Of a Christmas Almost Lost

Almost Yuletide. But there’d be no celebration for her this year.

 

Emmaline grasped her valise tightly. The valise wasn't hers, just as the clothes she was wearing were not hers. Everything belonged to her brother, so he said. Though what he would do with a chemise and corset she had no idea. But it was his way of pointing out that she was dependent on him for the very air she breathed.

Not any more. As of now she was Miss Emmaline Barry, third cousin of the Earl of Darroch, on her way to a new life with the Fitzjames family. She was no longer Miss Emmaline Barry, sister of Mr. Thomas Barry of Yelverton. She would fulfil her role as companion to Mr. Fitzjames's mother to the best of her ability.

Anything was better than living under the guardianship of her brother. Since Mama and Papa had died in that curricle crash, Thomas's behavior had become unbearable. He had dismissed the housekeeper and made Emmaline the housekeeper of Barry Manor. She had learned fast how to run a tight household because Thomas's hand was a heavy one when he'd been drinking, or even when he hadn't, and the slightest transgression on her part led to that heavy hand descending on her bottom. And lately that hand had begun lingering and massaging…Then last week he had not beaten her, but had cornered her in his study. His face had been suffused with a red tinge as he'd untied his neckcloth and mopped his brow. She had been dismayed to see his chest rising and falling heavily. When she'd slanted a look up at him she'd been terrified to see the set, glazed look on his red face. She didn't know much about men, but she knew enough to know that her brother was aroused. If it wasn't for the butler coming in to replace the decanter, she'd have been in huge trouble.

It was sheer luck that the Earl of Darroch's sister was a close friend as well as a second cousin. When, in desperation, Emmaline had penned a hasty letter to Margaret, the dear lady had promised to provide her with a splendid reference. But she'd been horrified and unhappy that Emmaline was prepared to leave the safety of her brother's care to become a companion.

"The safety of my brother's care. Huh!" Emmaline's lip had curled when she read that. She'd spent a great deal of the past week hiding in her bedchamber to avoid him. It had been difficult to carry out her household duties whilst keeping one eye out for Thomas. The butler, without losing one ounce of his aplomb, had assisted her by warning her when Thomas was in the vicinity.

When Emmaline had been forced to explain to Margaret just what her brother's ‘care' entailed, Margaret had naturally been horrified. It wasn't something Emmaline wished to bandy abroad, but she was desperate for a reference from a respectable referee. Margaret had replied forthwith, enclosing several shillings for the stagecoach fee.

It had taken Emmaline several days to find out how to go about purchasing a ticket for the stagecoach. If it weren't for the scullery maid whose mother lived on the outskirts of London, her escape could easily have failed.

Emmaline sighed and switched the valise to her other hand. It seemed to be getting heavier by the minute. Anyone would think it contained twenty dresses instead of the two that were folded tightly inside the valise. She had not been able to fit her best walking dress in, and indeed, what would she do with it anyway? Now that her application had been sent and approved, she was destined to become a companion for Mrs. Fitzjames, whoever she might be. Companions did not own a plethora of fashionable dresses. And Emmaline would have to mind her p's and q's. She was well aware that Mrs. Fitzjames had replied to Emmaline with celerity because the reference had been signed, not by Margaret, but by her brother, the earl himself. An earl's word was not to be taken lightly.

Margaret noted in her return letter enclosing the reference that Darroch was very angry (underlined) to find Emmaline in such dire straits. However he thought that for the time being, Emmaline's decision to become a companion for Mrs. Fitzjames was a wise idea. He had apparently checked up on Mrs. Fitzjames and found her to be an unexceptional woman. Emmaline was grateful to him, but she could not help thinking that her decisions were none of his business. But at least she was now confident that she was not stepping from the fireplace into the fire.

Lord, it was cold. In spite of wearing two pairs of gloves, the woollen ones tucked inside her best leather ones, her hands were still icy. She stamped her damp, freezing feet and did her best not to think about the Earl of Darroch. That was a relationship that would never happen. There was no relationship at all between Darroch and Miss Emmaline Barry. Even though at one time…

Margaret Bretherton was fortunate in her brother. He was the kindest man Emmaline had ever known. Also the—well, best looking. For a start he was tall, which appealed to a tall lady such as herself. Though somewhat distant he was kind and indulged his sister no end. On Emmaline's visit to Darroch House last Christmas, the Earl had spent a considerable amount of time in their company, as if he didn't have an estate to run and a lot of people dependent upon him. It had been the best Christmas of Emmaline's life, even better than some of the years when her parents had been alive.

They'd gone tobogganing down the hill at the back of the manor and Darroch had taken turns to partner first Margaret and then Emmaline. The stable boy had helped them, grinning all the while at their shrieks and giggles. And Darroch had been—well, he'd seemed carefree, as if he'd put aside his duties for a while just to be himself.

As more guests arrived for the Yuletide celebrations, card games and charades had been arranged, and Darroch had been most attentive. Or so she'd thought.

Emmaline sighed and tightened her lips. Best to forget him. It was unlikely she would ever see him again and her life from now on would not allow for daydreaming.

Hoofbeats thrummed in the distance then grew louder, echoing off the walls of the inn. The stage swept around the corner at a pace that had Emmaline stepping back hastily into a recess in the inn yard. Because of the heavy snow, and because it was almost Christmastime, there were no other passengers to be collected. The guard raced inside with bundles of letters and packages while the ostler changed the team. The fresh horses stamped and postured, anxious to be on their way.

"Hurry, miss." The guard grabbed her valise and slung it on top of the mountain of luggage on top of the coach. He boosted her up into the carriage without benefit of the steps and slammed the door.

"Oh!" Emmaline fell against the seat and slithered down to take her place between a pale, sour-looking young man and a farmer's wife nursing a cockerel. Emmaline swallowed hard. She had not anticipated this particular aspect of the journey. She prayed her valise lasted the journey intact. Everything she owned was crammed into that valise.

She adjusted her cloak and smiled nervously at the other travelers on the opposite seat. Only one smiled back, and his was not a pleasant smile. A pair of pale, shifty eyes examined her from head to toe. She raised her chin and looked through him as if he did not exist. But he didn't seem in the least put out. On the contrary. His thin lips stretched knowingly and Emmaline could feel the heat scorching her face. She shifted her glance to the farmer's wife who was happy to discourse at length on her reasons for taking the cockerel to her sister in Harlow. Emmaline surmised that there must be many hundreds of cockerels in Harlow, but the woman seemed convinced that her spangled duckwing was an outstanding creature that would lend a real cachet to her sister's collection of breeding fowl. For almost two hours Emmaline endured a lecture on the various facets of chicken breeding. Just when she thought the lecture was finished, the woman would begin again. "And another thing—" till Emmaline nearly screamed.

In the end it was the sour young man who put a stop to the avian discourse.

"For Gawd's sake shut yer gob about yer bloody rooster," he implored.

Emmaline didn't agree with his way of silencing the woman, but she heartily agreed with the sentiment. Silence reigned inside the coach for a time until the pale young man nodded off to sleep and slumped against Emmaline, his meaty thigh rubbing suggestively against hers. An older woman sitting opposite put a stop to that with a poke from her furled umbrella and he woke up with a snort. Everyone laughed and the young man moved as far away from Emmaline as he could.

Two hours later the horses slowed for Harlow. Here they would have a stop for as much as ten minutes, the only respite in her journey to Epping. Emmaline was desperate for the necessary. She stood aside for the farmer's wife to get out first. "You go first," the farmer's wife whispered. There ensued a mad scramble by the passengers to eat and drink as much as they could in the short time available. By the time the guard bellowed at everyone to get back on board, Emmaline had managed to elbow her way to the necessary but she missed out on the meat pies that some of the passengers had obtained. Her empty stomach began to protest as soon as the coach set out again. The only good thing about the journey was that with so many people crammed inside, the coach was not cold. But at least one person had been eating onions and the swaying of the vehicle added to the ominous roiling and pitching of her unhappy stomach. She scrabbled in her reticule and tugged out a handkerchief to press across her nose and mouth, wishing desperately that she'd had the forethought to douse the handkerchief in eau de cologne before she'd left home. ‘Home.' Where would that turn out to be in future? All of a sudden fear welled up, strident and demanding, and she bowed her head, struggling to subdue those jabs of hopelessness and fear. Truly, she had no options left, so she must make the best of a bad bargain. "Self control, self control," she muttered beneath her breath. That was what her old governess used to say. Miss Minchin had had a saying for every eventuality, though Emmaline doubted that Miss Minchin had expected one of her charges to travel on the stage with a group of onion-eaters and a bad-tempered cockerel.

At Oldham she was the only person to get off the coach. She stood in the icy air gulping in deep breaths to clear her head and stomach. As her stomach began to settle she looked around for the carriage that was to convey her to the Fitzjames household. It was beginning to snow in huge drifting flakes and the contrast between the stinking warmth of the coach and the biting cold of the inn yard forced her to take cover.

She dragged her valise towards the nearest shelter—a corner of the inn yard under a roof overhang, and wondered if big brother Thomas had yet discovered she was missing. For a moment she wondered if she had done the right thing in running away. Then she recalled Thomas's hot breath, reeking of brandy as he leaned over her where she'd foolishly fallen asleep before locking the door to her bedchamber. Of course she was doing the right thing. But there was huge gulf between doing the right thing and stepping out alone into the world.

How long would she have to wait for a conveyance to take her to the Fitzjames household? Her feet were even colder than her fingers. Lord, she hoped Mrs. Fitzjames hadn't changed her mind. Fear began to claw its way into the edges of her mind. She would think of something pleasant. What were Margaret and Bretherton doing at this moment? Preparing for the Christmas celebrations, probably. Last year Bretherton and a couple of farmhands had chopped pine boughs and brought them inside for Margaret and Emmaline to decorate with red ribbons. The house had been redolent of pine resin and treacle tarts, which were one of the earl's favorite sweetmeats.

Her nose wrinkled. Lord, she could smell those wonderful tarts right now. Her empty stomach growled. She peered around the corner of the building. Still no carriage. Sighing, she buried herself in happy memories.

At the Bretherton ball, the Earl of Darroch had danced with her; really danced with her. Or course, he'd stood up with her when she and Margaret had had their coming-out, but that was when she'd only been seventeen. Her parents had been alive and Thomas had been on his Grand Tour. It had been a happy year.

However last year she'd been twenty and the Brethertons, knowing she was grieving for her parents, had asked her to visit Darroch. They had not asked Thomas.

Darroch was like a fairy tale castle after the cold austerity of Barry Manor. Of course, when her parents had been alive the manor had been full of laughter, not just from the family but from the staff also. Under Thomas's aegis it had become a silent, unhappy place where the servants were suspicious of each other, and fearful of Thomas. It was Thomas's habit to pit servant against servant and reward informers, so the closeness and cooperation that had once reigned at the manor had been forgotten as everyone sought to justify their existence. Many of the workers who had been employed by their parents had been dismissed without references.

By contrast, Emmaline had found Darroch to be a busy, happy place, not quiet at all, but certainly not uncouth. The sound of voices uplifted in ditties could often be heard from the laundry shed where the washerwoman and her helpers toiled; the stables rang with laughter as the grooms brushed and curried the horses; and even though Emmaline had not descended to the kitchens, she imagined the servants there were happy too.

When the Earl of Darroch danced with her not once or twice but several times while many more eligible young ladies watched enviously, Emmaline had been sure he was going to offer for her. Her hungry heart full of love, she had waited for his declaration.

But it never came. He had bowed politely on the morning of her departure, holding her hand longer than was strictly polite, as if he wished to say something. He had said, "Miss Barry, I want to assure—" then he'd broken off and stepped back to allow her to enter the carriage. Her heart sinking, she'd climbed into the carriage without looking back. And gone home to Thomas—Thomas who was waiting for her to attain her majority so he could get his hands on the small inheritance her mother had left her. Thomas, who was growing less like a brother and more like a frustrated lover with each passing day.

It had been stupid of her to imagine that Bretherton was going to make her an offer. Just because his sister was her best friend did not mean that he was predisposed in her favor. There had been many much more beautiful and deserving young women at the Bretherton Ball. There was Miss Charlton whose papa owned a large home not far from Darroch. Miss Charlton was not only pretty, she was amiable. And there was Miss Featherington whose blue eyes followed every step Bretherton took.

Whatever had made Emmaline imagine that a light-hearted flirtation meant he wanted to make her his wife? Lord, she'd been naïve. How she'd needed her mother. Mama would have helped her to understand the situation better. She would have explained what was happening and how Emmaline should behave. It had been so hard to leave Bretherton that frigid morning a year ago, knowing she must return to Barry Manor to a life far removed from the happy atmosphere she had basked in for the past two weeks. And to her brother.

Could that be why Darroch had not offered for her? Did he think she had set her cap at him in order to escape her humdrum existence by any means possible? Perhaps he thought her carefully veiled affection had its roots in the yen for a comfortable existence and a few diamond bracelets. Under those circumstances she could not blame him for easing her out of his life. After all, it was the way of the world, to seek to better oneself by any means possible. But she resented that her carefully guarded heart had given itself to someone who did not understand her.

Her regard for him was not based on what he could give her. Could he not see that? It was all about his eyes—well, and his quiet manner, and his habit of inclining his head when he was interested in a topic, and his strength as he tossed her up in the saddle, and his…

She jolted out of her daydreams as a small carriage rattled up beside her. The driver jumped down and grabbed her bandbox. As he tossed it unceremoniously on to the seat next to where he'd been sitting, the carriage door opened a crack. "Barry?" a voice inquired from within. Not ‘Miss Barry' but ‘Barry.' She'd better get used to that.

"Yes."

"Get in. Hurry. It's damned cold and there's more snow coming."

She scrambled, unaided, into the coach, dragging her valise behind her. A man, dimly lit in the feeble light of the carriage lantern, huddled in one corner.

As she plunked herself down on the opposite seat, he muttered, "M'mother sent me. Bloody nuisance. We've got guests. Important ones."

In the dim lantern light, all she was able to discern were a pair of thin lips and a pasty-yellow complexion. Perhaps he'd been overseas for a time and had been ill. His thin lips gave him an unpleasant expression, and she prayed that she'd not jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Mr. Fitzjames bore a marked resemblance to her brother, and so far he did not sound at all pleased to meet her. Hopefully Mrs. Fitzjames was a nice person. After all, Emmaline would be spending most of her time with Mrs. Fitzjames.

Emmaline's fingers curled into her palms. She had to succeed at this job. Certainly, the inheritance from her mother would come to her in only a few weeks, but until that date she had no choice except to stay with the Fitzjames family. Even then, it was doubtful if her little inheritance would stretch to more than a small country cottage with no means to maintain it. But what if the solicitor contacted Thomas, even though she'd forwarded him her new address? Thomas would have no hesitation in feathering his nest with her inheritance.

She bit her lip. There had been no alternative but to escape from Thomas, but she hoped she had not lost her only chance of freedom.

When they arrived at their destination, Mr. Fitzjames jumped down from the carriage and rushed inside the house while the butler struggled to let down the steps for her to descend.

"Thank you," Emmaline murmured. "I'm sorry. I do not know your name."

"'Tis Jackson, miss." He took her valise and hustled her through the doorway so she had no time to see the house from the outside, although she noted that many candles glowed in the downstairs rooms.

"Mrs. Fitzjames asks that you tidy yourself up after your journey and then join the company downstairs. Ring this bell and one of the maids will show you the way." Jackson crooked his finger to a maidservant who escorted her to a small bedchamber on the second floor. Clean and neat. Not too cold. Promising.

Her stomach was growling with hunger but there was nothing edible in the room. She unpacked her valise and then struggled to subdue her thick brown hair into a tighter hairstyle more suited to a companion. "That will have to do," she muttered, looking at her reflection in the cheval mirror. Drawing in a deep breath, she tugged on the bell-rope.

As she followed Molly downstairs and along a hallway, she could hear several voices in conversation. She must be light-headed from hunger because she could swear that one of those voices belonged to Bretherton. Ridiculous.

There were several people gathered inside the room where a roaring fire crackled in the hearth. Mr. Fitzjames lounged against the mantelpiece, a glass of claret dangling from his fingers. "Devilish cold out there tonight," he said. "Damned nuisance to have to go out, but your companion arrived safely, Mama."

"I would consider it a privilege to go out in any weather to collect Miss Barry." Bretherton, standing beside the chair of an elderly, wizened lady who must be Mrs. Fitzjames, bowed in Emmaline's direction. His slow smile touched the corners of his mouth as he left Mrs. Fitzjames's side and paced towards her.

Gathering her wits, Emmaline curtsied. "My lord." Her mind scurried around in circles. What was he doing here? Was Margaret here too? Bretherton must be the important guest that Mr. Fitzjames had mentioned.

Fitzjames's voice was raised in surprise. "You know Miss uh…Barry?"

"Indeed," the Earl of Darroch said, placing her hand on his arm. "We are old friends." He drew her towards Mrs. Fitzjames. "Mrs. Fitzjames, this is the young woman I mentioned to you. May I present Miss Emmaline Barry? You will find her a most excellent companion. Unfortunately you will not have her for long. She is promised to me, you see. On her twenty-first birthday we are to be married, are we not, my sweet?" His brown eyes, filled with laughter, gazed down into Emmaline's.

"Please sir, get me some food before I faint," Emmaline hissed sotto voce. Not very romantic, but the walls and ceiling were pressing in upon her and she knew she would disgrace herself at any minute by slithering to the floor, his strong arm notwithstanding. And companions did not faint. Although she wasn't sure about her future as a companion, or anything else right at this moment.

Bretherton led her to the nearest chair and scooped up a plate of macaroons from a nearby piecrust table. "Here, Miss Barry. You must be hungry after that long, cold journey."

With unladylike fervor Emmaline bit into a macaroon. She did not even glance in Mrs. Fitzjames's direction to ask for permission.

Then she sighed. Heaven. A glass of ratafia was pressed into her other hand and she tried to sip it slowly, but instead inhaled the entire glassful in one greedy gulp. Mrs. Fitzjames smothered a smile and rang the bell for more refreshments while her son stared at them in shock.

Bretherton's eyes twinkled. "Another macaroon, my love?"

She took another from the plate.

If he meant what he said, why was he waiting until her birthday? Her meager inheritance would not be any use to him, surely?

"Why on my birthday?" she whispered.

"Your brother has jurisdiction over you until then. He could veto the marriage, and on your majority, keep you under lock and key to use that inheritance. I doubt he could resist the temptation of your portion. Now, you do wish to be married, do you not?"

She looked up into those brown eyes and forgot the Fitzjames, forgot everything except Alan Bretherton. "Yes, my lord, provided it is to you."

He smiled. "Then all is settled. I suggest you devour a few more of those delicious macaroons which should satisfy you until dinner is served. Then, with Mrs. Fitzjames's help, we must make some plans."

"Plans?" A mouthful of macaroon had the word sounding like ‘mass.' Embarrassed, she replaced the cake on a plate and surreptitiously wiped the macaroon moustache from her lips.

He grinned down at her. "Plans. Such as where our wedding will take place, where you will live in the meantime and how we are to prevent your brother from trying to stop the marriage. Those sort of plans."

"Miss Barry will stay here as my guest, of course." Mrs. Fitzjames rapped her stick to draw their attention. "And I see no reason why her brother would look for her here. Do you?" she asked, turning to her son.

"Oh no, no, no. Not at all," Fitzjames stammered.

"Then all is settled," Bretherton said. He held out his hand and raised Emmaline to her feet. "I suggest you retire to rest, my love. I would imagine you have a lot to think about before dinner."

"And after dinner, too," she murmured, and smiled at him. She floated upstairs, full of macaroons and a strange mixture of excitement and relief. Well, this Christmas had turned out to be a fine one after all. And next Christmas she'd be where she wanted to be: at Darroch House alongside her husband. She grabbed tight to the bannister rail and smiled. If anyone were watching, they'd say her expression resembled that of an artist, painting the sunrise.