Many years ago, the Newsletter Chairperson for Romance Writers of America asked me to write a very short story to be sent out with the December newsletter. Nothing much came of it, the club felt this opportunity should have been thrown open to the whole membership, and possibly a better story be sent out to represent the chapter. I can see that point of view, and now as a more mature writer, I would not be so hasty to let a friend set herself up for so much criticism.
Be that as it may, I have always loved this little tale, and present it to you in this Holiday Season with a wish for health and happiness for you and your loved ones.
Angelica waited on the steps of the townhouse, snow flurries teasing her, darkness pressing her against the wide door. The man she had called her grandfather seemed to be there, laughing as he always had. Another death to get over, and at this time of year. She shivered and knocked again.
The door swung open, and faithful old Mr. Charles peered out at her. “Ah, child! How good of you to come. Inside now, before you take a chill. The master will want to see you.”
Angelica fumbled with her cloak clasp. Master? Not the old earl, who had just passed on. Which of the many cousins had been his heir? The note summoning her held the Harrington crest, and two indiscernible initials.
To her surprise, the house had been draped in Christmas finery, pine and holly, bayberry and mistletoe. After a flash of resentment, Angelica remembered grandfather’s dislike of mourning. Christmas had been his favorite time of year. On a Christmas eve, much like this one, she had come to live with him, a child of twelve.
Smiling at her memories, she followed Charles upstairs to the massive parlor, where he announced her as “Miss Randall.” Angelica would have corrected him, but the tall, dark haired man at the fireplace turned and smiled. She lost her breath entirely. And remembered the Harrington heir.
“Angie! I’m so relieved you’ve come.” Tiger-like, he pounced forward and clasped her hand. His blue-grey eyes twinkled in the candle-light. “Now I know everything will be fine. Aren’t you using your married name?”
“Y-yes, Jeremy. I am Mrs. Finch, now. I suppose Charles forgot.” She looked up at him, wishing she had grown a little in the last eight years. Wishing she had asked who inherited the title before she came running home.
Jeremy’s smile softened. “I am sorry about your husband. Terrible thing, the pox. And a child too, I heard?”
“A daughter. Thank you, you are most kind.” She pushed her sorrow back down. He still held her hand, and she pulled away. The fire drew her, and the boughs of pine and ivy on the mantle. “The house looks wonderfully cheerful.”
Jeremy followed her; she could feel his eyes on her. Did he remember, as she did, the last time they stood this close? Heat raced to her cheeks, and she hurried to say, “Your note said very little, sir. Why did you need me to come at once?”
“I have inherited a little problem. No, I’m wrong. A rather big problem. You see, our grandfather’s largest collection is now in my hands, and it is my belief a woman would keep it better than I could.”
Angelica looked up, puzzled. “You can’t be speaking of the snuff boxes or the first edition books. What else did he collect?”
Jeremy lifted a hand to her cheek, catching her off guard. “You still look like an angel, blond and pink, with those wide pansy-brown eyes. I’ll give you a hint. You were the first.”
She could make nothing of his words as her senses flared to life. Time might have stood still since the last time he touched her, her reaction came as strong and as overpowering.
Before she could gather enough wit to reply, the parlor door opened, and a small army of children trooped in. Angelica turned to stare, aware that her mouth had dropped open. She pressed her lips together and looked at Jeremy. “Are they yours?”
“They are now. My inheritance.” He flashed her a cheeky grin, and went to inspect the, well, troops seemed appropriate. The smallest girl, about three years old, he swung up in his arms, to her great delight and loud giggles.
Charles and a footman entered with a tray of hot chocolate and biscuits. Angelica perceived that this ritual took place regularly. In moments the children, who looked to range from age fifteen down to the three year old, were seated happily on the rug near the fire.
“Grandfather Harrington collected waifs and orphans, Angie.” Jeremy handed her a cup of chocolate, and led her to one of two wing chairs framing the huge fireplace. “His will says that he missed the laughter of children once we grew up and left. Some of his earliest acquisitions have also grown up and moved on to productive lives. These are the ones left to me.”
“Eight children!” Angelica drew back from the small boy who sought to touch her fur-trimmed hat. “I had no idea!’
Jeremy scooped up the boy, and stood over her. His gaze, when Angelica looked up at him, had turned hard. She stared back, unsure if she could explain. A minuscule crack of pain wrenched through her deadened heart.
“Children, Nathan will read your story tonight. Mrs. Finch and I must discuss a business matter.”
The children let him know they were not happy, but Jeremy ignored them and pulled Angelica to her feet. She barely set the cup of chocolate down before he strode out of the room and down the hall, pulling her like a toy behind him. By the time they reached the library, she could not catch her breath.
“What is the problem?” he snapped, shutting the door.
No fire had been laid in this room, and Angelica shivered. “I didn’t know! If you had explained in your note about the children, I could have told you.”
“Told me what, for God’s sake?” Jeremy’s expression told her he thought her insane. “You were a mother, you should know how to deal with children!”
The crack widened. She bit her lip, refusing the release of tears. “I lost my child,” she whispered. “The pain almost destroyed me. How can I risk that again? And eight times!”
“Ten,” he told her, his voice gentling. “There are two infants upstairs.”
“Oh, Jeremy!” She placed a hand over her heart, trying to stop the emotions that sought to break free. A sob caught in her throat.
“I am sorry, Angie.” Jeremy placed his arms around her, and drew her into the security of his embrace. “I never should have let you go.”
She pulled away, hitting his broad chest. “Let me go? You sent me away! You didn’t care– ”
“Is that what you think? Well, you’re wrong. I had to send you away, before you drove me mad! I cared too much.” “Cared too much for your m-mistress, and your yacht!” She went to the desk and picked up a pen. Anything to keep her hands busy. “Stephen told me you paid him to marry me. I hated you then.”
Jeremy sighed, surprising her. He had moved close behind her. “Angelica, I wagered with Stephen that he could not get up the courage to ask for your hand. I knew I could goad him into doing so. I thought he would make you a good, gentle husband. I had so little prospects. I wanted to see you happy.”
She frowned, unable to look up at him. “But you were the heir. The next Earl of Harrington.”
“Yes, but Grandfather had told me how badly dipped our coffers were. I’ve worked since then to rebuild the fortune, and now I’ve succeeded.”
“Worked?” She turned, and took his hand. Yes, she had felt a callus when he touched her cheek. She looked up, startled.
He gazed at her for a long moment before continuing. “Ship building. I’ve just started my own yard in Bristol. I named the business `The Eastern Star.’ After that first yacht.”
“I see.” She let go of his hand, and walked around him, walked around the room. “You need to go back to Bristol, and you hoped I would stay here as nanny.”
“Damn it, woman! You always see things in the worst way!” Jeremy stepped in front of her, scowling. “Stephen left you penniless. If you stay here with the children, I can take care of you. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
“You’re very good with the children. Perhaps I should go to Bristol and try my hand at the business.”
His scowl lightened, then disappeared altogether as he laughed. “I vow, you would no doubt do quite well.”
“I’m serious, Jeremy Harrington. If I stay, we will have a business deal. You are to handle the children, and I will take care of your shipyard.”
“What do you know of accounts?”
“I ran a household for five years.”
“What do you know about ships?”
“Only what you taught me.” Angelica smiled, and held out her hand. “Do we have a deal, my lord?”
“Good God, you are serious!” He laughed again. “Let’s compromise, Angie. We’ll both stay with the children until the New Year. Then I will go to Bristol while you find a few good servants to stay with the children. I’ll show you the business after that.”
“Good evening, Jeremy. I’ve loved seeing you again.” Angelica headed for the door. A large, calloused hand held it shut.
“Stubborn girl! Very well, we shall both interview servants, and go to Bristol together.”
She turned to face him, and found herself in his arms. “I think we have a deal, sir.”
“Do you still hate me, Angie?” His smile faded, concern filled his blue eyes.
Angelica raised a hand and brushed his too-long hair off his forehead. “Did I hate you? I don’t remember.”
“Thank you.” His eyes lowered to her mouth, soon followed by his lips. The first gentle touch thrilled her, as did the growing passion in his caress. “Angie. I’m afraid I might have to send you away again.”
“Really?” She laid her head on his chest, smiling. “Why is that?”
“If we both stay here, things might happen. Things beyond our control.”
Angelica nodded, but held him tighter. “Terrible things?”
“Oh, no. Wonderful things.” He kissed her hair, and played with a falling curl. “You’ll have to marry me.”
“You’ll have to ask me.”
She heard the laughter in his voice. “Mrs. Finch, would you like to become the Countess of Harrington?”
“Yes, Jeremy, I believe I would. As long as the shipyard goes with the title.”
He kissed her again, warming to the task, laughing at her response. “We’d best see that the children get to bed. I’ll introduce you to a few of them at a time.” Worry crept into his expression. “Will you be alright?”
“I will, now.” She placed her hand in his, and took a deep breath.
In the parlor, they found the children raptly listening to Nathan, the oldest boy, reading out loud. Jeremy held Angelica next to him as they watched the intent faces around the reader.
” `The star, which they had observed at its rising, went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the Child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house found the Child with Mary, His mother.’ ”
Jeremy placed a finger to her cheek. “Angie! You’re crying!”
Everyone turned to look at her. She blinked, freeing more drops. “Am I?”
The little girl whom Jeremy had swung and teased earlier came to stare at Angelica. “Don’t cry, ma’am. You can stay here with us. We got lots of rooms.”
“Merry Christmas, Angelica,” Jeremy whispered in her ear. “Welcome home.”
Angelica picked up the child and hugged her and Jeremy at the same time. Home to stay, at last.