Please enjoy this special, never-before-seen Gaslight Chronicles holiday vignette, then below, tell me what your biggest wish is. One random commenter will receive a free download of the new story, Ashes & Alchemy, on the 12th day of Christmas, Jan. 6. A winner will be announced on Jan. 1.
Happy Christmas, everyone!
Holidays & Holly
© 2013, Cindy Spencer Pape
Christmas Eve, 1859, Hadrian Hall, Northumberland
“It’s our first Christmas without all of the children home.” Caroline Hadrian, Lady Northland said to her husband Merrick as they descended the stairs from the nursery to the master suite at Hadrian Hall. “It just doesn’t seem right.
“Our chicks are leaving the nest,” he said, drawing her down the corridor toward their bedroom. “It’s only natural, darling.”
“I know.” She laid her head against his shoulder and leaned into him, wrapping her arm around his waist. “But it’s going to be so strange, not seeing Tom or Wink’s faces around the tree tomorrow morning. The little ones were asking for them all day today.”
“The hazards of having a twenty-four-year age gap between eldest and youngest.” He toed open the bedchamber door, swung her inside and closed it with his foot. “I’m sure they’ll telephone.”
“Yes.” Caroline’s heart brightened a little. “And they’ve both sent big boxes of gifts for the babies. The nursery will be so full of toys there might not be room for the children.”
Merrick chuckled and swooped in to kiss her. Even after eight years of marriage, Caroline’s heart still pounded at his slightest touch. She leaned into him, returning his kiss, deftly unbuttoning his waistcoat. Yes, it was sad that their eldest two adopted children were unable to return for Christmas, but they still had seven, ages twenty-two to seven months, all asleep in their rooms. Although Caroline had had a difficult life in her own youth, the past eight years had brought unparalleled joy, all wrapped up with this man whom she loved more than she’d ever dreamed possible.
Later, exhausted and lying beside him, she ran her fingers through Merrick’s dark wavy hair, now streaked with strands of gray that only served to make him even handsomer in her eyes. The grandfather clock in the hall outside their room chimed midnight. “Happy Christmas, my love.”
He hugged her tight. “Happy Christmas. You’re still the best gift I’ve ever had.”
The next morning, Merrick woke when a weight slammed onto his chest. “Wake up, Papa. Saint Nicholas has been here.”
Merrick opened his eyes to see his five-year-old son Will bouncing on his rib cage. “Good morning, Will. Are you sure he came? You might not have earned any presents this year.” He tickled the boy’s ribs as he sat up. Sylvia, at seven the likely mastermind of the invasion was shaking Caroline’s shoulders, and three year old Rose sat on the foot of the bed with her thumb in her mouth.
“No,” said Jamie, eighteen and home from military academy for the holidays. The youngest of the adopted Hadrians, he stood beside his next-eldest sibling, Piers in the doorway. “There’s definitely a surprise in the parlor. I think someone must’ve been very good indeed.”
Twenty-two year old Nell giggled, bouncing baby Vivian in her arms. “Come on out in the hall, everyone, and let Mum & Papa get dressed. Then we can go down to see the presents.”
They filed out, shouting exhortations for speed. Merrick kissed his bride, then reluctantly climbed out of bed. “And to think I once believed I’d grow old alone. It certainly would have been quieter.”
Caroline laughed as she pulled on her dressing gown. “And you’d have been a miserable old bear. Now hurry up.” She was as much of a child on Christmas as the rest of them and didn’t care who knew it. Her enthusiastic spirit was just one of the things he loved about her.
Soon, the family tromped down the grand staircase, taking a moment to gaze at the big, ornately trimmed tree in the entrance hall. Then they moved on to the cozy family parlor, where a smaller tree waited, decorated with handmade ornaments. All around that corner of the room, piles of brightly wrapped gifts gleamed in the gaslight.
Jamie and Piers brought coffee for Merrick and chocolate for Caroline who nursed Vivian under a soft blanket, while Nell corralled the younger children into perching on a sofa with sweets.
“Before we open any of the packages, we have a special gift for Mum,” Jamie said. He leaned against the servants’ door. “It seems Saint Nicholas knew exactly what she wanted for Christmas.”
“A grandchild?” Merrick said with a laugh. Their eldest, Wink, had married this year.
Caroline snorted. “No, not until they’re ready.” Her vivid green eyes misted. “All I really wanted was to have them home for Christmas.”
Jamie opened the door with a flourish. Wink, her husband Liam McCullough, Scotland Yard superintendent and the Hadrian’s foster son Tom Devere, a Knight of the Round Table like Merrick, all burst into the room, hugging Caroline, Merrick, and the other children with equal glee. Even George, Wink’s bronze mechanical dog was there, wagging his metal tail.
“I just couldn’t stay away,” Wink explained to her mother. “Liam wrapped up a big case last night, and when he settled down to do the paperwork, Sebastian Brown intervened. He knew, you see, how much I wanted to come home. He took over Liam’s shift today, too, although we’ll have to be back in London by tomorrow.”
Merrick nodded. “Send Seb my thanks.” The grandson of a Knight of the Round Table, Brown was a good friend of the Order, and a bit help to Liam in Scotland Yard.
“We stopped by Liverpool to pick up Tom,” Liam added. “Since he’s undercover as a wastrel, he can afford to be missing for a day.”
Tom nodded. “It’s nice to be warm and dry, even if only for one night. And to see everyone again, of course.”
Caroline’s eyes were bright with tears. “Thank you. I love you all. Now it really feels like Christmas.”
Jamie had gone unusually still. Finally he smiled. “Next Christmas, we won’t be all together. I’m sorry, Mum. But we’ll all be all right. Just—doing different things. We will be together again, though. I can’t see when. When we are though, I think there might be more of us.”
Jamie had visions which were invariably accurate. Merrick clasped the young man on the shoulder. “Thank you for that. And for excelling in school this term. I’m proud of you, son.”
Jamie blushed. He’d had a good time getting kicked out of prep school after prep school, but had clearly found his niche at a military academy.
“If we’re not going to have Christmas together next year, then let’s just enjoy this one, shall we?” Caroline’s voice was light and sweet, and Merrick’s heart still kicked when he saw her smile. “Sylvie, help the little ones pass out the packages. Piers, Jamie, pull up some extra chairs.”
Merrick plucked one package off a sturdy branch and brought it to Caroline while the younger children distributed boxes. “This is from all of us, darling.”
She opened it without disturbing the infant at her breast, and gazed at the necklace he’d commissioned. Nine cameos dangled from a gold chain, each bearing a white, mother-of-pearl silhouette against a green jade background. He’d given the jeweler silhouettes of each of the nine children, and had them carved into stone for Caroline to wear. The matching earrings featured his silhouette and hers.
“It’s Christmas in a box,” she said with a misty smile. “Because that’s what Christmas is. Love.” She handed it to him to place around her neck, whispering, “I need one of Liam, too. He’s ours as much as any of the others.”
“Of course.” He couldn’t resist dropping a kiss on her nape. Then he settled back on the settee, with his arm around Caroline and their youngest child. Their last, according to both the doctors and to Jamie, but neither of them minded that. Nine was plenty. “You’re right,” he said. “Love is what the yuletide spirit is all about.”
She’d made a believer out of him. “Thank you,” he whispered—to the universe, to St. Nicholas, to a deity, he didn’t know which. “Thank you for every single one of them.” He gazed out at all the people he loved and said, “Happy Christmas, everyone. May all your wishes come true.”