Here’s the first half of chapter four in Candle’s Christmas Chair. It’s now finished, and I’ve begun editing. I’m sending it to beta readers shortly, and I’m working on the cover. But first, if you haven’t been following, here’s what has gone before:
It was a long fortnight. Candle was busy, but he still found time for dreaming between his business interests, the estate, and choosing presents to send to Miss Bradshaw. He wanted her and her family to be in no doubt about his intentions. That meant he couldn’t send her anything that would be inappropriate between a gentleman and an unmarried lady, even if everything was addressed to her mother or her father. Clearly, the cousin was ready to believe that Candle was up to no good. If he sent Miss Bradshaw anything too personal, the cousin would be after him with one of those wheelwright’s mallets Candle had seen at the workshop.
But flowers were very ordinary. He rather thought he was doing better than that.
Meanwhile, the news from Europe was bad. Napoleon had won a major battle, devastating the armies of the third coalition. From the report in the newspaper, the allies had suffered devastating losses at a place called Ulm. Candle looked it up on the map in his study.
“Randall, dear.” His mother’s voice made him jump. Her new chair let her glide around the ground floor on her own. She loved the freedom it gave her, but he still wasn’t used to her sudden appearances. Perhaps he should ask Miss Bradshaw if there was a way to make the wheels squeak.
“Mother,” he said. He bent to kiss her check and examined her face as he did. She was too thin, too pale, and the pain lines around her eyes highlighted the dark shadows from too many nights without sleep. “How are you, my dear?”
“I am well, thank you, Randall,” she said, as she always did.
“You haven’t been sleeping. Won’t you take the medicine the doctor gave you? Just for one night?”
“It gives me bad dreams, Randall, and makes my head feel as if it is stuffed with cotton wool. Now do not fuss, dear one. It is a mother’s job to fret over her child, not the other way around. I came to ask if you would run some messages for me when you go into Bath.”
“Willingly, of course. What do you need?”
“I have a list.”
It came as no surprise that most of what Mother wanted was for her garden. She was so looking forward to the new outdoor chair so that she could supervise the plantings of the new bulbs she wanted him to buy. Her favourite nursery company had sent her a catalogue with hand-tinted tulips and crocuses. “They will be so pretty next year, Randall.”
“You’ll be careful, won’t you? You will stay indoors if the weather is unkind? You will wrap up warm?”
“You are fussing again, my son,” she scolded.
“You’re very precious to me, Mother. May I not look after you?”
“You need a wife of your own to fuss over, I think. What of this Miss Bradshaw who made the chairs?”
“Miss Bradshaw?” Sometimes, Candle thought, his mother lifted thoughts right out of people’s heads. How else would she know to ask that question? Confined to a bed and now a chair, she didn’t see him around the estate organising deliveries to Bath, and she didn’t have access to his correspondence.
“Don’t look surprised, dearest. I am your mother. I know you better than anyone on earth. Your eyes go soft and misty when you mention her, and you have mentioned her several times every day since you came home.”
She frowned a little. “I do hope you have resolved whatever came between you last time.”
“Last time.” What did she know about last time?
“Lady Cresthover wrote to me when you began to show an interest in Miss Bradshaw at Lady Cresthover’s house party. A charity case of her daughter’s, she said, and perhaps not suitable for a peer’s son. But Lady Cresthover is a silly woman, so I discounted that. And then she wrote again to say that you had broken the poor girl’s heart by courting her for her money. Which is patently ridiculous, Randall, because you would never do such a thing.”
“I hope you told her so, Mother.”
“Oh no, Randall dearest. Such gossips are so useful when one does not go out in Society much. As long as one keeps in mind that 90% of what they say is exaggerated and the rest is invented. I would not discourage Lady Cresthover’s letters for the world. So have you resolved your difficulties with Miss Bradshaw?”
“I am working on it, Mother. You wouldn’t mind?”
“Mind you marrying into a trade family? Darling boy, I am from a trade family. Except your father married me for my money, whereas you are in love, are you not?”
“I think so,” Candle said. “I think I have loved her since I first met her.”
Lord Avery must have left an order at the shop, because more flowers arrived the day after he left, and more the day after that. Then the first package arrived: an edition of Mother Goose Tales, Robert Sanders’ translation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales. The story of the Little Glass Slipper was among them. It had clearly been much read.
“Who is it from,” Mama asked.
“There is no note,” Min told her, but she had no doubt who had sent the package.
The flowers kept arriving, different each day. The miscellaneous baskets of the first day gave way to blue salvia and tea roses the second, wrapped in ivy and ferns. The ivy and ferns reappeared on the third day with zinnia flowers, and on the fourth–the day the book arrived–irises.
The bouquet of white roses and daisies on the fifth day had the usual ivy and ferns, but sprigs of myrtle and rosemary had been added, and after that, the flowers changed each day but they always came with ivy, ferns, myrtle, and rosemary.
On the sixth day, two brace of pheasants, a basket of apples, and a large bag of walnuts were delivered to the kitchen, this time with a note to Min’s mother. “Lord Avery begs that Mrs Bradshaw will accept this small offering from his estate.”
Mama raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. That day, the flowers were delicate orchids, and the following brought anenomes.
On the next day, she was hovering in the hall when the yellow roses arrived.
“More flowers from your young man, Minerva?” It was Mama, watching her from the stairs.
Minerva, sure that her smile was beyond fatuous, pretended to sniff the roses until she could school her face to calm again.
“He is not mine, Mama. He is just amusing himself, as the aristocracy do.”
She hurried away before Mama could say more. The skins had arrived at the workshop the previous evening, and she had a chair to cover.
The ninth day brought hollyhocks and a jug of cider addressed to Papa, prompting Papa to ask what “young Avery is after, trying to turn me up sweet.”
“Minnie, Uncle George,” Daniel explained. “Lord Avery is after Minnie.”
“I can see that,” Papa growled, “but what does he mean by it, that’s what I want to know.”
“He means to court her, George.” Mama said. “That’s what the myrtle means. Myrtle for marriage, ivy for faithfulness, ferns for sincerity, and rosemary for remembrance.”
Min had taken four days to realise that Lord Avery’s choices were deliberate, and had been able to decipher only some of the messages. Mama might have said she knew what they meant!
“He sent blue salvia and tea roses first; that’s ‘you occupy my thoughts, always’. Then zinnias for absent friends; ‘I miss you.’ The day after that, he sent irises; ‘your friendship means so much to me’. He sent white roses and daisies on the day he added the myrtle and rosemary. White roses and daisies are both for innocence. ‘I remember you are an innocent, and I intend marriage.’ He followed those with anenomes, which mean fragile or forsaken. When you take that with the myrtle and the rest, he means, ‘My heart is fragile; do not forsake me.’ Orchids for beauty the next day; ‘I find you beautiful’. Then yellow roses for friendship and caring; ‘I care for you and wish to have your friendship.’ Today’s blossom is hollyhock. That means ambition; ‘I strive to win you’.”
Daniel and Papa stared at Mama, and then turned to contemplate Min.
“I had better put these in water,” Min said, wanting time on her own to think about what Mama had said. Did Lord Avery really mean all of that?
But even if he did, he was still a peer, and the gap between them was still too large.