Here’s the last half of chapter six of Candle’s Christmas Chair. This leaves me chapter 7 (which I’ll post in two halves) and chapter 8 (which is short, and will go up as one post). The ISBN should be through by Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m proofreading the last three chapters, formatting the file for the distributor, writing a piece on the language of flowers to go at the back, and writing my blog post for the blog tour at which I’ll launch the novella as a free giveaway. Lots to do, but so much fun!
Lord Avery’s mother was a darling. She never complained, though she was clearly often in pain. Instead, she would turn the conversation somewhere else. Min coaxed her into being clear about how the chairs worked for her.
“If anything hurts or is uncomfortable, I want to know so that I can fix it, my Lady.”
Afterwards, Min went in search of Lord Avery. The butler directed her to the study, where he was working at a huge old desk, his back to the large window. The fitful rain of the past few days had cleared, and sunlight was pouring over Lord Avery’s shoulder onto his work. The light glanced of his red hair, setting gleaming threads on fire.
He felt her gaze and looked up, meeting her eyes with a slowly warming smile that set light to a slow burn in her.
“Miss Bradshaw, please come in.”
“I am sorry to disturb your work, Lord Avery.”
He rounded the desk and set a chair for her, hovering over her as if he wanted to guide her physically into the seat. Her skin seemed to yearn towards him. She held herself stiffly in check.
“It is about your mother.”
Lord Avery’s eyes grew concerned, the heat that disturbed her banked for the moment.
“Is there something wrong?”
She hastened to reassure him. “Nothing we cannot fix. She is developing sore patches. Because she is unable to move herself, and because she has no feeling in her lower torso,” Min blushed at mentioning such a word to a man. But it needed to be said.
Lord Avery frowned. “I will have a word with her maid. She must be more vigilant. Could we find an unguent or something to soothe…? But you said you could fix it. What is your plan, Miss Bradshaw?”
“What you suggest is good, and I have discussed it with your mother and the maid. But I would like to try something that one of my customers told me about. Would you be able to procure a sheepskin with the wool still on?”
“We keep sheep on the home farm, as well as up on the wolds. I should think I already own any number of sheepskins.”
“Sitting on sheepskin may help. And lying on it, as well, in bed.”
They talked a little more about the possible benefits, and Lord Avery sent a servant down to the home farm to order at least three skins of various depths and sizes.
“May I show you through the house, Miss Bradshaw?” he asked.
Min panicked. The thought of being alone with him, even in a house full of servants, suddenly seemed overwhelming. She muttered something about resting, and made her escape.
By dinner time, she was ashamed of herself. Lady Avery and Mama had discovered a mutual love of embroidery, and of the language of flowers. When Mama mentioned her hope of soon having a garden, this spread into a deep conversation about methods of cultivation, and what did best in their local climate. When Lord Avery suggested a stroll in the picture gallery, and Mama waved her compliance, Min took Lord Avery’s arm and let him conduct her down the hall.
The gallery stretched across the back of the house. He left her in the doorway while he lit candles in sconces all along the walls, then came back with a candelabra to escort her to the first picture.
The Averys had been at Avery Hall since the dawn of time, it seemed. And all had been recorded in paint for this moment; to look down in scorn and judgement on an interloper of the middle sort who had begun to dream of stepping out of her class.
Lord Avery took them in his stride, telling stories about the people in each portrait, describing them with affection and familiarity. He could, of course. He belonged here.
She nodded, and smiled, going through the motions from behind the wall she’d long since learned to erect. Never before with Lord Avery, though.
Suddenly, two thirds of the way down the long room, he stopped and turned her towards him, his hands on her shoulders.
“This was a stupid idea, wasn’t it?” he said. “Look, Miss Bradshaw. Min.” He released one shoulder to raise her chin with one finger, so that her eyes looked straight into his. “Min,” he repeated, his voice pleading, “they don’t matter. You have as many ancestors as I do, you know. All human beings do. But none of them matter, on either side. You matter. We matter. Don’t let them come between us.”
Lost in his eyes, she couldn’t remember why they should. There was only him. Randall. Ran.
He stooped, curling his head down to her height and brushing her lips gently with his. A soft caress of the lips, over too quickly.
She gave a small sound of distress, quickly stifled. He was right to stop. They were alone, unchaperoned. Mama trusted her to behave.
As if he could read her mind, he said, “We had better go back, Min. Your Mama trusts me, and I’m afraid I cannot be trusted too far. I should not be alone with you. Will you…?” He didn’t finish his sentence, but just gestured to the door at the far end of the gallery.
She led the way, silently. Her knees felt as if they did not quite belong to her; as if each step had to be carefully planned in advance or she would find herself in another room, another house.
As she approached the door, a painting on the other side caught her eye–a man on a horse with the look of Ran. He was older though, and the artist had caught a mood, an expression that she’d never seen on Ran’s face. This man’s face, Min thought, would fall easily into a sneer or a leer, but never into the kindness that was natural to his son. She didn’t need Ran’s muttered: “My father, the previous Viscount Avery,” to tell the relationship.
Somehow, her earlier discomfort with the array of ancestors had gone, but Ran was tense and miserable beside her. “He was not a good man,” she said, afraid when she heard her voice that she’d gone too far.
But Ran nodded. “You’re right. He was an indifferent landlord, a neglectful father, and a bad husband. He wasn’t a bad man, exactly. He just never grew up.”
“A lot of Society men are like that,” Min said.
“Yes. When we are children, we think our parents are unique. But he was very ordinary, really.”
“He made you unhappy.”
“He ignored me, mostly. He spent all of his time in London, and I stayed here at Avery Hall with Mother. I had a wonderful childhood. Then Father took it into his head that he should send me away to school.”
She was holding his hand. She wasn’t sure how that happened, but she squeezed it. She didn’t need to be told that he hated school. Min had been miserable enough as a day pupil. Ran went to Eton, far away from home.
Again, his thoughts had tracked hers. “I lived for the holidays when I could come home.”
“Your mother must have missed you.”
From his surprised look, he hadn’t consider that. “Yes. She was always so calm, I had not thought… But, yes. Poor Mother. I never really came back. Just holidays. I went from school to Oxford, to the Guard.”
He looked so sad. She put her arms around him to give him a hug, and his came around her. With her head on his chest, she could hear his heart thumping. He shifted, so his body moved back from hers, and she blushed. How forward he must think her.
One moment he’d been lost in a sad past, and the next he could think of nothing but the woman in his arms. He’d had to move her away from his groin. He wasn’t sure how much she knew about male anatomy. He’d like nothing better than to teach her, preferably right this minute, what the hardness he was hiding from her was for. No. He had enough sense left to know that he shouldn’t take the power of choice away from her.
“Min? We need to go back to our mothers.”
She had turned the most delightful pink. He wondered how far it spread then shut that thought off. It was not helping.
“I apologise, Lord…”
“Ssshh.” He put a finger on her lips to stop her. “No apologies. I won’t apologise to you for desiring you, and you won’t apologise for being kind when I needed kindness. And it certainly isn’t my fault or yours that you are still my goddess.”
She smiled against his finger and he couldn’t resist tracing the smile. One day; one day soon, he would feast on those generous lips.
Min asked questions, took measurements, made adjustments, and asked more questions. But by the end of the second day of her visit, she had run out of things she could do unless the rain let up for long enough to take the chair out of doors.
Everywhere she looked, Avery Hall showed signs of coming back from a long period of neglect. Ran said he was spending most of his efforts on improvements to the broader estate, investing so that he and his tenants would benefit in future years. But he was clearly also bringing the house back to its former glory. The legacy from the uncle must have been every bit as large as rumour painted it.
After dinner that night, Lady Avery asked Min for some music. “I am not an accomplished pianist, my Lady,” Min said.
“She sings very nicely,” Mama said.
“Randall, play for Miss Bradshaw,” Lady Avery commanded.
So they put their heads to choose music, then Ran’s long fingers coaxed the keys. Min remembered how they felt on her lips. And his eyes held hers as she sang:
“Nor yet in the valleys below
Nor yet in the valleys below.”
And he replied, in a warm tenor:
“‘Pretty Betsy, don’t fail,
For I’ll carry your pail,
Safe home to your cot as we go;
You shall hear the fond tale
Of the sweet nightingale,
As she sings in those valleys below.'”
They finished to applause from the mothers, whom they had quite forgotten.
“The tea tray, I think,” said Lady Avery. “Ring the bell, please, Randall.”
The rain had cleared the next morning, and Lady Avery insisted on riding the invalid chair to Sunday service, the rest of the party walking alongside.
Min tried to ignore the curious looks of the villagers, and focus on the performance of the chair. It handled the solid ground well, though the footman pushing it struggled when they hit soft ground.
Lady Avery was having a fine time, surrounded by people who flocked to talk to her.
“This is the first time she has taken the chair down to the village,” Ran said from behind her. She felt herself warm in his direction, as if he was the sun and she a flower.
“It’s a fine thing you do,” Ran went on, “this chair building.”
She waited. Now he would tell her that it wasn’t proper for a viscountess; that she wouldn’t need to continue when she was married.
Instead, he introduced her to the Vicar, and then to other people, a sea of strangers who all shook her hand, and smiled, and told her how welcome she was, and how good it was to see Lady Avery out and about.
Lady Avery took the lead on the way home, while Ran gave his right arm to Min and his left to Mama. It was good to see Lady Avery with colour in her cheeks, laughing up at Wilson the footman who was grinning back as he swerved the chair around the puddles.
“There will be no stopping her now,” Ran joked. “Every fine day, she’ll be running poor Wilson ragged, all over the garden and in and out of the village.”
“She should be enjoying life,” Mama commented. “She is a young woman, still.”
“On her next birthday she’ll be 41,” Ran confirmed.
Min hadn’t realised how young she was. She must have been little more than a child when Ran was born.
Ran was frowning a little as he watched his mother. Mama patted his arm with her free hand. “Let her enjoy herself, Lord Avery,” she told him. “And you enjoy her, too, for the time you have her.”
Min tried to peer around Ran. What could Mama mean?
“Did she tell you?” Ran asked.
“Yes, dear. She has had two seizures since the accident, and she has lost a little bit with each one.”
“The doctor thinks…” Ran didn’t finish.
“I know. She told me,” Mama said. “Enjoy the time you have, dear. You are making her happy, with the work on the estate and the way you care for her.”
“Randall!” Lady Avery called. “Take Mrs Bradshaw down to the gardener’s cottage, my dearest, and ask them for the bulbs I promised her. Miss Bradshaw and I will wait at the lookout.”
Ahead, the driveway took a curve to give a view out over the estate, Avery Hall foursquare below. Ran obeyed his instructions, and Wilson took himself a short distance away.
“I wished to speak with you, Miss Bradshaw,” Lady Avery said.
Here it comes, Min thought. Now she will tell me I am not good enough for him.
“You will think me an interfering old woman, but please remember that I love my son, and I want what is best for him.”
“I know that, Lady Avery.”
“He wants to marry you. You know that of course.”
Min nodded. She was afraid to speak in case she cried. She liked Lady Avery, and she couldn’t blame her for being concerned about the same distance in status that concerned Min. But still, she could feel the tears gathering.
“I wish you would consider it, my dear. I can understand you being worried about the gossip, and I cannot promise you it will be easy, but I wanted to tell you there are two things you need never worry about.”
Lady Avery paused as if to let Min comment, but Min still couldn’t speak. This was so far from what she expected that she had no words. Lady Avery continued.
“You do not have to worry that Randall is like his father. He looks like his father, but he takes his nature from my family. We give our hearts once, and for a lifetime. He has given his heart to you, Miss Bradshaw. It will be yours forever.
“And, if you are concerned about living with me, do not be. I will not make old bones, though I would love to live long enough to see my grandchildren.”
Min found her voice. “Lady Avery, I hope you live to be 100, and no woman in her right mind would be concerned about living with you.”
“Then you will consider marrying Randall?”
Min looked down at the frail hands she’d taken in her eagerness to show Lady Avery how she esteemed her. “I am trade. He is a peer. You and I both know what Society will say.”
“I do not give a fig for Society, and neither does Randall. But, I understand that you must make up your own mind, my dear Minerva. I may call you Minerva, may I not?”