I’m thrilled that Frail finally releases today. After following my husband to Wales on several of his business trips, I decided that I ought to set a story in the lovely Welsh mountains. Frail began as a simple novella. However, over almost five years, subplots were added and secondary characters were fleshed out until what was a novella became a full-fledged novel!
London socialite Helena Gillingham’s world is turned upside down when her father takes his own life after his fraudulent crimes are revealed. Cast from society and suddenly penniless, Helena must relocate to the Welsh mountains, only to learn that her new neighbor is none other than the notorious madman Theodotus Mallory. But is Theo really as mad as London society says?
Theo, tormented by the horrors he witnessed during the Crimean War, has finally found serenity in living a simple life tending to his gardens. Helena’s unexpected presence shatters that peace, for he harbors the devastating secret that led to her misfortunes. Now she is destitute and frightened because of him… and he can’t deny his mounting attraction to the beautiful young woman. Can he pursue a life with Helena, all the while knowing his role in her downfall?
I wrote a holiday short story for Ramblings From This Chick blog! Granted, I think having to write in the back of a van at night on a family road trip may have influenced my story.
Have a Miserable Christmas and an Atrocious New Year
“By God, you will marry Lord Embroke!” Poppy’s father slammed his huge palm on the table holding the Christmas tree. Several of the embroidered ornaments fell from the branches.
Poppy stifled the urge to flinch. Big Jim Lancaster was an intimidating man, both in stature and reputation. He towered over six feet and possessed massive shoulders that were molded from a youth spent hoisting barrels. His craggy, scarred face and fierce demeanor kept the hundred or so employees of his Newcastle factories in line.
“But I don’t know Lord Embroke, much less love him,” Poppy protested, drawing herself up. She looked like the mirror image of her striking mother, silken red hair, creamy skin, bow-like lips, and enormous icy blue eyes. Unfortunately, Poppy’s similarity to her mother was skin deep. She lacked her mother’s tranquil nature. Poppy’s fiery temperament was more akin to her father’s mercurial personality—one moment in thundering rage and the next all loving and puppy-like.
“You love mama,” she said. “Yours is a happy marriage. Why would not want to same for me. Why would you not want the same for me?”
Her father released a long breath, his chest drooping. “Come here, love.” Poppy edged forward. He squeezed her small hands between his roughened, large ones. “I love your mama. But I watched her suffer all those years when I was building our fortune. She did without for too long. I want you and your sisters to be cared for as proper ladies. I don’t want to see you suffer or want. I built this,” he gestured about the parlor of their newly built mansion, “for my family.”
“Louise—my friend from school—is in London. She says Lord Embroke is a most taciturn, disagreeable man. ”
Her father muttered under his breath, something about money wasted on an education. “Louise is a silly fool.”
Poppy wasn’t deterred. “But what if Lord Embroke is a wastrel as his brother was? What if he gambles and cohorts with improper ladies? How could he properly care for me, if he cares for no one but himself? You speak of this fortune—but what if he squanders it?”
“My daughters do not speak of such impolite matters under my roof!” Father’s ire rose again. “I have had the man meticulously studied. I possess letters from Generals praising Embroke’s wise leadership in the Crimea War, from his Cambridge dons attesting to the man’s intelligence, and from his bank concerning the solvency of his personal finances before inheriting his title. What your silly friend Louise considers taciturn and disagreeable is a serious man facing the serious consequences of his late brother’s libertine lifestyle. You see, Poppy, all decisions have—”
“Consequences,” Poppy finished. She began to replace the ornaments that had fallen from the tree, while continuing the lecture she had been given since she was bounced on her papa’s knee. “Our decisions mold our futures. People starve in the streets for the foolish decisions they make.”
She kept her eyes averted from her father and continued adorning the tree. “But I don’t see how agreeing to marry a man whom I’ve never seen is foolish. You, yourself, say that you always judge a man by the look in his eyes. Yet, we’ve judged Lord Embroke without seeing hide nor hair of him.”
“By God!” Her father ripped the bluebird ornament that she had sewn when she was twelve from her hand. “I will not be mocked in my own home!” He grabbed her wrist, his face contorted with black anger. “Now you listen, young lady. I don’t want to hear any more of this talk from you. You just look beautiful and keep your mouth shut when Lord Embroke arrives tomorrow. I will not have you embarrass me in front of an influential peer. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?” he barked.
“Yes, sir,” she whispered.
He released her, and Poppy ran to the parlor door.
“Wait,” her father said.
She turned. He rubbed his perspiring forehead with his fingers. “I’m sorry. I do this because I love you. Because I want to see you well settled in life.”
Poppy’s eyes blurred with tears. The parlor was festooned with Christmas decorations. Garlands and holly adorned the chimneypiece. Ornaments she and her sister had made through the years hung on the tree. Christmases had always been a happy time for her. She caroled in the streets, laughed at family stories over spicy wassail, and drifted to sleep after Christmas dinner by the slow burning Yule log.
Yet, she felt no merriment in her heart this year. Only dread.
She didn’t say a word as she slipped from the room. The hall smelled of baking cakes and cinnamon. A garland wound halfway down the grand staircase bannister.
Her mother, wearing a wool cloak and bonnet, hurried down the treads. She stopped when she saw the tears rolling down her daughter’s face.
“Oh love,” she whispered, hugging her eldest daughter. “Did you talk to Papa?”
“Yes,” Poppy choked.
Mrs. Lancaster sighed. “Oh dear, please understand that your father loves you very much. He only wants what’s best for you.”
“Can I not determine my own life?” Poppy cried. “Can I not determine what’s best for me?”
Her mama took Poppy’s hand and drew her into the corner, away from the servant’s inquisitive ears. “My dear, if you truly feel that upon meeting Lord Embroke you couldn’t possibly share a happy life with him, I will think of some way to speak to your father.”
“I can fight my own battles!”
“I can fight them better,” she said, quietly and firmly. “Now, I simply ask that you give Lord Embroke a chance. You shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve met him.”
“Very well,” Poppy conceded. Her father’s advice, aside from taking decisions seriously, also included knowing when to stop bargaining. She would pretend to give Lord Embroke a chance for her mother’s sake. But Poppy knew she couldn’t respect a man who agreed to marry her only for money without even seeing or speaking to her. And she couldn’t love a man that she couldn’t respect. This was going to be a disastrous, miserable Christmas.
“Now, you rest,” her mother said. “I need to run to the shop for more green thread. I haven’t enough to bind together the garland for the stairs, and all the servants are busy in the kitchens.”
“Let me go, please,” Poppy begged. “I need to walk and take in the fresh air to clear my mind. I won’t be but half an hour.” Poppy had to get away from this house brimming with good cheer and smelling like a bakery before she screamed. “Please, Mama.”
“Very well,” her mother said after a long pause. “But when you come back, we must have a concoction made to heal that unsightly blemish on your chin. You will want to look your best for Lord Embroke.”
Poppy touched her so-called unsightly blemish. Heaven forbid a piddly pimple should turn off Lord Embroke. If that were the case, may she wake up with dozens speckling her face.
Poppy dashed to her room, opened her commode drawer and drew out a bag of small candies wrapped in paper. She scooped out a handful and dumped them into her basket that was filled with her knitting and sewing for factory children. Then she donned her cloak, gloves, and bonnet, and set out.
The pounding noise of the factories—including her father’s—echoed in the streets. Streams of soot pouring from numerous huge brick towers tinted the sky a dull gray. Still, being outside in the cold and dreariness was better than being trapped inside with the tyrannical merriment of her home.
She veered off the street where their mansion rose from a small hill overlooking the city, and ventured through the poorer neighborhoods of the factory workers. “Merry Christmas, Miss Poppy! Merry Christmas, Miss Poppy!” the children called and ran up to her. “Do you have any candy for us?”
Their excited faces raised her spirits.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she teased. “I don’t recall having any candy. Hmm, let me check my basket.” She made a show off of rooting about. “Why, look what I found!” she said, pulling out some candies. “How did that get there?”
The children’s smiles chased Lord Embroke temporarily from her mind. She stopped at several homes to deliver socks, mittens, or scarves she had knitted. The mothers’ gratitude warmed her sad heart. She visited for a few minutes with the families, catching up on the latest news while cuddling a few adorable babies.
She wished she didn’t have to go back home, but she had almost expended her half hour and she still hadn’t purchased the thread. She forced herself to put a darling infant back in his cradle and head to the shop.
The two main aisles running down the center of the Phillips General Store were clogged with people shopping for Christmas gifts. Poppy edged slowly through the thick, milling crowd, trying to reach the shelf of thread, when she glanced down and spied a stack of Charles Dicken’s Household Words journals.
A new issue!
She opened the top copy and flipped the pages until she came to an article titled “An Adventuresome Lady’s Tour of the Wild Americas“ and began to read. The author extolled how the untamed landscape of the Americas had liberated her spirit, making her feel as wild and free as the terrain.
Maybe I should run away to the Americas, Poppy quipped to herself, if that is where freedom awaits, for my spirit certainly feels bound at the moment.
She continued to read about awe-inspiring vistas, losing track of time and place, until she heard a man clear his voice throat in a hard, annoyed manner.
She lifted her head to behold the most disagreeable-looking man she had ever seen. Strands of black hair fell onto thick hawkish eyebrows. He glared at her with dark, shiny eyes—like onyx. His haughty expression only heightened his general unpleasantness.
“Do you mind?” he snarled.
“Oh, am I in your way?” she asked with malicious sweetness. “I’m terribly sorry to have inconvenienced you in any way, sir.”
The horrid man either didn’t perceive the intended message of his rude impertinence or he merely didn’t care. “I’ve waited here for three minutes, politely saying ‘pardon me’, ‘pardon me’ so that I might reach across you and procure the latest issue of Household Words. Are you always this oblivious?”
Her mouth dropped open with shock. Then she closed it again, her eyes narrowing.
“My goodness! Imagine three long, almost interminable, minutes. How you have suffered! You should receive a medal!” She didn’t want to admit it, but she felt a perverse sense of pleasure in venting her anger on the rude gentleman.
“Your acerbity isn’t becoming,” he remarked.
That was too much!
“Why should I care if I’m becoming to you? I don’t even know you. Heaven forbid if I’m not becoming to a rude stranger. Heaven forbid if I might have one little blemish on my face.”
“I merely want a copy of Household Words. Spare me the tongue lashing if you please.”
She tossed the edition that she was reading at him. “There! Your journal. Good day.”
“I believe you mean ‘bad day’?” he suggested, putting the journal under his arm. What an insolent man.
She feigned a polite smile. “Yes, may you have bad day.”
He executed a small bow in the tight space. “And a bad day to you, as well.”
“I hope you enjoy a miserable Christmas.”
“I shall, most assuredly, and wish you the same and an atrocious New Year.”
“Oh, it will be,” she cried. “Have no doubt on that count.”
For a moment, they glared at each other. Then she noticed his lips were quivering, which caused hers to do the same.
“I better get on with my miserable Christmas,” she choked and edged away before she broke into laughter.
She weaved through the busy shoppers to the shelf of thread. Her entire body was quaking. What came over her? She had been practically yelling at a stranger. She glanced over her shoulder to find him still looking at her, an amused expression lighting his face, which wasn’t as disagreeable upon further inspection.
Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment at being caught looking, and she returned her focus to the thread bobbins. Her fingers were shaking when she picked out the green one. All she could think was that he was watching her with those intense eyes. They bore through her clothes, heating her skin more than a dozen roaring Yule logs could do. Yet when she ventured another peek, she found he was gone. A cold, deflating feeling settled into her chest.
Ah, it was just as well. She shouldn’t consider other men when she had been designated to Lord Embroke.
She started for the line by the front counter. The clock on the wall indicated that she was already twenty minutes late returning home. She began nervously picking at her pimple.
She heard a child scream, and a man shouting, “You little brat! Don’t think of running away from me!”
Poppy pushed to the shop’s front window to determine the cause of the ruckus. Beyond the panes, she could see five-year-old Henry Lewis dangling upside down by his ankle that was gripped in the beefy hand of Mr. Phillips, the shop owner.
“I’m going to whip you until your backside is one red blister!” Mr. Phillips barked. “You don’t steal from my shop.” He smacked the boy’s rear. Henry wailed, tears dripping from his red face.
“No!” Poppy shouted and rushed out the shop.
“Please, sir, I swear I didn’t steal nothing!” Henry cried. “I swear it. The fine gentleman said he would pay. It’s for my sister. Please!”
“Mr. Phillips! You let him go.” Poppy dropped her thread and basket and yanked the boy from the merchant’s clutches. She set him on the ground and knelt, putting her on eye level with the child. “Henry, dear, tell me what has happened.”
“The fine gent said he would buy the doll for my sister,” Henry sobbed.
“You little liar.” Mr. Phillips raised his hand, threatening another blow to the frightened child.
“Henry is an honest boy, sir.” Poppy rose. “You are mistaken. And his sister is sick with consumption. Don’t you dare lay a hand on him.”
“Now I know you have soft heart, miss,” the shop owner said. “But you can’t reward lying. And that boy’s a liar if I’ve ever laid eyes on one.”
“Is he now?” a man said in a deep, quiet voice that rumbled like thunder.
Poppy whirled around to see the disagreeable man strolling from the store with the copy of Household Words still under his arm. His face appeared even more severe in the sunlight. His pale skin was a bold contrast to his black hair and blazing eyes. What she didn’t appreciate in the crowded the shop was the fine tailoring of his coat and trousers, which fit snugly on his broad shoulders and lean legs.
“Tell ‘em, kind sir,” Henry implored. “Tell ‘em you said you would buy the doll for my sister after I told you she was sick.”
“The boy speaks the truth. I was approaching the counter to pay when you bolted away,” he told Mr. Phillips.
The shopkeeper’s face reddened. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t…. I see… Well, that boy has stolen from me before.” He pointed his blunt finger at Henry, who scurried behind Poppy’s skirt for protection. “He’s a swindler, I tell you.”
“He is not!” Poppy said. “He helps his mother since his father died and tends to his sick sister. He’s a fine boy.”
“Now, Miss,” Mr. Phillips began, “like I said. I know you have a soft heart, but that boy—”
“Don’t contradict the lady,” the disagreeable man said in that quiet yet thunderous manner of his. He reached into his pocket and dug out some coins. He dropped them onto the street. “For this journal, the doll, and the green thread the kind lady desired.” With that he turned on his heel and strolled away.
Mr. Phillips, red-faced with embarrassment, gazed at everyone. Then he channeled his humiliation back into anger. “You!” He pointed to Henry. “I don’t want to see you in the shop again.”
Henry took off down the lane. “Wait!” Poppy cried, but he had already disappeared. She turned to see the disagreeable man’s coat still visible a block away in the opposite direction.
“And you needn’t worry, Mr. Phillips.” She gathered her basket and thread. “You won’t see me or any member of my family in your shop again.”
She didn’t listen to the man’s sputtering reply, but broke into a jog to catch up with the disagreeable man.
“Please, sir!” she said, reaching for his shoulder.
He quickly spun around and arched one of his severe brows with surprise.
“I want to apologize for being impolite to you in the shop,” she said, catching her breath. “I truly am having a bad day and vented my vexation on you. I’m sorry.” She noticed a flake of snow land on his collar.
I, too, am experiencing a bad day. Though, I must admit, our little shouting match was rather cathartic.”
“Yes, it was.”
He studied her face. The smile that graced his lips reminded her of a beautiful sunrise breaking over the land. In an instance, his disagreeable visage evaporated. He chuckled, a lovely musical sound that was infectious, and she found herself joining in his mirth.
“Allow me to pay you for the thread,” she said.
“Please accept it as an apology for my rudeness.”
“But I have nothing to give you for my rudeness.”
“You have a kind smile. That is enough.”
Her smile involuntary transformed to a mooning, girlish grin.
They stood, silent and smiling. She felt as light as the snowflakes that were growing more numerous by the second.
“So, why will your Christmas be miserable?” he asked. “Of course, don’t feel obliged to answer my question.”
“I… you see, my father wants me to marry, but…”
“You don’t approve of the gentleman,” he filled in.
“Yes. In truth, I’ve never met him. He visits from London tomorrow.”
He turned quiet again, but something changed in his dark eyes.
“So why will your Christmas be miserable?” she asked in turn, trying to keep the conversation going.
“My reason is similar to yours. I came from London to meet a potential bride because I was in desperate straits to provide for my sisters and mother. But an investment paid off at the last minute, which has considerably reversed my fortunes. I have been troubling myself thinking of a way to politely beg off the pending engagement but…”
She drew an audible breath. The man before her was none other than the dreaded Lord Embroke, whom she was sure that she couldn’t love or respect not an hour ago.
“But perhaps I was hasty in my decision.” A tender light glowed in his eyes.
“You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t judge someone,” she stammered, suddenly breathless. “Until you’ve met him.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” he said softly.
Bells from the great cathedral in the city center began to ring out the hour. She was hopelessly late now.
“I-I should go home,” she said reluctantly. “My mother is waiting for me. She will worry.”
“May I escort you, Miss Lancaster?”
“I would be delighted, Lord Embroke.”
She slowly wrapped her fingers around his offered elbow. They strolled, laughing at each other’s conversation, to her home, which brimmed with wonderful holiday cheer. What she thought would be a miserable Christmas had turned into the merriest of her life.
* Here are some other holiday short stories I’ve written for the Ramblings From This Chick blog: