Candle’s Christmas Chair – in which our heroine compares suitors and our hero begins to campaign

The whole third chapter. I’ll finish the first draft today or tomorrow. I’ll then do an edit, and should have it ready for beta readers by 5 December. If you would like to read the whole thing, and have time to do it in a rush (I’d need it back by 12 December), I’d love to hear from you. Just drop me a note through the contact form. It will be about 21,000 words.

Candle’s Christmas Chair excerpt 1

Candle’s Christmas Chair excerpt 2

Candle’s Christmas Chair excerpt 3

Candle’s Christmas Chair excerpt 4

austen1Chapter three

Mama was in a flap. One of tonight’s guests had cancelled, and the table would be unbalanced. The cook had taken back the turbot, saying it was not fresh, had got into a screaming match with the fishmonger, and was now sulking. Papa had sent a message saying he and Daniel would be late. And the roses for the dining room were yellow, not pink as Mama had ordered.

Min nodded, and agreed, and nodded again. Mama would work it out. Mama always worked it out, and the dinner would be magnificent, as it always was. But Mama seemed to need the drama of solving one crisis after another.

Min, though she took her colouring and size from her mother, was far more like her peaceful father in temperament. “If you can solve it, Min,” he would say, “Then do so. If you can’t solve it, it isn’t your problem. But worrying never changes anything.”

Sure enough, by the time the first guests were announced, order had been restored and all was in readiness. Mama, with Min at her elbow, presented Papa’s apologies for his tardiness.

“A big order. He is upstairs changing for dinner. He and our nephew, Daniel, will be down shortly.”

The guest were all from trade families. Several times a week, the Bradshaw dinner table became a location for what Papa called the great game of business. Mama was an even better strategist than Papa, choosing who to invite with an eye to advantage for Bradshaw Carriages, keeping the dinner table conversation light but providing many alcoves and separate rooms for the private conversations that led to alliances for the benefit of each party.

Martin Billingham, who escorted Min into dinner once her father and cousin arrived, was the son of the man who had brought them the big order. Mama had suggested the contract might be sealed with a marriage. Mr Billingham was, Min supposed, a nice enough young man. But–whatever her mother thought should happen–Min was not going to marry him.

At dinner, most of the talk was about the French, and whether they would invade. Some of those present believed Napoleon was no longer a danger, now that he was committing troops to fight the Austrians.

Others thought it was only a matter of time until he beat the Austrians and returned to Bologne.

Min pointed out that the French naval commander, Villeneuve, had combined his fleet with the Spanish fleet, at Cadiz, and her father agreed it was a worry. “Trust Admiral Nelson to deal with them,” Daniel insisted.

“And if they don’t, we have the militia, do we not?” one of the other ladies said. This was a sore point. The volunteers that made up the militia were not paid, but they needed to be equipped, trained, and fed on training days.

Mr Billingham senior summed up the general view. “Mark you, it’s us that pays when they raise taxes. It always comes back to us, whether it’s windows or servants or sugar. One way or another, it comes back to us.” Mr Billingham held the current Post Office contract; if Bradshaw Carriages met the deadline with the current order, they’d have a lucrative partnership for the next five years.

“You need not worry, Miss Bradshaw,” the younger Mr Billingham assured her, when the men joined the ladies after dinner. “I am confident that Napoleon will not dare to invade. He knows the English will rise up to the last man to oppose the French should they land on our shores.”

“Minnie doesn’t worry, Martin,” Daniel said, taking the seat on her other side. “If the French took over Bath, Minnie would sell them chairs for all the soldiers injured in the invasion, wouldn’t you Minnie? Did you manage to get the leather you wanted?”

“They’re dyeing some for me,” she said.

“A happy customer then. Although he’s not your usual sort, Minnie.”

Mr Billingham frowned. “I cannot like you dealing with customers, Miss Bradshaw. The risk! The scandal! I am surprised your father allows it.”

Daniel laughed. “Oh Uncle thinks anything Minnie does is exceptional.” Was that a sour note? Daniel had no right to be jealous. If anything, the shoe was on the other foot. Daniel was Papa’s business heir, and was being trained to take over. Min’s childhood dream of running the carriage works would never come true. She knew as much as Daniel, but she was a woman and he was a man.

“Indeed, if I were to have the privilege of taking a jewel such as Miss Bradshaw into my home,” Mr Billington was proclaiming, speaking to Daniel rather than Min, “she would never have to lift a hand in any kind of work.”

Min and Daniel exchanged glances. Daniel changed the subject.  “So who was the long streak? Avery, you said?”

“Viscount Avery. He has an estate a few hours from here,” Min said. She knew exactly where it was, too.

“He was buying chairs for his mother.” Daniel made a statement of it, a frown creasing his forehead. “I’m sorry, Minnie. I was distracted. I should have sent someone to escort you or asked you to wait till tomorrow.”

Mr Billingham looked indignant, his chin jutted forward and his eyes protruding more than usual. “If you suffered insult, Miss Bradshaw, I will… I will seek this viscount out and demand an apology.” He nodded as if satisfied with that solution, though the anxiety in his eyes hinted that he hoped such a move would not be necessary.

“Lord Avery was all things gentlemanly, Daniel. Thank you, Mr Billingham. I suffered no insult.”

“You must know that I would do anything for you, Miss Bradshaw.”

Best to put a stop to that conversational direction immediately. “How kind, but I am well able to depend on my father and my cousin,” she said.

Daniel turned a laugh into a cough. “I think my Mama wants me,” Min said, suppressing the urge to kick her cousin. “Excuse me, gentlemen.”

For the remainder of the evening, she managed to avoid Mr Billingham. She could not keep him from coming to the point indefinitely, but in a few more weeks she would be able to refuse him without any damage to her father’s business.

Mama came to tuck her in. “You may be 21, Minerva,” she had replied, when Min suggested that she was too old for tucking in, “but you will be my baby girl till the day I die.”

“Not Mr Billingham, my love?” she said, as she pulled the sheets up to Minerva’s chin and smoothed them out.

“No, Mama. Not Mr Billingham.”

“Don’t leave it too late, Minerva. Invalid chairs won’t keep you warm at night, and you cannot rock business ledgers in a cradle. I know what I’m talking about, baby. Papa and I–Papa was 41 and I was 38 when you were born. We had a happy marriage, but you made our lives complete.”

“That is part of the problem, Mama You and Papa show me that marriage can be a partnership, and I want that. Mr Billingham likes the way I look, but he doesn’t like me. He doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t want to know me.”

But Lord Avery does, a small voice whispered. She ignored it. Lord Avery was not for her.

#*#

Candle went to dinner with a couple of friends from army days, and they spent the evening fighting an invasion. Beckett was still in the Guard, but their host, Michaels, had sold out about the same time as Candle, and was fascinated to hear that Candle had set up and was training a local company of militia.

“If we can hold Napoleon off at sea, we’ll be okay,” Candle said. “But we’d be fools to discount the possibility of him landing. And he’ll be back when he’s finished in Austria.”

“It’s not like regular army work,” Candle explained. “Our farm boys and footmen won’t be able to stand up to Napoleon’s trained soldiers, and we won’t try. But every Englishman and every Englishwoman will be able to strike a blow when the French aren’t watching. A broken wheel here, a shot from the darkness over there, a purge in their soup somewhere else.”

Beckett winced. “That’s hitting below the belt,” he joked.

“But you are teaching them to fight,” Michaels said.

“Yes, but a different kind of fighting. A few people moving fast in and out of cover, and striking only at weak points.”

They spent hours fighting skirmishes and sneak attacks with the salt cellars and the cutlery, taking advantage of every bit of cover provided by a dinner plate or a fold in the tablecloth.

When Candle and Beckett left Michaels’ lodgings, the dawn was just lightening the sky. The shortest distance to the hotel district led through the south end of the town, where weary prostitutes were returning home from work passed day-labourers heading to the better end of town to begin theirs.

One particularly pretty girl walked towards and then past them, and Beckett turned to watch. “We could pick up a couple of girls… no, you don’t do you.”

Candle shook his head. “You go ahead, Beckett.” He hadn’t been with a purchased woman since his 16th birthday, when his father took him to a brothel as a present. That virgin boy had been first embarrassed, then delighted, then–when he read the contrast between the smile on the painted lips and the hopelessness in the kohl-lined eyes–horrified.

Fortunately, his father had lost interest in him again, and he’d remained nearly an innocent until his disappointment over Miss Bradshaw had sent him seeking experience. He spared a smile for the bored lusty widow who had educated him in London. She was still a good friend; remarried now, and he was glad of it. She deserved happiness.

Her successors had likewise been widows who enjoyed a discrete liaison with someone who treated them with respect and was happy to squire them to social events. He had not had such a liaison in six months; not since he sold out when his father died and his mother was injured. Was that the reason for his lustful response to Miss Bradshaw? He didn’t think so. He was all but certain he would respond to her if he’d just been intimate with an army of widows, end to end. And he was completely certain an army of naked widows wouldn’t have half the effect on him that Miss Bradshaw’s delectable posterior in a pair of workman’s overalls had achieved.

He continued on, smiling at his own besotted imaginings. He could see glimpses of the Abbey, and the buildings behind it that blocked his view of the river. Across the river, Miss Bradshaw would be sleeping. He passed a flower shop that was just opening its doors to offload a cartload of flowers, still in buckets and fresh from the fields. Flowers. Why not?

He was whistling when he exited the flower shop. A wash, a quick nap, a shave, and he’d be as good as new. And in four more hours, when he called to collect the Merlin chair, he would see her again.

#*#

Lord Avery was precise to his time, arriving on the dot of 11 o’clock. Min and the worker Daniel had spared to her had the chair packed around with blankets and wrapped in a canvas against the weather.

“My mother asked me to thank you for the flowers.” He must have bought every bloom in the shop. They were delivered to her mother; a polite fiction that she appreciated. Min was both appalled at his extravagance and flattered by his attention. “They are lovely, but I told you not to court me,” she scolded, when the worker was out of earshot.

“To be precise,” he said, “you told me that the Kitteridges were right. This being completely beyond the bounds of possibility, I decided you must be having a momentary lapse of reason, quite out of character, and it would be kindest to ignore you.”

“Lord Avery!” She didn’t know what else to say. She wanted to laugh, but that would just encourage him.

“You will note, however, that the flowers were not addressed to you, but to the lovely Mrs Bradford,” he reminded her.

“You have not met my mother.”

“True. But I’m sure I would conceive a hopeless passion for her if I did. If I had not already given my heart to her daughter.”

“Lord Avery!”

“You could call me Candle if you like,” he said.

“I could not.”

“You’re right,” he admitted. “It’s a silly name. They gave it to me at school, you know. Because I’m tall and thin and have a flame on top. Call me Randall. That’s my name, you know.”

She did know. She had looked him up in Debrett’s at the circulating library. She wasn’t going to tell him that.

“I will call you Lord Avery,” she said, firmly.

“Really? Think about it. You’re an efficient woman. Wouldn’t Randall be quicker and easier to say?”

“Or Ran,” she said, the words slipping out before she could stop them. Sometimes, in her day dreams, she had called him Ran.

He was delighted. “Yes. Please call me Ran. That would be very efficient.”

“And very inappropriate,” she said.

She could tell he was going to argue some more, but the worker called out to say he’d secured the chair on the back of Lord Avery’s high perch phaeton, and Daniel arrived.

Daniel wasted no time. “You sent my aunt a lot of flowers, Lord Avery.”

“I did, Mr Whitlow. I wished to show my appreciation for her daughter’s help, and my delight that we have met again.”

“Is that right? You didn’t say that you’d met Lord Avery before, Minnie”

“It was three years ago, Daniel.”

Daniel turned his suspicious eyes back on Lord Avery.

#*#

The bull had a very proprietary air. Cousinly? But it wasn’t unknown for cousins to marry. Surely Miss Bradshaw would have told him if she had an understanding with the pugnacious Mr Whitlow?

Certainly, Candle wasn’t going to have another chance for a private word with Miss Bradshaw. His teasing was having the desired effect before the bull butted in. Ran, indeed. He like it. Ran and Min Avery. He liked it very much. And not least because the way it slipped out showed she’d been thinking about him.

“When should I return for the other chair,” he asked. “In 12 days?”

“Yes. I’ll have it ready by the 6th of November. Shall we say the 7th to be safe?”

As he prepared to climb into the phaeton, the bull crowded in on him, ostensibly to make a hand to give him a leg up. “Be very careful, Lord Avery,” he muttered. “My cousin has relatives who will protect her honour.”

“I promise you,” he said, keeping his own voice low, “I will guard her honour with my life.”

The bull looked at him long and hard, then nodded. “Fair enough.” And he gave Candle a heave, propelling him up into the phaeton.

Candle leaned down to take the reins from the worker.

“Good day, Mr Whitlow. Your humble servant, Miss Bradshaw. I will see you in a fortnight.”

Candle’s Christmas Chair excerpt 6

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4 thoughts on “Candle’s Christmas Chair – in which our heroine compares suitors and our hero begins to campaign

    • Thanks, Sara. He was baptised Randall, but when he went to school he was tall and thin with a flame of red hair on top, and the schoolboys renamed him. And her name is short for Minerva. Her mother is a bit of a Roman myths fan.

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