And here it is, the last chapter of Candle’s Christmas Chair. Tomorrow, at the Christmas Party Blog Hop, I’m giving the novella its official launch. Please join me for a Christmas at Avery Hall in 1804, and then tour time and space with my 24 author colleagues.
Chapter eight: A Christmas present
The chair was done. It was, perhaps, the best Min had ever made. It was wrapped in protective blankets and secured to the top of the carriage that would take her and Mama to Avery Hall the following day.
As she sat with Cara in the tea rooms at the Roman Baths, waiting for Lady Cresthover to return from the retiring room, Min was thinking about the answer she would give Ran. She had done a great deal of thinking in the last two weeks.
She was no longer afraid of going into Society. Oh, the high sticklers and the bullies might never accept her. But enough of her old schoolmates had become friends that she need not fear isolation. She would never be a darling of the ton, but neither did she wish to be.
And she had learned that she could ignore any nasty remarks made to her. They no longer had the power to crush her, even without Ran’s support. If he stood at her side, she could face anything.
Ran at her side. That was the biggest lesson of all. Whether he meant what he said about her chairs or not, she was going to accept Ran. If she had to make a choice between her work or her love, she chose love. With him, she felt complete. His absence felt like a gaping hole in her personal universe. She could, if she must, do something other than build chairs. She could not contemplate facing the rest of her life without Ran.
“You are thinking about Lord Avery again, are you not?” Cara said.
“Is it so obvious?”
“You are just like Henrietta Millworthy. She loved the man she married, too. And before the wedding she used to drift off into nowhere, just like you.” Cara reached across the table and grasped Min’s hands. “Marry him, Min. Do not let cats like my cousin stop you.”
Min laughed a little. “I plan to, Cara.”
“And you will still be my friend, will you not?” Cara looked a little lost. “I will miss you when you move away from Bath.”
“I will write, and I will not be far away. I imagine we will be able to visit, you and I.”
“Well, is this not sweet? My cousin and her little shop-girl friend.” Lady Norton, her voice pitched to carry across the room, sneered down at them.
“I suppose you think you are so smart, Mini Bradshaw, trapping a peer. But you will never fit in. Do you hear me? Never.”
“Lady Norton, this is a private conversation,” Min said.
“He will not be faithful to you, you know. His father was notorious for his affairs. Ask her mother.” Lady Norton pointed a gloved finger at Cara. “Everyone knows her mother was one of his amours, when she was just plain Sally Hemple. He had a taste for a bit of the common, just like his son.”
Min met Lady Cresthover’s shocked eyes over Lady Norton’s shoulder and attempted to stem the flow. “Lady Norton, that is quite enough.”
Lady Norton took no notice. “Sally Hemple. My mother told me that she trapped my uncle. Just like you are trapping poor Lord Avery, Miss Bradshaw.” She gave her cousin a poke with one finger. “You should try it, Carrie darling. Before you crumble to dust on the shelf, you poor old thing.” She swayed a little. “Ooops.” She caught herself by grabbing the back of a chair, and laughed her tinkling laugh.
Lady Cresthover was whispering to a footman, who nodded and hurried away.
“He is not very good in bed, Miss Bradshaw. You should not hope for much. Perhaps you could get my Auntie to give him a few pointers?”
The footman was back, with a colleague. Lady Norton yelped as they took an elbow each.
“How dare you! Unhand me. Do you know who I am?”
She was continuing to protest as they half carried her out of the room. “A very sad case,” Lady Cresthover said in a carrying voice. “A sad unsteadiness in her mother’s family, you know.” She dropped into a piercing whisper that could be heard in every corner of the room. “It is said that her grandfather thought he was an elephant.”
“Come, Cara, Miss Bradshaw.” Ignoring the embarrassed titters, she sailed out of the room, Min and Cara in her wake, and Polly the maid scurrying behind.
In the foyer, Lady Cresthover ordered Lady Norton into a sedan chair. “It will keep her out of the public eye,” she said, her voice back at its normal volume. “Miss Bradshaw, do not be concerned about my niece. She will retiring to a quiet place in the country.” She turned away to follow her daughter and the chair, then turned back again. “And I can assure you that young Lord Avery is nothing like his father.”
The men worked all night by lantern light to finish Candle’s surprise. He was tempted to wait until she had given him her answer and then show her. He would love her to choose him without his gift. But no. He wouldn’t play games, and wouldn’t take the risk she’d turn him down and then refuse to change her mind.
He would show her first, and then propose to her again.
He checked the surprise for the third time that morning, ran inside again to see if a message had arrived from the gate yet, stopped to ask his mother how she was, and went back out to the steps to see if he could see their carriage.
The weather was cold, with gusty showers that hinted at sleet in their future. He hoped Bradshaw’s carriage was warm. What was he thinking! The man was the king of carriages. He would send his womenfolk in the best he had.
Returning inside, Candle looked around the entry hall. Yes. It looked splendid. Mother loved Christmas, and took no notice of the tradition that decorations must wait until Christmas Eve. As soon as the Christmas Octave started on the 17th of December, she mobilised the entire household to transform the house into a Christmas paradise. The servants had outdone themselves this year. Every surface sported ivy, holly, and greenery. More greenery was tied to the stair balustrade with bright ribbons, and ribbons festooned the kissing balls of holly, ivy, rosemary, and mistletoe. Mother had made enough kissing boughs to put one in every room, upstairs and down.
“My Lord, she be here! Her carriage be coming down the hill.”
Candle waited impatiently at the bottom of the steps, and was at the carriage door as soon as it rolled to a stop. The door swung open before he could grasp the handle, and Min tumbled out into his arms.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, Ran, yes. I will marry you.”
Later, after he had kissed her, been kissed on the cheek by Mrs Bradshaw, and escorted them inside to his mother for congratulations and more kisses, he managed to detach Min from the admiring group around the new chair.
“I have something for you, beloved. A surprise present for Christmas. Mother, Mrs Bradshaw, I am taking Min to show her her present.”
The mothers waved them away.
Ran refused to tell her what the surprise was, but he took her outside, and to a building behind the stable. “Stop.” he commanded. He rushed ahead and opened the door, then returned and covered her eyes with his hands. “I’ll guide you. Take three paces forward. Now turn slightly and take one more pace. Now feel forward with your foot for the step. There are three steps. One; two; three. Two more paces. Stop.”
He removed his hands.
Min stared. Then turned her head. Then turned in a complete circle.
“Ran? Ran, it’s my workshop.” She ran forward and brushed her hand over the draughting table, picked up and put down the pens and pencils waiting for her, straightened the blotter. Next, the workbench, where racks waited for her tools, still back in Bath in the racks he’d duplicated. The shelves of supplies were mostly empty, too, but she could imagine them filled.
“Ran.” She smiled at him and his dear features wavered as her eyes swam with tears.
He looked concerned. “Min? Is it alright?”
“It is the most wonderful thing anyone has every done for me. My workshop.”
“How else are you going to keep inventing your wonderful chairs, my love?”
“Ran.” That seemed to be the only word she could say, but she invested it with a wealth of meaning. Then she melted into his arms, and neither of them spoke for some time.
Candle Avery was climbing the hill track in the rain. He was cold, wet, and thoroughly happy.
He and his companions had refused a lift on the cart taking the freshly cut yule log back to Avery Hall. The hill track was the quicker way. And at the Hall Min waited for him. Min Avery. His wife of three days.
He’d be hard put to pick the happiest moment of his life. When she tumbled out of the coach and accepted his proposal? When she agreed to using the special licence he’d obtained, and to marrying him as soon as her family could come from Bath? When he’d turned from his place before the altar and seen her walking towards him in a cloud of lace, or a few minutes later when she’d given him her hand and her trust with her vows? When she welcomed him into her embrace and her body later that night? When he woke up the next morning to her shy suggestion that they should make love again?
Each day, he fell in love a little more.
They crested the top and Daniel said something Candle didn’t catch. Michaels gave Candle a friendly punch on the arm. “No point in talking to him,” he told Daniel. “The man walks around in a daze.”
“To be fair, we are intruding on his honeymoon,” Daniel noted.
To be fair, they were mostly being careful not to intrude. But it was Christmas Eve, and it was his job as master of the house to collect the yule log. “My wife and I want you to enjoy your Christmas in our home,” he said. As well as Min’s family, Michaels and Miss Cresthover had come for the wedding, and were staying for Christmas.
“Preferably without disturbing you and your wife. Yes, we understand,” said the irrepressible Daniel.
Michaels gestured ahead. “Who, if I do not mistake, is coming to meet us.”
Below, two women waited in the shelter of the summerhouse.
Sure enough, as the men drew level with the structure, Miss Cresthover and the new Lady Avery dashed down the steps under their umbrellas.
“So do we have a good yule log,” Min asked.
“An excellent one,” Daniel said, “but I’m sorry to say we failed in one mission.” He let his eyes, lips and shoulders droop.
“What was that?” Cara could be depended on to ask the questions that set Daniel up for whatever punchline he intended to deliver.
Candle held Min back, letting the others go on ahead, but they could still hear Daniel’s reply as the three in the lead turned the corner of the path.
“We couldn’t find any mistletoe to replace all the berries Min and Candle have used, so nobody else in the Hall can be kissed, Miss Cresthover.”
“But Mr Whitlow, you kissed me this morning!” replied Cara.
“I kissed you this morning,” Candle told Min.
“Really? I am not sure that I remember. Perhaps if you do it again?”
After several minutes, he drew his head back. “Min, the yule log won’t be here for another hour. Shall we go up to bed?”
“Up the stairs in front of our friends and family? Ran, I could not.”
He thought for a moment of suggesting the back stairs, but through the kitchen full of servants wouldn’t appeal to her, either.
“However,” said Min, “your study has a sofa and a warm fire, and I unlatched the window before I came out.”
“Ah, Min,” Candle told her, “how lucky I am to have a clever wife.”
Thank you for reading my novella. For a copy of your own, please choose one of the retailers linked from my Candle’s Christmas Chair page.