish Breakfast, a traditional and massive fry up, to celebrate my husband’s Scottish roots. There’s Ayrshire bacon, sliced sausage, black pudding, tattie scones, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs—and toast too, in case you’re still hungry.

Five pounds later, with my jeans a little tight, and the Christmas glow finally dimming in my blood-shot eyes, I am glad that Christmas is over at last—at least the eating part.

Every year at this time, we all pat our bellies, put the cookbooks and glossy food magazines back on the shelf, and say, “next year, less food. Certainly no more chocolates—well, maybe just one box. And we’ll avoid the gourmet cheese store next December, and maybe leave the sliced sausage out of Scottish breakfast.”

It never happens, of course. Family tradition sees to that. Come Christmas 2013, despite our good intentions at this end of the year, we’ll do it all again, and we’ll enjoy every mouthful, since every dish is served with good conversation, jokes and stories, family togetherness and love. The five pounds will succumb to a few weeks of sensible eating, but the warm, wonderful feelings last forever.

And isn’t that what Christmas food is really about?


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

THE CHRISTMAS KING, Part I


This story was originally created for Ramblings From This Chick's Historical Christmas Eve project, where a number of wonderful historical romance authors were asked to create an original scene based on a set theme. My theme was 'A royal visitor on Christmas Eve'. Here's the original post, which appeared on the Ramblings From This Chick website on December 12, 2012. 
I decided to finish the whole story and post it here, for readers to enjoy over the rest of the holidays. So, if you haven't read THE CHRISTMAS KING, please start here. The rest of the story is posted in 7 parts...all following this first part of the story.  
Enjoy—and may you have a very Happy New Year!


THE CHRISTMAS KING
By Lecia Cornwall



CHAPTER ONE

Collingwood Castle, Wales, nineteen days until Christmas Eve

“Say the words!” Louisa Niven whispered, handing her older sister a bundle of dried herbs.
Phoebe took them gingerly, and tied a few strands of her brown hair around them, wrinkling her nose at the strong scent of rose, lavender and elfwort. “Show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide,” she murmured. She hesitated before tossing them into the fireplace. “Are you sure this will work in an earl’s library? Shouldn’t we be in a forest hut, or out in the woods, dancing around a bonfire naked?”
Louisa rolled her eyes. “Oh, Phoebe, really! It’s freezing outside, and the legend just says we need to gather the herbs of love at midsummer, then burn them on the feast day of St. Nicholas for the spell to work. That’s today, and no one said it couldn’t be in the library.” She tossed her own bundle onto the flames, watched the hungry flames pounce on them. Sparks crackled and shot up the chimney.
“Do you see anyone?” Phoebe asked, kneeling next to her sister to peer into the smoke.
Louisa frowned. “No. At least, nothing that resembles a true love. You try.”
Phoebe pressed the herbs between prayerful hands, looked heavenward, and giggled. “I feel silly,” she confessed.
“Just do it!” Louisa hissed. All Phoebe did was moon for love, and a suitor who would ride over the mountains and sweep her away, and now she hesitated? Phoebe glared scornfully down her pert nose for a moment before she drew a breath and cast the bundle into the flames.
They leaned forward, scanning the sparks for a sign. “That bit of burning ash, is that a face?” Phoebe asked, breathless, then drew back. “No. It looks like Poppy, Gran’s cat, if you ask me. Are you sure Gwen recalls the spell correctly? No matter what people say, she’s not really a witch, just the village midwife. She’s even older than Gran, and Gran can’t remember our names some days.”
 “Everyone knows Old Gwen has magical powers,” Louisa replied. “She tells the same tale every year—maidens who gather the right herbs at midsummer, dry them, tie them with a lock of hair and throw them onto the fire on the feast of St. Nicholas will see a sign, and if they do, they can expect their true love to come to them by Christmas Eve.”
“Has it ever worked before?” Phoebe asked.
“Gwen swears she met all four of her husbands exactly this way,” Louisa murmured. “I’m sure we’ve done everything right.” She stared at the crumbling ashes. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough yarrow, or the meadowsweet is insufficient, or the lavender...”
The door opened, and the girls leapt to their feet. Louisa tucked the last bundle into her pocket. 
Celyn Beauchamp regarded her two young cousins. “And what are you two up to?” They looked like a pair of cats hiding songbirds between their teeth. She crossed to the desk, set down a sheaf of papers and sniffed the air, filled with the sweet scent of herbs. “Casting Old Gwen’s love spell, are you?”
 “Oh Celyn, Have you looked at the calendar? It’s December the sixth—St. Nicholas’s Day!” Louisa reached into her pocket and held out a bundle of herbs. “Look, I saved one for you. All I need is your hair, and then—”
Celyn tilted her head and smiled at her fourteen-year-old cousin. “My hair?” It was pinned up in a sensible and matronly bun, and she wasn’t about to take it down for such nonsense.
“Gwen says it’s essential, so the goddess knows who’s casting the spell,” Louisa said as she took the scissors out of her other pocket. “Please? It won’t take much hair, and it’s your last chance. The spell only works for young maidens, and you’re going to be twenty-one before Twelfth Night. Next year you’ll be an old maid!”
Celyn folded her arms over her chest, exactly the way an old maid might. She let them drop to her sides again, and resisted the urge to loosen her hair a little and pinch some girlish color into her cheeks. “Really, don’t you two have something better to do?”
“Like what?” Phoebe asked. “It’s too cold to go outside, and we’ve read every book in the library. If I have to sew one more shirt for Mrs. Jones’s new baby, I’ll cry. I’ve made at least a dozen already!”
“It’s not so cold,” Celyn said. Especially with the library fire roaring as it was, using a full day’s worth of fuel all at once. She rolled up her sleeves to keep them free of ink as she crossed to the desk. “It’s warm in the kitchen. Mrs. Jones is making fruitcake and plum pudding. You might offer to lend a hand so she can stay off her feet.”
“Gwen says she’s sure to have the child by Christmas. Who’ll cook the goose and make the venison pies?” Louisa complained.
Celyn felt her smile slip a little, and pasted it firmly back in place. She only hoped there’d be enough money for a goose, or that Aled managed to shoot a pheasant or even a hare, never mind a deer. Collingwood’s huntsman was getting old, and his eyesight was failing, but he wouldn’t allow anyone to take his post. Christmas would be meager indeed, and the hampers for the village would be light this year, and with the cold coming so early…Celyn swallowed her fear and changed the subject to the only other one at hand.
“How have the omens for love been this year?” she asked, coming forward to take the bundle of herbs from Louisa, turning the dry twigs and flowers in her hand. There was no use burdening her cousins, or anyone else at Collingwood, with the dire position they were in. She still had a few pounds of the money Lord Collingwood had left her when he died. He’d meant it as a dowry, but there were bills to pay and mouths to feed while they waited for the new earl to put in an appearance and take up his responsibilities. She doubted she’d ever marry, anyway, and the last of her dowry might as well pay for some semblance of Christmas, and bring cheer and joy to everyone at Collingwood. Soon, perhaps by spring, the new earl would arrive, and everything would be fine…but she’d been saying that for months. 
Phoebe sniffed. “What omens? I didn’t see anything at all. I’m almost seventeen! If we were still in England, I’d be making my debut next Season, and there would be no need to cast spells. Suitors would flock to my side.” She smoothed a hand over her blond curls.
Celyn glanced at the stack of unpaid bills on the desk, looked around at Collingwood’s threadbare library, at the antlers on the wall, the faded furnishings. She couldn’t afford to send Phoebe to London. “Perhaps next year,” she said gently. “When the new earl comes.”
“When the new earl comes!” Phoebe mimicked. “If he ever does. Great-Uncle Caradoc has been dead almost a year, and his heir hasn’t answered a single letter.”
“Then I shall write to him again, and keep doing so every week until he does reply,” Celyn said, keeping her tone even. She was as frustrated as Phoebe, but as long as there were people to feed, and ink and paper to write, she couldn’t give up. Everyone depended on her in the earl’s absence. Why hadn’t he replied? She was about to set the herbs down, but Louisa caught her wrist.
“Will you try the spell, Celyn?” she asked.
Celyn closed her hand on the sharp twigs, felt them prick her fingers. “I’ve really got too much to do. I’ve this letter to finish, and I should be helping Mrs. Jones, and there’s—”
“Please?” Louisa said, closing her hands over Celyn’s. “It won’t take long.”
Celyn sighed. “All right then, if only to prove it doesn’t work. One has to be practical, sensible, and—” Phoebe loosened a lock of Celyn’s dark hair, and raised the scissors. Celyn winced as the curl fell free. Louisa tied it around the bundle, and led her to the fire. The warmth felt good at least, hopeful, restorative—exactly the way she imagined true love might feel.
“Say, show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide,” Louisa prompted. A tart reply hovered on Celyn’s lips. If her true love did show up at Christmastide, what on earth would they feed him? But when she looked into her cousin’s sweet face, saw her flame-bright eyes, Celyn saw something she hadn’t felt herself for a long while—hope.
 “Show me my true love, send him to me by Christmastide,” she murmured.
“Now toss it,” Phoebe instructed, and Celyn opened her hand, let the bundle fly from her fingertips into the fire. With a rush of heat and light, it ignited, and the flames shot upward.
“I see purple!” Louisa gasped.
“And blue!” Phoebe said.
The colored flames reflected in her cousins’ wide eyes. “Well, what does the legend say?” Celyn asked, as astonished as they were. “Is that a good sign?”  She watched the rush of embers as they climbed the dark chimney, carrying the spell out into the frigid winter sky.
“I think it must be! That didn’t happen when I tried,” Phoebe said.
Louisa clapped. “It’s working! Do you see a face, Celyn?”
Celyn squinted. “I see someone who looks just like Aled, probably because I’m hoping the hunt will go better today. I fancy rabbit stew for supper.”
“I see a crown!” Phoebe cried. “Look, just there—” she pointed at the shape in the glowing ash.
“A king?” Louisa gushed. “Gran has always said the King promised her he would come and dine with her at Christmas. She’s still waiting, even after all these years! Perhaps this is the year!”
Celyn felt a shiver creep up her spine, and straightened her shoulders. How silly, and yet, it did look like a crown…
Phoebe pinched her sister. “As if the King would come here! And he can’t be Celyn’s true love—he’s married to the Queen!”
 “Gran was a maid of honor at court. She knew the King well. He wouldn’t forget such a solemn promise,” she said passionately, clasping her hand over the injured spot. “It wouldn’t be—kingly.”
“That was years ago, before he went mad!” Phoebe argued. “Gran barely remembers what she had for breakfast a half hour after she’s eaten it. How can we believe her account of a conversation she had with the King over thirty years ago?”
Louisa looked mulish. “He might come! Besides, he’s not the only king—there are kings in other countries, too!”
Celyn brushed the remains of the herbs off her hands and rose to her feet. “But foreign kings aren’t very likely to come to take Christmas with us,” she said. “Unless Napoleon invades, of course, and finds himself very lost.” Phoebe’s eyes widened with terror. “Not to fear,” Celyn soothed.
“Well if it’s not the King, it must mean Celyn’s true love will come,” Louisa insisted stubbornly. “I refuse to give up hope.”
Celyn gave her cousin’s shoulder a squeeze. There was more chance of a royal visit than true love showing up at the door, since there wasn’t a marriageable gentleman within fifty miles of Collingwood. She glanced at the portrait of the late earl that hung above the fireplace. Right up until his death at the advanced age of seventy, Caradoc Colley been regarded as the last suitable bachelor for ladies of quality in the whole of Snowdonia. Unfortunately, all four of them—herself, Louisa, Phoebe and their grandmother—were related to him.
            She went back to the desk. “All flames look like crowns. It means the chimney is drawing well, or there’s a draft, perhaps.” It was chilly on this side of the room, away from the hearth, and she glanced at the windows, but they were all firmly shut, and laced over with frost. She sat down and took out a fresh sheet of paper.
Phoebe looked over her shoulder. “You’re not really writing to him again, are you?”
Celyn dipped the pen in the ink. “I am writing to the new earl’s man of affairs with an itemized list of expenditures.” And one more plea for money, supplies, and the essential materials needed to repair the cottages.
“He never answers,” Phoebe said. “Are you sure he’s even real?”
Celyn was beginning to doubt it herself. There’d been one reply to her letters, a terse note from someone—not the earl—informing ‘whom it may concern’ that all inquiries and accounts should be sent directly to the earl’s man of affairs. She hadn’t received any acknowledgement from the earl himself—no orders or instructions or even a condolence on their loss.
“Of course he’s real,” she said brightly. “I write so he’ll know that we are keeping Collingwood in good order, and everything is in prefect readiness for when he does wish to come.” She began to list the expenses of the last month, her chest tightening with every figure she noted. The harvest had been poor this year…
“He should come and see to it for himself,” Phoebe sniffed.
“Perhaps he’ll come in the spring,” Celyn said yet again, but frustration fell on her like a wet blanket, and she had to force herself to smile. “We can’t expect him sooner—no one in their right mind would travel in this weather! Now go and see if Mrs. Jones needs help in the kitchen.”
Phoebe flounced out with a gusty sigh, but Louisa kissed Celyn’s cheek.
“Will you tell me if you dream of him tonight, your true love?”
“Of course, sweeting,” Celyn said. Along with visions of sugarplums and Christmas fairies bearing roasted goose, baked ham and cake. She turned her attention back on the letter as Louisa skipped out.
“True love for Christmas,” she murmured. She glanced at the flames in the fireplace once more. They were plain yellow now, burning sedately. She shook her head. If only wishing really could make dreams come true.
But that, as she well knew, was impossible.


CHAPTER TWO

London, sixteen days until Christmas Eve

“You simply must come to Kingscott Hall for Christmas, Millicent!”
Edward Kingsley, Earl of Wintercross, made his escape the very same day—the very same moment, in fact—as that invitation was issued. By luck, he’d arrived early in answer to his stepmother’s summons to tea, or he wouldn’t have overheard her conversation with Lady Millicent Grainger. He’d have been snared like a rabbit, and served up at the family Christmas festivities as the man engaged, or even worse, married to Millicent Grainger.
But he was safe—for now. As Millicent was joyfully accepting the invitation, Edward snatched his hat from the butler’s hands, where he’d placed it not two minutes before, and fled.
Not just from Kingsley House—he’d left Town entirely.
It wasn’t that Lady Millicent wasn’t a suitable candidate for the post of someone else’s countess—her dowry was generous, she was pretty enough, and her pedigree was excellent. Her father boasted the Graingers could trace their lineage back to the moment William the Conqueror first set foot on English soil. Millicent’s ancestor had probably set her cap for the first wealthy, unmarried knight to step ashore, just the way Millicent herself had set her sights on Edward the moment she arrived in London last spring. He hadn’t shown her the slightest interest, but she’d been popping up everywhere he went, with her toothsome smile and winning charm—at the theater, at his elbow at every ball, trailing him on horseback down Rotten Row—stridently courting him, though he’d not given her any reason to hope for a proposal.
             “You’ll have to marry eventually, and Millie’s a good sort,” his father, the Duke of Kingsbury, had advised him, since Millicent had successfully courted him, and the rest of Edward’s kin. “Why not get it over with, and set up your nursery? It would please your stepmother, and a number of other people as well. There are at least twenty bets on the book at White’s as to when, not if, you’ll marry Millicent.” He’d winked at Edward. “I myself have wagered on December twenty-ninth as the happy day. I stand to win a hundred pounds if you to make Millicent your bride by then.”
            But Edward had no intention of proposing. He’d never met a woman he liked well enough to marry, and at the advanced age of thirty-one, he doubted he ever would. He felt he should have some regard, at least, if not a greater depth of feeling, for the woman he married. Since such a woman didn’t seem to exist, he was more than content to enjoy the pleasures, pastimes, and comforts of a wealthy bachelor’s existence permanently, even to the point of allowing his half-brother to inherit his lands and titles once he left this life. And really, what did one need a wife for? He had excellent servants to see to his needs, and friends for conversation or dining out. The fickle romantic escapades of his half sisters, the five silliest women in all England, had shown Edward it was wisest to avoid romantic entanglements. He’d seen enough gentlemen of his acquaintance lose their wits over a woman. It wasn’t a pleasant fate.
His stepmother firmly believed that a single man was an unhappy one, and she’d been throwing eligible young ladies at Edward since he turned eighteen. She had high hopes that Millicent would be the one to bag him at last, but Edward was about to disappoint her yet again.
Just days before Christmas Eve, when he might have been at Kingscott Hall enjoying a cup of hot rum punch and looking forward to an excellent dinner, he found himself on the road, far from any of his luxurious homes, in the middle of—he stared at the faces around him in the dowdy wayside inn—where the devil was he? Wales yet, or still England? He hoped his coachman knew. It had been snowing for days, blotting out the road and the houses and anything recognizable as a landmark.
He stared into the cup of sour ale he’d been nursing for hours. Perhaps this was a fool’s errand. He’d had to leave word of his plans, after all, a hasty note written to his father, to be delivered the day after he’d left London. Once his destination was known, he pictured Millicent following him into the wilds of Wales, riding sidesaddle on a wild-eyed gelding, color-matched to her riding habit, with one of her father’s dueling pistols clutched in her dainty white hand. No doubt his half-sisters would accompany her on the manhunt, giggling all the way, a fashionable posse in stylish bonnets and fox-fur muffs, intent on dragging him back to hearth, home and altar. He shuddered, and hoped that his intended destination, the recently inherited Collingwood Castle, turned out to be as deep in the mountains of Snowdonia as his man of affairs described it.
Edward hadn’t even heard of the place before his late mother’s great uncle Caradoc Colley, the newly deceased Earl of Collingwood, left Edward his castle and title. Edward never expected to actually go to Collingwood, especially not in the dead of winter, but here he was, on his way. It would make a perfect hiding place—he frowned, and flicked a glance over his manicured hands.
He was not hiding.
He was inspecting his property, and planning to enjoy Christmas in blissful, Millicent-free solitude. If he ever arrived. He’d been on the road for days longer than he’d expected, and was now delayed at the world’s most disagreeable inn. While his coachman haggled with the local blacksmith over a wheel repair, Edward was kicking his heels among the locals in the taproom, who regarded him suspiciously over the rims of their cups.
It was the overloaded baggage wagon that had broken a wheel. In his defense, he’d been in a hurry. He’d ordered his servants to pack everything he might conceivably need. There were at least a dozen hampers of food, wine, ale and whisky, trunks of clothing for every type of weather or social event, monogrammed blankets, linens, eiderdowns, and the finest feather pillows. There were uncountable boxes of beeswax candles, and plenty of books. More than plenty. When the wheel broke, it had taken five men an hour to unload the cart. They behaved as if they’d never seen fine things before.
“It’s starting to snow again,” the innkeeper warned to the room in general. Edward wondered how the man could tell, since the taproom had no windows.
“Is it your left knee or your right?” someone asked.
“Left,” was the innkeeper’s morose reply, and it was met with a general groan.
“What does that mean?” Edward demanded.
“It means two feet of snow, maybe even more afore it lets up,” a farmer informed him. He picked up his hat and nodded to his companions. “I won’t delay, then. I’m for home while I can still find it.”
Edward watched the room empty out on the strength of a weather prediction made by an aching left knee.
“Will you be wanting to stay the night?” the innkeeper asked. “I wouldn’t advise traveling on.”
“Oh wouldn’t you?” Edward pictured being trapped in this dank inn until the innkeeper’s elbow predicted spring. “My coach is well sprung, made for heavy travel, my good man. I daresay I shall be more comfortable there than in what passes for your finest room.”
The man just rubbed his knee and winced, and Edward had insisted on setting out within the hour, leaving his baggage cart to follow. Surely Collingwood Castle couldn’t be much farther. Once he arrived, he would have a good fire, a hot meal, and his first decent night’s sleep in a fortnight in all that blissful solitude. He wondered what merriment his sisters were up to at Kingscott, and resolutely pushed the thought away.
It was rather a romantic notion, spending Christmas in the snow-covered Welsh countryside. He told himself he would not miss his family, or the endless romp of holiday parties and balls, or the simple things, like a crisp, freshly pressed copy of the Times delivered with his breakfast. But he would miss it—he loved Christmas at Kingscott—the excellent meals, port, cigars and good conversation in the library with the gentlemen, watching his half-sisters carrying armloads of holly, mistletoe, and ivy in to decorate the hall, laughing, throwing snow at each other, their eyes sparkling, their joy infectious.
He straightened his scarf, and brushed imaginary snow off his own coat. He would have a quiet, restful holiday. He would tramp over the fields, perhaps do a little shooting, eat well, sleep late, read, and not have to fear bumping into Millicent—or someone sent to encourage him to come to the point and marry her—at every turn. He might even stay for the entirety of the winter, if he liked the place. Looking out the window now at the snow, he wondered if returning to London was even an option. He may not have a choice but to remain until spring.
He shut his eyes and tried to nap. If this trip convinced the rapacious Millicent and everyone else that he had no intention of marrying, then a lonely Christmas was a small price to pay.



CHAPTER THREE

Five days until Christmas Eve

Celyn burrowed into her pillow, trying to ignore the hand gripping her shoulder, shaking her awake.
“Celyn, please wake up! The barn in the village is on fire!”
She was instantly awake. Catrin, the maid, hovered above her, her face pale under her nightcap. A candle shook in her hands. “Aled’s downstairs and he needs to know what to do!”
Celyn felt her chest tighten, and last wisps of sleep fled as her bare feet connected with the icy floorboards. “How bad is it?” she demanded, reaching for her robe.
            “You can see for yourself,” Catrin said, and opened the drapes. The night sky glowed red above the trees beyond the park, and Celyn felt her mouth dry. She dropped the robe and crossed to the wardrobe to find a gown.
            Catrin fastened the buttons as Celyn pulled on her stockings. “Aled was asleep in the barn. The new baby is keeping him awake at home, and he wanted some peace and quiet. He fell asleep with the lantern—” the maid said.
            Panic welled in Celyn’s breast. “Is he all right?”
            “Yes he’s fine, I think. He sounded the alarm, and they got the beasts out in time. Everyone is trying to put out the fire, but you’re needed.”
            Celyn hurried downstairs, imagining the worst—people burned or killed, animals lost, the precious harvest stores gone. Aled was pacing the hall, mud and ash from his boots mixing on the black slate tiles.
“The barn is on fire, and the wind is shifting—” he said, twisting his cap in his hand. There were smudges of soot on his lined face, and tears in his clouded eyes. He looked every day of his advanced age, his bravado gone, his shoulders stooped under a dusty horse blanket.
 “How bad?” Celyn asked again, reaching for one of Caradoc’s old cloaks from the pegs in the hall, wrapping it around the old man’s shoulders.
Aled shook his head, clutching at the warm wool. “Awful. The wind’s carried the flames to some of the houses. Mrs. Jones and the little ones are out in the snow. Me an’ Davy Price managed to get the animals out of the barn, and everyone’s trying to put it out, but the pond is frozen. The stores—” he swallowed, his body shaking with cold and sorrow. “My daughter-in-law can’t keep the wee one quiet at night. He’s getting his teeth in near as fast as I’m losing my own, and I just wanted a bit of quiet,” he said. “Where else is there to go but the barn?”
Celyn’s heart plummeted. She pulled on her own cloak and opened the door. “We’d best go and see.” The icy wind slapped her face and made her gasp, and snow filled her untied boots. She bent against the wind and pushed it back across the park with Aled behind her.
The village was in chaos. Four cottages were already on fire, and the hungry flames were reaching out for the rest. The barn was a birdcage of blazing timber. She looked around desperately for any sacks of grain that might have been saved, but there weren’t any. At least the livestock stood safely in the shadows. She felt her stomach rise, and swallowed quickly. She had never faced a crisis like this. Caradoc had managed things, with Aled to help, when he was younger. Children were crying and women screaming, standing in the snow in their nightclothes as their homes burned, staring at her, waiting for her to fix this. She clenched her fists in the folds of her cloak, and wondered where to even start. 
She began by counting the faces, whispering a frantic prayer that everyone was safe, that no one was trapped inside the barn or in the burning cottages. She took off her cloak and wrapped it around Mrs. Stackpoole, who was eighty, and tucked a pair of youngsters under it as well. Their chattering teeth rivaled the roar of the fire.
“Soak the cottages,” she ordered the men slithering up the icy banks of the pond with buckets, knowing it was too late to save the barn. The entire harvest was inside, feeding the flames, starving the people.
Screams rose as the barn caved in, the timbers defeated by the assault of the flames. A rush of sparks flew upward into the dark sky, chased by scarlet tongues of fire. So much for spells and wishes, she thought, seeing nothing but disaster in the flames this time.
“What will we do, Celyn?” Aled asked, his voice plaintive in the wind.
They were all watching her, every soul from the oldest to the youngest, expecting—she felt anger fill her like another rush of hot sparks. Didn’t they see there was nothing she could do? But they were counting on her—old Mrs. Stackpoole, and Mrs. Jones with her five children, her belly big with the sixth, and Davy Price, who’d lost his wife only weeks ago, and now was without a home, too, with four children to raise.
Celyn wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, and wake up to find that none of this was real. She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering, and swallowed the bile rising in her throat.
“Take everyone up to the castle, out of the cold,” she ordered Aled. “Get Catrin and the girls to make hot tea and soup. Get blankets and—”
There were tears on the old huntsman’s cheeks, contagious tears, and she felt them sting her own eyes. “It will be all right,” she said firmly, trying to convince herself as much as Aled. She grabbed a pail of water, the rough rope handle tearing into her palm, and lugged it toward the cottages. 
Despite their efforts, the village was a smoking ruin by dawn.
“It’s starting to snow,” one of the men said grimly, coming to stand with the rest beside Celyn. “We’ll have a foot or more before nightfall.”
Celyn looked up at the leaden sky. The heavy flakes of snow raised hisses of displeasure from the dying fire, but they came too late to help. “We’d best go up to the castle,” she said. “In the morning, we’ll see what’s to be done.”
“It is morning,” Perry Evans said grimly, looking around at the black remains of the village. “Won’t be nothing to be done until next spring, I’m thinking.”
“Aye,” several men agreed. “What will we do until then, Celyn?”
 “What we need is a miracle,” she murmured.
Aled forced a wavering smile. “Then it’s a good thing it’s the right time of year for them, isn’t it, lass? Christmas Eve is only days away.”
She didn’t argue. She could feel only despair, battering her like the icy snowflakes hit her cheeks, her hair, and her chest. She turned away from the burned village and led everyone back across the park to the solid and reassuring bulk of Collingwood’s stone walls.
Once she’d bathed and changed, she’d write to the earl again, directly this time. But he was in London, a whole world away, and she was on her own. 




CHAPTER FOUR

Four days until Christmas Eve

Edward arrived at his new estate in a foul mood. It had taken four days to travel the last thirty miles through the snow. It would have been faster to walk, but his boots were handmade and brand new, and his valet was traveling with the baggage. 
 It was evening, but the sky was bright with snow, and there seemed to be little difference between day and dark. The thick, joyless white shroud of snow made it impossible to see anything of Collingwood’s park, or the landscape surrounding it.
The castle itself sat on the brow of a hill like a massive cockscomb, gray against the snowy sky, the chimneys and towers poking the low clouds, prodding the snow out of them. Edward gazed up at the forbidding towers and the crenellations as the coach forced its way the last few yards up to the door. Every window was ablaze with light, as if there was a party going on inside, and he wondered briefly if he was expected, and if it was all in welcome for him, but that, of course was impossible. He’d advised no one of his arrival. He wondered what he would find—lazy servants celebrating the season early, emptying the wine cellar and sleeping in the master’s bed. He hoped the steward turned out to be a good man who knew his job.
According to his man of affairs in London, the steward was a chap named Colin Beauchamp. He sent careful and regular reports, though every one of them asked for money. Edward had refused to send anything, of course, until he’d had the need for funds reliably assessed. Beauchamp wanted to build a dozen new cottages for Collingwood’s tenants, stating the old ones were in poor repair, and he recommended improving the livestock as well, adding a hardier breed of sheep, more ponies. The man was almost insistent in his tone, and rather impudent for a mere steward of a very small holding Edward had never heard of before. He was here now, and he’d see to the truth of Beauchamp’s claims himself.
The coach entered a wide courtyard, surrounded by high walls and creaked to a stop in the snow at Collingwood’s front door. Edward stared out the window at it. He felt as if he’d stepped back three hundred years into the past. The huge arched wooden door was studded with nail heads, designed more for discouraging invaders than welcoming visitors. He could see the black teeth of a portcullis above it—raised, fortunately, but poised like grim fangs nonetheless. Gnarled vines crawled over the surface of the frozen stones like veins, supporting the ancient walls perhaps, along with a secondary portcullis of menacing icicles. Light squeezed through a narrow slit above the door, casting orange light on the blue snow, and he wondered how long it had been since they last poured boiling oil down from there. 
 “Thank you, Childs,” he said to the coachman as he got down from the vehicle and straightened his cravat—that and an elegant coat being his only armor. “Drive the coach round to the stables, then find the kitchens and get yourself settled.”
He strode up to the door and rapped sharply with the brass head of his walking stick. The thick wood ignored the blows, having seen far worse, no doubt.
 A puff of icy wind took his hat, and bowled it into a snowdrift. He snatched it back and he held it tight, and knocked again, louder this time. He should have had Childs wait until he was admitted. Was the wood of the door so thick they couldn’t hear him? He hadn’t packed a battering ram, probably the one thing lacking, and as luck would have it, the one thing that would have proven most useful to have at hand.
Perhaps the inhabitants of Collingwood were deaf, or drunk, or abed already. He pictured the servants sitting around a warm fire in the kitchen, deep in some distant part of the castle where they couldn’t hear him knocking. He set his hand on the massive iron ring that served as a latch and pushed the door open. It groaned a complaint, but gave under the hand of its master.
He walked into a cold white wall, and it fell on him. At first he thought he’d fallen into a snowdrift that had mysteriously appeared inside the castle. He wrestled it to the floor with a curse, and stood with his walking stick at the ready, menacing a sheet, freshly washed. Or so he assumed, since a long line of sheets hung across the entry hall, dripping on the stone floor. There was clothing, too—shirts of every conceivable size, petticoats, and kerchiefs all in various stages of drying. An iron chandelier swung over the entire scene, filled with tallow candles that flickered with a smoky, meaty stench.
He shut his eyes and opened them again, but the laundry was still there. Surely Childs had made a wrong turn. He’d brought him to a workhouse, or a foundling home, mistaking it for Collingwood Castle.
There were distinct sounds on the floors above him, singing echoing down the stone stairs, and laughter. “Hello!” he called impatiently, parting the curtain of sheets to peer down a dark corridor. A face appeared out of the gloom, a young girl, round eyed and startled. She cried out at the sight of him and dropped the bundle of wet sheets she was carrying. They landed on his boots with a soggy plop. She flattened herself against the wall and stared at him.
             “I thought you were Davy Price, coming in with firewood, but you aren’t are you?” she asked pointlessly, scanning him from the sheets on his boots to the crown of his snow-covered hat. He wondered if she were daft. Perhaps this wasn’t a workhouse after all, but an asylum for mad women. 
“Is this Collingwood Castle?” he demanded, speaking slowly and loudly.
She didn’t reply. She stood blinking at him like a demented owl.
“Is this—” he began again, but stopped when she broke into a glorious grin and rushed forward with a cry. He retreated until he was backed against a wall and her nose was practically pressed to his.
“Oh my, it’s you, isn’t it? You’ve arrived early!”
“You were expecting me?” he asked, carefully.
“Not until Christmas Eve. Are you the King?”
The King? He stared at the fey creature. She looked about twelve or so. In the isolation of Collingwood, she had probably never seen a gentleman in her life, if she thought he was the king.
He sidestepped past her, and straightened his shoulders. “I’d like to see the steward if you please.” 
Lesser mortals would have quivered at the frosty tone of his voice. But she merely smiled, and tilted her head to one side. “We haven’t got a steward. You’re here because of the spell.” He jumped as she suddenly dropped into a deep curtsy, her head practically resting on her knees. Definitely touched, he decided, blinking at the top of her blond head. She didn’t move. Was she waiting for permission to rise? He felt his skin flush with irritation.
“Get up at once! I’m not—”
“Who are you talking to, Louisa?” Edward looked up to find an old woman standing on the stairs, clad in a white nightgown, her feet bare, her long snowy white hair draped over her shoulders. She might have been a ghost from another age. Perhaps this was a haunted mad house. He shook off the shiver that ran up his spine as the child bounded to her feet again.
“It’s the King, Gran. He’s come early!”
The old lady put a papery hand to her throat and stared at him.
“Madam, is the housekeeper available?” Edward tried again.
Is it the King?” she asked the girl. “He’s in a frightful state of undress. No wig, and where are his attendants?” she looked at him sharply. “Did you bring her majesty as well?”
The King? Wig? Edward frowned. “I came alone,” he said, unsure what else to say. “My name is Edward Kingsley. I’m Wintercross.”
“Of course, Your Majesty—we’re all winter-cross. The weather has been dreadful.” she tilted her head and peered at him like a magpie. “King Edward, you say? What happened to King George?” Her face crumpled. “We’re always the last to hear news from London!”
 He looked to the girl for help, but she was circling him, taking in every detail of his person as if she’d never seen anyone so marvelous. He felt his skin heat. “Look, I am not—”
“Arabella! Whatever are you doing down here without your robe? And no slippers,” Another woman said as she hurried down the stone stairs. “You’ll catch your death of cold!”
“He’s come! The King! The legend is true!” the girl said.
The woman stopped where she was, and stared at him in surprise. She had fine dark hair, caught in a braid that hung over her shoulder. Loose curls frilled around her face—a very pretty face. Her eyes were green, he thought in the dim light, or golden, perhaps, reflecting the candlelight like stars. Her cheeks were high and flushed pink, and her lips parted slowly in surprise. “The King?” she gasped. She was dressed in a pale wool gown, white in the lantern light, an angel. His mouth watered, and he swallowed.
“He’s come for Christmas!” the elderly lady said. “Just as he promised. I told you he would.” She leaned up to whisper in the angel’s ear. “But he’s King Edward, not King George. Whatever happened to King George?”
Edward was tired, hungry and cold. He was used to a houseful of obedient, well-trained servants who knew precisely what he wanted almost before he did. “Is this some Welsh custom I am unaware of? In England, children stay in the nursery, and women do not appear at the front door in their night attire. And they do not keep guests—although I am most certainly not a guest—waiting at the door!” he snapped.
He saw something flare in her eyes, an answering anger perhaps? She took his measure with a single sweeping glance as she retrieved a dry blanket off the line and arranged it over the old lady’s shoulders. “We weren’t expecting guests, or callers, given the weather. Are you lost, perhaps?”
He looked into her eyes, drowned in them, felt the heat of her skin even a dozen feet away. Did he smell wildflowers, hear singing? He had the oddest desire to sniff her hair, touch her cheek to see if she was real.
“He’s not lost! He’s the answer to the spell!” the girl said, and Edward shook off the moment and looked at her instead, frowning. 
“Now see here, this is not a Christmas revel! I have been on the road for a fortnight. Once I’ve seen the steward—Beauchamp, I believe he’s called—I want a hot bath, then I will take a meal while my rooms are being prepared. Summon the housekeeper at once,” he demanded.
The angel’s face changed, grew as pale as the sheet beside her, and her eyes widened to flooded pools. She stood staring at him as if she were seeing a ghost. His eyes bored into hers when no one moved to obey his commands. “Don’t stand there looking at me! Tell me who is in charge and fetch them at once!” he said, advancing on her, his voice ringing off the stone.
 “You’re the earl,” she said, a breathy, strangled statement, devoid of any joy at seeing him. In fact, he’d never felt less welcome anywhere.
“I am indeed,” he said, taking another step toward her. “And you are—?”
“Celyn!” the girl’s cry rang out as the beauty’s eyes rolled backward, and her body crumpled. He caught her before she hit the stone floor.
She was most certainly real, solid flesh, warm and feminine in his arms. She smelled of flowers, and her hair was soft and warm against his hand. He stared down at her. She was quite lovely, though young for a housekeeper, and rather refined to be a maidservant. There was lace at her collar—good lace, and a small garnet pin, like a drop of blood. “Who is—” he began, but the child was screaming for help, her cries ringing off the walls.
“Unhand her at once, or I’ll run you through,” a gruff male voice warned, coming through the sheets. Edward stared.
It was not an asylum. He had stumbled into some sort of Christmas play, a troupe of actors here for Christmastide. A bow-legged elderly man was pointing what looked like a pike at him, holding an ancient shield emblazoned with a Welsh dragon. Behind him stood a burly woman twice his size, heavily pregnant and wielding a rolling pin, glaring at Edward with malice. Edward didn’t want to unhand the woman in his arms. She was warm and soft—the first warm soft thing he’d felt for days. “Beauchamp?” Edward asked the man.
“That’s right,” the old man said, his eyes narrowing. “Now set her down. I don’t know who you are, or where you’ve come from, but you’ll not harm a hair on her head while I have breath in my body.” He looked like a faint summer breeze could knock him flat, Edward thought.
“No, Aled, he’s not a villain!” the girl chimed, stepping in front of the pike and pushing it aside as if it were a toothpick. “He’s come for Christmas. He’s what Celyn wished for, don’t you see?”
“He’s the King!” The old lady warbled. “King Edward.”
The old man’s scowl deepened, folding the wrinkled brown skin of his face into dangerous creases. “We Welsh aren’t fond of English kings named Edward,” he growled.
 “I’m not the King, Beauchamp. My name is Edward Kingsley,” Edward explained, despairing of the aged steward’s wits. “I’m the Earl of Wintercross and—”
The girl’s eyes shone. “Don’t you see? He’s not invading, Aled, or kidnapping Celyn!
“He’s her true love!” she gushed. “He’s come to marry her!”
Edward felt his throat close in horror. He’d escaped Millicent, and a dozen other predatory debutants and their scheming mamas. What on earth had he walked into? He stared at the unconscious woman in his arms.
“We haven’t any mistletoe yet, but we will,” the girl murmured. “Would you like to kiss her anyway?”
Yes, Edward thought, staring at her soft lips, slightly parted.
“No,” he growled, warning bells clanging in his head. “Is there a place to, um—put her?”
“Will you carry her to her bower?” the girl asked.
“I can’t think the Queen will approve, Your Majesty!” the old lady said stiffly.
“This way, if you will, Your Majesty” the pregnant woman with the rolling pin said
flatly. “There’s a settee in the library. I’ll fetch some the smelling salts and some brandy.”
Edward hesitated. He glanced down the long dark corridor, and then back at the heavy door that seemed to be some kind of magic portal to a very odd world. He was tempted to set the woman down right here, and go back through that door as quickly as his feet could carry him, but instead, he followed the odd denizens of Collingwood Castle.


Saturday, December 29, 2012

THE CHRISTMAS KING, Part 7 (The End!)



Here we are at the end of Celyn and Edward’s story at last…
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve loved writing it!
If you missed Part I on December 12 on the Ramblings From This Chick website, then it will be posted here on January 1, 2013.
I hope you’ll watch for news, an excerpt and the unveiling of the gorgeous cover for my June 2013 book, THE SECRET LIFE OF LADY JULIA, coming in January!
I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment, visit me on Twitter, Facebook or drop me a line by email at leciacornwall@shaw.ca


On The Sixth Day of Christmas My True Love Gave To Me…
Six Postal Pick-ups

I live on the very edge of the City of Calgary, literally a quarter mile for the city limit sign. That qualifies our small subdivision as being out in the country, and it means we have to go to a postal outlet at a local grocery store to pick up mailed packages.
That store is about fifteen minutes away, and the lines there at Christmas are long, long, long. I should hate it, but it’s the attitude of the people in line that make the difference. I’ve had some wonderful conversations this year, and the little things, like chatting with a stranger in the postal line always help make Christmas merrier and much less stressful.
In January, I’ll hate making that trek to the post office again, but for now, thank you, Canada Post, for adding a little extra opportunity for sharing the joy of Christmas with strangers in a
line-up.

g

THE CHRISTMAS KING
Part 7
By Lecia Cornwall



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Edward stalked along the hall to his room.
What the hell had just happened? He hadn’t gone to Celyn’s room with the intention of making love to her, and he definitely had not expected to deflower her.
He should have thought it through.
Now what? Honor would demand that he marry her, if she were a suitable match. He almost wished it were possible. He cursed Caradoc. Who was Celyn’s mother? A scullery maid, one of the villagers? His father would forbid him to marry her, yet he could never marry a woman like Millicent Granger. Not after Celyn. Edward realized he had never been in love with a woman before, not like this. There had been infatuations and lust, of course, but never love. If this was the blissful feeling the poets harped on about, it was damned unpleasant in Edward’s opinion. Perhaps poets enjoyed suffering, but he did not.
He opened the door of his room, and resisted the urge to slam it behind him. It would wake half the castle, and he’d have to explain why he was prowling the halls in the middle of the night, rumpled and half dressed. It was fortunate no one had seen him leaving Celyn’s rooms.
He leaned on the door and looked around his silent, empty, lonely room. He wanted nothing more than to turn around and go back to Celyn’s bed and fall asleep with her in his arms. But that was impossible. What would people think of her, and of him? He told himself he didn’t give a damn, but he did.
He poured a tumbler of Caradoc’s fine whisky, and sat down in the chair, glaring balefully at his cold empty bed. He could still smell her on his hands, still taste her on his lips. She was like a ghost, haunting him. He was hard again, wanting her, even now he knew the truth of things. “Damned poets,” he muttered.
He heard a faint cry in his dressing room.
Hope filled his breast. “Celyn?” he crossed to the half-open door.
A pair of pretty golden green eyes regarded him, but they weren’t Celyn’s.
It was Matilda. In his trunk, on the softest, most expensive cashmere blanket, the cat had installed her family in regal luxury. The cat gazed at him as if she was indeed royalty, and he didn’t have the heart to expel her. Instead he scratched her soft head, and she rewarded him with a deep rumbling purr and closed her eyes. Only a cad would evict a mother and her three babes so close to Christmas. He marveled at that sentiment. At Wintercross, he probably would have summoned someone to take the cat away. Here at Collingwood, his elegant, expensive clothing was being worn by a pack of rag-tag Welsh villagers. His valet was sleeping in the soft comfort of his best sheets. His fine spices, exotic candied fruits, and oldest brandy were all being used to cook a makeshift Christmas dinner. He would have laughed at the foolishness of it all, if it was some other gentleman of his acquaintance. Instead, he stroked Matilda’s soft fur and smiled. He didn’t feel anger, or righteous indignation.
He felt happy.
The simple folk of Collingwood had given him so much more that the value ordinary belongings. This was the best Christmas he’d ever known.
Only one thing troubled him. He’d asked Celyn what she wanted him to give her. Instead, she’d given him everything. He shut his eyes and buried his forehead in his hand.
Matilda chirped a soft feline inquiry, and pushed her head into his other palm. How easy it was to give the small things that made others happy.
He hadn’t known that until now.
He gave the cat a final pat. At least he had some company. He poured another tumbler of whisky and lay down on the bed, still dressed, with Celyn’s scent surrounding him, and took what comfort he could in that.



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Christmas Eve

Celyn felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. Edward. He’d come back. She turned, a smile on her lips, ready to open her arms, hoping, wanting—but Catrin hovered over her instead.
            “Mrs. Jones is having her baby. Old Gwen got into the cider last night and she isn’t fit to help out. Mrs. Jones wants you.”
Celyn got up at once, and dressed, glancing around the room for telltale signs of what had happened here, in the room, in that bed. There was nothing out of the ordinary, except for a smear of blood on the sheet, and Edward’s rumpled cravat, lying on the floor. She kicked it under the bed, and smiled at Catrin, hoping she hadn’t noticed anything. “Tell Mrs. Jones I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said, sending Catrin out. She limped to the washstand and scrubbed the stain out of the sheet. She retrieved his cravat and held it to her nose, breathing in the scent of his skin and his soap, reliving every delicious moment. She stared at the fine linen in her hand. What must he think of her? She should return the cravat immediately, but she couldn’t face him. She should burn it then, get rid of it.
She crossed to the fireplace and stared into the flames like a ninny. She remembered the last time she’d gazed into a fire, when she’d tossed herbs into the blaze, made a wish. She twisted the cravat in her hands. Was Edward Kingsley her true love after all? It was a terrible pity. The fates that’d worked their magic to bring him here shouldn’t have bothered. It would never work. He was an earl, and she was, well, no one at all. The fates were not very good at their job, apparently. Maybe they didn’t hear well, or had a cruel sense of humor, and that’s what she got for dabbling in magic, and believing moldy old legends. She grabbed the fireplace poker, let the wrought iron dig into her palm, intent on impaling the cravat, but she couldn’t do it, couldn’t consign even that small part of him to the fire.
She pushed the cravat under her pillow instead, used the poker as a cane, and hobbled downstairs.

•••••
It was full daylight when Edward woke again, still dressed, with the empty tumbler still in his hand.
“Don’t worry, it’s only a little past nine o’clock,” Arabella said lightly, comfortably seated in the chair by the fire, holding Matilda in her lap. They all stared at each other for a long moment.
Arabella was dressed in a red gown, her snow-white hair set in the ringlets and curls of a bygone age. She looked magnificent. “I came to see Matilda. She likes you, and that’s high praise indeed. She doesn’t give her affections easily.” The cat blinked in agreement. “Nor does Celyn, which is what we wished to speak to you about, Matilda and I.”
“Oh?” Edward said, getting up, warning prickling along his spine. Had he been seen leaving the tower after all? He reached up to straighten his cravat, found it missing. “Shall I ring for breakfast?” he asked.
Arabella shook her head. “Oh, we’ve eaten. Hours ago—and Mrs. Jones is busy at the moment, having a baby. Her fifth, I think, or perhaps it’s her tenth?”
He looked at her in surprise. “Today?”
“These things happen when they’re meant to,” she said calmly. “Her Majesty had fifteen children. It seemed we were always either preparing for childbed, or recovering from it.” Arabella’s eyes were clear today, lucid, with none of the confusion that he’d seen earlier. “But that’s not why I’m here. You think she isn’t good enough for you, don’t you?”
The old lady was regarding him with speculation in her blue eyes. “Matilda?” he asked with a vague smile, though he knew exactly what she meant. Guilt gnawed at him.
“No, I’m speaking of Celyn, and you know it. Do you know why I have hoped for so many years that the King will arrive at Collingwood?”
He cleared his throat. “I understand His Majesty promised to come to Christmas dinner.”
She nodded. “He did, but who expects a King to remember every promise he makes? I once heard His Majesty promise the Earl of Pendleton that he would allow him to teach him to swim. Preposterous! He hated water. He likely forgot that promise five minutes after he made it, just as he has long since forgotten his promise to come and dine with me.”
“I see.” Edward said, though he didn’t. He wondered if he should call for Celyn, let her take Arabella away, but he wasn’t ready to face her yet. “May I escort you back to your rooms, my lady?” he asked gently. “We could take Matilda, bring the kittens, and the blanket—”
Arabella laughed, a light silver sound, like Christmas bells. “That’s not necessary. I know the way, and our dressing rooms connect. We need only leave the doors open and Matilda will decide for herself whether she wishes to stay or go,” she said sensibly, and the cat sighed in agreement. “I came to see you, my lord, to explain a few things you need to know, before what occurred last night occurs again.”
“How did you—” he began, but Arabella waved her hand.
“I knew as soon as you carried her up those stairs. I may be old, but I know passion when I see it.”
Edward straightened his shoulders. “I assure you it will not happen again.”
“A pity,” Arabella said. “She might have been the making of you, though her birth dictates she could have any man in the kingdom. It’s a pity that Caradoc never told her the truth.”
“The truth?” Edward said, running a hand over his face, catching the faint ghost of Celyn’s scent on his fingers. He put his hand in his pocket. “I have already guessed that she is Caradoc’s daughter,” he said. “Who was her mother?”
Arabella grinned, and rose, setting the cat on the floor. Matilda padded into the dressing room in search of her family. “Pour me some whisky and I’ll tell you a tale you’ll not expect.”
Edward poured a drop of whisky for her. “Oh, pish! It won’t do me a bit of harm—fill it up!” she commanded. She took a large swallow. “Sit down, my lord,” she said, resuming her own seat.
 “Once there was a young Welsh earl who fell in love with the daughter of an English duke. The lady was very pretty, though she was as silly as a plum duff. I do believe she loved the Welshman as much as he loved her, especially since he was charming, handsome, and very clever. He wanted to marry her. He offered for her, but her father refused, saying the match wasn’t suitable, that his daughter must marry for power, money, and title, not love. He sent the girl to court to catch the eye of a prince, since His Majesty had so very many sons, you see. She did indeed manage to, um—snag one, but there was no offer of marriage afterward. She was left pregnant, and had to be hidden away in the country. Her father added a few thousand pounds to her dowry and arranged a match with a marquess, a good enough marriage, but quite without love. The nuptials were set to take place after the child was born. The child, of course, would be left on the parish to starve or survive as it would, never to be mentioned again. The young mother did the one single, sensible thing she ever did in her life—she wrote to the only friend she felt she could trust, her Welsh earl. She asked him to come to her, to take the child when it was born, see that the babe had a good home. He came at once, of course. Her second letter, to the Prince who had dallied with her, led to dire threats from the Crown that the child’s parentage must remain a secret forever.” Arabella sipped her whisky. “There’s probably a contract signed in blood somewhere in Whitehall, couched in suitably vague language regarding the child’s true parentage. Do you understand me, my lord?”
Edward nodded, his limbs numb, his heart in his throat. “I trust Celyn doesn’t know?”
“No. There were plenty of rumors at court, the usual scandalous stories, but no one knew what had became of the child. I think Caradoc hoped that someday, her mother would come back to him if he kept her secret. I hoped Caradoc would tell Celyn the truth before his death.” She sighed. “I don’t think he meant to be cruel by not telling her. I just don’t think he could bear to give her up. He thought of Celyn as his daughter, you see, saw her mother in her every day of his life. He loved Celyn very much.”
“I trust the lady married her marquess?” Edward asked.
“Of course. She dared not cross her father. He was quite a powerful man. Caradoc wrote her letters, telling her of Celyn’s progress, but she answered only once, to tell him not to write again. She never, ever saw Celyn, or even asked about her.”
“Is her mother still alive?” Edward asked.
“No. She turned out to be one of the most odious ladies in England, if you ask me, and we’re better off without her. She died shortly before Caradoc. I think he died of a broken heart when he heard the news, but he still carried her secret to his grave.”
She smiled at Edward. “So you see, our Celyn is of royal birth, my lord. I have always harbored a hope that someday her royal father would come looking for her, and arrive as you did, on the doorstep, demanding to see his child. Her name means Holly in Welsh, by the way, and Beauchamp is the name of the inn where she was born. It was left to Caradoc to christen her, and it was just this time of year that she arrived here, the best Christmas gift he could have given to the people of Collingwood. She is beloved by everyone, as you’ve seen, our princess.”
Edward took a long swallow of whisky. “Who else knows?”
She regarded him with the kind of patient smile one reserves for idiots. “Does it matter? I suppose someone knows. There are people at court whose job it is to keep track of these things. Royal by-blows are nothing new, of course. Why do you suppose Caradoc gave her the upbringing he did? He taught her as if she were a princess, prepared her, just in case. If it were to come out, I think it would take our Celyn up in the world. Not that it should be revealed, by any means. I imagine it would be quite shocking to discover you aren’t who you thought you were. She might be expected to marry for power and consequence, instead of love, and Celyn could not live without love.”
Arabella drained her glass and set it aside. “There now. That was quite enjoyable.” He wondered if she meant the whisky or the revelation. She went through the dressing room to her own door. “I will leave you to do as you think fit. I can see you are a sensible gentleman, or I would not have told you. It is still a deep secret, I’ll remind you, and a sensitive one.”
Edward opened his mouth to speak, to tell her—what? That it made no difference to him who Celyn’s parents were, that she was the most incredible woman he’d ever met? What more could the old lady expect of him?
Arabella put a finger to her lips. “No, don’t bother to say anything now. Think on it awhile. There will be consequences no matter what you decide to do, but I trust you’ll make the right choice in the end.”
Edward stood in the middle of the room in yesterday’s clothes and watched as she shut the door behind her, leaving him in baffled silence once again.



CHAPTER NINETEEN

“PUDDING!” Mrs. Jones screamed as another pain hit her.
Celyn squeezed her hand. “The pudding must be steamed for three hours, no more, no less,” she repeated the cook’s instructions.”
“Yes, and dress the goose in—” she screwed her eyes shut, her face reddening.
“Swaddling clothes?” Catrin asked.
“Lay it in a manger?” Annie Stackpoole added. They giggled.
“BLACKBERRY SAUCE!” Mrs. Jones snapped. “And make sure there the toffee for the cyflaith is ready by midnight if I’m not done by then.”
“Not to worry. I can see the babe’s head now,” Mrs. Stackpoole said. “Nice dark hair.”
“Could be any color, really” Annie said. “Hard to tell.”
“Doesn’t matter, as long as the little lad’s healthy and strong, like his pa.” Mrs. Jones said.
“Let’s hope he’s just a wee bit taller, p’raps,” Mrs. Stackpoole said. Mr. Jones barely topped five feet, where his wife was nearer to six. He weighed barely ten stone, while his missus was nearer to fifteen, but it was a love match from the moment they’d set eyes on each other.
“Are you so sure it will be a boy?” Celyn asked. 
“Oh aye, a mother knows,” Mrs. Jones said. “This one’s a prize fighter. MINCEMEAT!” she screamed out as another pain came.
“Plenty of suet, extra raisins, a touch of brandy,” Celyn murmured.
“And don’t forget the rum sauce for the PLUM PUDDING!” Mrs. Jones bellowed, bearing down.
“Here he comes!” Mrs. Stackpoole said, making ready to catch the babe.
The room fell silent as the child arrived, tiny and delicate and wrinkled, his eyes tightly shut. He opened his lungs and let out a wail that belied his size. 
“A boy indeed,” Mrs. Stackpoole pronounced. “A fine lad, and a big ‘un, too.”
Mrs. Jones beamed. “We’ll call him Luke, if Mr. Jones is agreeable.”
“A good name for a Christmas child,” Mrs. Stackpoole nodded.
Celyn washed the baby and wrapped him in a fine linen sheet, monogrammed with Edward’s initials, and his coat of arms. The child gripped her finger tightly in his tiny fist, and she felt tears fill her eyes. “He’s beautiful,” she said. “How wonderful. The best Christmas gift of all.” She laid the baby in his mother’s strong arms, watched Mrs. Jones cry and kiss the lad’s downy head, the picture of maternal adoration.
“Aren’t babies grand?’ Catrin sighed, and Celyn couldn’t have agreed more.
Celyn spent the rest of the day directing the women in the kitchen as they seasoned, salted, basted, and gossiped. Phoebe and Louisa went out with the party to gather greens—boughs of pine, fir, ivy, mistletoe and holly, and the men dragged in the Yule log, a tree trunk big enough to fill the cavernous fireplace in the great hall and burn for the full Twelve Days of Christmas.
Celyn avoided the library, and any other place she might possibly see Edward. Surely her feelings would show in her eyes, and embarrass them both. Better to stay away from him. She wondered just how she was going to manage to avoid him for the next twelve days.
His name seemed to be on everyone’s lips. “His lordship helped chop down the Yule log.” “His lordship climbed the oak tree and pulled down the mistletoe.” “His lordship is planning games for the children and a horse race for the men on Christmas day.” “His lordship promised to teach everyone how to waltz on Christmas Eve...” Celyn couldn’t recall seeing people happier, or merrier. Aled nudged her. “Here. His lordship has entrusted me with his family recipe for flaming rum punch,” he said, braving the women’s preserve of the kitchen to deliver the recipe. She took it, read his scrawl on the scrap of paper.
By the time the first evening star appeared in the sky, the great hall was ready. Celyn felt her heart quicken at the sight of the decorated room. It was fragrant with greens, festooned with holly, and lit by hundreds of candles and the warm glow of the fireplace. It felt as if they’d stepped back three hundred years into the past, when Collingwood castle was brand new. Best of all, every soul at Collingwood was smiling, making merry together. 
When the women carried in the food and set it on trestle tables, a cheer rose, and the merry music began.
The table on the dais had been set for Edward, and he presided happily over the party. Arabella sat beside him, her red silk gown glowing n the candlelight. Phoebe was a vision in a white dress, trimmed with silver lace and ribbons. Louisa wore blue, her face aglow. There was a seat on Edward’s right hand, and Celyn slipped into it. “It appears we are to be lord and lady of the feast,” Edward said.
“I hear you brought down the Yule log single-handed,” she said, and he laughed.
“I? No, it took six strong men an entire hour to chop it down. I merely helped.”
“And the mistletoe?” she continued, drowning in the warmth of his eyes. That look lit a fire in her breast, which spread to every inch of her, made her breathless. She stared at his mouth, wanting to kiss him. “I hear you climbed a tree to reach the mistletoe,” she managed, repeating herself.
 “What’s Christmas without mistletoe?” he asked, his voice vibrating through her, staring at her mouth, too.
“And waltzing?” she asked.
“Phoebe was most insistent. It should be fun.”
She looked away, scanning the hall. It was impossible not to be merry with all the happy faces around her. Mrs. Jones sat in the back of the hall with her new son wrapped in another of Edward’s fine linen sheets, grinning from ear to ear, while Mr. Jones hovered anxiously around his wife with the rest of their brood—all except little Corrie, who was curled up on Edward’s lap, watching the party with wide blue eyes.
Mr. Carruthers, recovered enough to attend the party after helping Edward dress in his finest evening clothes, was in attendance. Even Childs, his lordship’s coachman, was there, warmly welcomed by everyone.
Celyn joined in the happy toasts to Edward’s health. The people of Collingwood loved their new lord every bit as much as she did, but there was joy in their love, hope, and a future. She had decided that once the girls and Arabella left Collingwood in a few weeks time, she would go as well. She wouldn’t go to Kingscott, though. She would continue on to London and look for a position as a governess, or a housekeeper, or a companion, and she would do her very best to forget Edward Kingsley. This would be her last Christmas at Collingwood Castle. The thought made her chest ache.
The dancing began, and Aled partnered Mrs. Stackpoole, demonstrating the old country dances for the young folk who didn’t know them until everyone was laughing too hard to dance at all.
When the waltz began to play, Phoebe hurried forward, and Edward rose to offer lessons to anyone sober enough to want to try. Once everyone knew the steps, he came to offer his hand to Celyn. “Would you care to waltz, my lady?” he asked.
She met his eyes, saw the earnestness of his request, the heat in his gaze. It took her breath away. She put her hand in his, and rose, and noticed Phoebe’s look of disappointment. She sat down again.
“I’m afraid my injured ankle would make me very clumsy, my lord. Perhaps Phoebe should be your partner. I am content to watch.”
But he refused to release her hand, and pulled her to her feet. “I don’t want Phoebe. I want you. Now put your foot on mine,” he said, setting a hand on her waist. A flare of heat shot through her, made her breathless.
“I don’t think this is a good idea—” she said, but the music began. Edward lifted her off the floor, held her aloft, his eyes on hers, and suddenly they were flying around the room, spinning in time to the music. It felt marvelous, and they laughed together. When he set her down, it was beneath the mistletoe. He kissed her, a long kiss that made everyone cheer, and brought hot color to Celyn’s cheeks. He plucked a berry and handed it to her. “I hope it will be the only berry you receive tonight, unless they are all from me,” he murmured, and her heart lodged in her throat.
“Sing, Celyn!” someone shouted, and the cry was taken up. Edward stood by her side, his hands clasped behind his back. How handsome he looked in his black coat, his crisp white linen. She recalled the cravat hidden under her pillow, and why it was there, and blushed, and the lump in her throat grew even bigger.
“Do you sing as well?” he asked. “How many other things are there I don’t know about you?” he asked. She was sure she would only be able to croak tonight.
She took her place in the middle of the hall, and Alun Stackpoole brought his harp forward to accompany her. The room hushed, and expectant faces waited for the first note. Edward stood with the rest, half in shadow, tall and elegant.
She could not sing. Her heart was breaking. She swallowed, but the lump would not go. Yet it was tradition. Her voice had been the gift she’d given Caradoc every year, and now she’d come to her last Christmas at Collingwood.  
Celyn shut her eyes and opened her throat, letting the pure notes of the ancient Christmas carol ring upward into the rafters of the old hall, to fill the whole castle with sound and love, and wishes for a bright new year that would come and go without her. There were tears in her eyes when she finished. Others were sobbing as well.
“That was beautiful,” Edward said as he helped her back to the dais. He kept her hand in his a moment longer than necessary. “Celyn, I have something to ask you, I thought I’d wait until tomorrow, or later, but I—” he began, but Phoebe tugged on his arm.
“Come and dance with me!” she begged, and but he held Celyn’s gaze. “
It’s Christmas Eve, my lord,” she said gently. “You’ve made everyone at Collingwood so happy, filled them with hope. You should celebrate. Go and dance.”
For a few minutes she watched Edward execute the steps of the country dance with elegant precision, until the pace of the music sped up, and he lost the pattern, ended up laughing. The whole of Collingwood laughed with him.
Collingwood couldn’t be in better hands. Celyn wondered if Caradoc’s spirit was here among them with the rest of Collingwood’s ghosts, and if they were pleased with the way things had turned out. She hoped so. She felt tears fill her eyes, blur her vision—part joy, part sentiment, part sorrow.
Quietly, as the party went on, she slipped away, and went to her room.



CHAPTER TWENTY


Edward turned to smile at Celyn on the dais, but her chair was empty. She’d gone, and it felt as if the light had gone out.
“She went upstairs a few minutes ago,” Arabella told him. “If you hurry, she won’t be asleep yet.”
He took the old lady’s papery hands in his. “I have decided to ask her to marry me.”
She smiled, warmth lighting her eyes. “You don’t need my blessing. It is what I hoped you’d do. Look around you. It’s what everyone hopes you will do. It’s the magic, you see.”
“They think this is because of a spell?” he asked.
Arabella laughed. “Of course they do. Oh, not the foolish one the girls cast every year. Celyn’s own magic—she’s cast a spell on all of us. She’s made us happy, and now everyone wants her to be happy and find true love. You’re a fortunate man. Imagine all her love turned upon you, my lord. That’s the kind of magic that makes it impossible to go back to how things were. Not without her.” She withdrew her hands and wiped a tear from her eye. “Go on—go and find her.”
Everyone was staring at him, their eyes filled with hope, and love. He felt his skin heat, wondered if was actually blushing. Louisa was grinning, her eyes bright. Mr., and Mrs. Jones exchanged a look of love, and met his eyes knowingly. “If you’ll excuse me for just a moment, I’ll be back soon,” he said, backing toward the door. “Please don’t delay the celebrations on my account. Eat some more plum pudding, or perhaps another waltz—” he realized he was babbling, and very nervous.
“Good luck, my lord,” someone called. “Best wishes.”
“Yes, thank you,” he managed. “Very much indeed.” Someone opened the door behind him and he left the room. Once he was outside, a cheer went up, and the music began again.
He climbed the stairs to her tower room two at a time. He had no idea what he’d say when he got there, or how he’d explain to his father that in the four days he’d been at Collingwood Castle, he’d fallen hopelessly in love, and was bringing home a bride. He could imagine the questions his stepmother would ask about Celyn’s background.
It didn’t matter. Princess or peasant girl, chatelaine or steward, all he knew was that with Celyn by his side, he could do anything. This incredible feeling of happiness was all due to her. She’d changed him utterly, and Arabella was perfectly right. He could not live without her a moment longer. Who she was was far less important than what she was.
He stood on the stone steps outside her door for a long time, trying to think of what he was going to say. He never thought he’d have to propose at all, had no idea how it was accomplished, what words needed to be spoken. Was there a set ritual, perhaps? Were the Rites for the Proposal of Holy Matrimony set down in the Book of Common Prayer? He should have checked.
He knocked, waited for her to answer, then grew impatient, and opened the door.
She was standing by the window, and she turned in surprise, her eyes widening at the sight of him.
He shut the door and leaned on it. “Celyn, I came to ask you to —”
She turned away again, back to the view. “It’s beautiful here, don’t you think? I have always loved looking out over the hills, ” she interrupted.
“Celyn—” he began again. She held up a hand.
“No, please. I think I know what you’ve come to ask. I won’t be your mistress, my lord, or allow you to stay tonight. I can’t. I would rather—” She paused, and he knew she was crying.
He took out his handkerchief, his last one, and handed it to her. This was not going well at all. He stood next to her, stared out at the view, too.
“Collingwood is indeed beautiful. Once of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” he said. “I think come spring, we’ll rebuild the village, add a woolen mill, and more sheep. Can you picture it?” He pointed in the direction of the village, invisible in the dark. “We’ll build a school as well, plant an orchard just there, in that little valley. You’ll have to advise me what grows best here, of course.” He was babbling again, and she was staring at him as if he was daft. Perhaps he was.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he put a finger against her lips, and rushed on. “We’ll need to spend part of the year in England, but we’ll come here for Christmas every year, until we’re too old to make the journey any longer. Of course you’ll want to chaperone Phoebe in London, but after the Season ends, I have an estate in Scotland, which might do for a honeymoon.”
Her eyes widened. “Chaperone Phoebe? How could I? It must be a married lady of good social standing who sponsors her debut.”
“A countess is a lady of good social standing, especially if she’s the Countess of Wintercross.”
“The Countess of—” she stopped talking.
 “Indeed. Now will Scotland do for a honeymoon, or would you prefer to go somewhere else? I don’t recommend Kingscott—my sisters wouldn’t give us a moment’s peace. Wintercross is lovely, but just a day’s ride from Kingscott, so they’d find us there, too. I do have twelve other estates, and we could simply keep changing houses, leave them to guess where we are.”
“My lord, are you asking—”
He took her hands in his. “Edward. Everyone else calls me Edward. Don’t you think you should do so as well, especially if we’re going to marry?”
“Are we?” she asked him.
“As soon as you say yes,” he said.
She shut her eyes. “No. Edward no. What would you tell your father? You’re the heir to a dukedom, you can’t marry a—” she swallowed.
He smiled, and tried humor. “I’ll tell him you cast a spell on me, that you are my true love, and by the power of magic, I cannot do without you,” he said.
She looked at him sadly. “No—” she said again. 
“It doesn’t matter what people think, Celyn. Not to me. You’re perfect. Anyone fortunate enough to know you understands that. What matters is that I love you. Now will you say yes?”
She studied him, and he let her read the truth in his eyes, hoping there was as much love in his gaze as he saw in hers. It made his heart skip a beat.
She smiled and tilted her head to one side. “You haven’t actually asked.”
“Oh, I—yes, of course.” He dropped to one knee. “Will you do me the great honor of being my wife, Celyn? I will strive to be worthy of you every day of my life, and to make you happy, and—what else would you like?” He shifted his knee. “You can have anything—just say yes. This floor is cold.”
She laughed and dropped to her knees as well, tears flowing down her cheeks, and kissed him. “Yes.”
The sound of singing rose, glorious male voices raised in harmony, and for a moment he thought it was more magic, an illusion born out of his own happiness, but she broke the kiss and smiled, listening.
“What is that?” he asked.
Plygain,” she said. “A Welsh tradition. The men gather before the cock crows on Christmas morning to sing in the dawn. It means it’s Christmas, Edward.”
He kissed her again, and she sighed, began to fumble with his cravat. He caught her hand in his.
“Wait,” he said. “We have to go down and tell everyone the happy news.”  
She laughed. “We have time. Plygain will go on for hours yet.”
“But even if the men are occupied, the others will—”
She shook her head. “There’s a toffee pull, too for the women and children—cyflaith. Another tradition that takes hours.” 
“I see,’ he said, and began to undo his own cravat. She smiled and kissed him.
“Merry Christmas Edward,” she said.
He pulled her into his arms. “Merry Christmas, love.” He had never been so happy, or so merry. 
It was a feeling he intended to keep in his heart every day for the rest of his life.


THE END
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