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Authors: Cynthia Bailey Pratt

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A Yuletide Treasure

BOOK: A Yuletide Treasure
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A YULETIDE TREASURE

 

Cynthia Bailey Pratt

 

Chapter One

 

Camilla Twainsbury sat wedged into the corner of the public accommodation coach, her aching back braced and her elbows pressed against wall and worn leather cushion. Every so often, when she judged the motion to be slightly smoother, she’d release one arm to shove her second-best bonnet up, as it tumbled continually over her eyes.

Her mother had warned her of the rigors of travel. Her own childhood memories of frequent moves emphasized the adventurous side of things, new sights, new sounds, new friends. It seemed, yet again, that Mother was right.

Whenever Camilla pushed her bonnet up, she encountered the gaze of the dark-haired gentleman on the other side of the coach. Invariably, he’d smile at her sympathetically, his dark eyes going all crinkly at the corners. His hat had tumbled off at the first jar, but he at least could hold it on his knee without undue impropriety.

“Not too much farther now,” he said comfortingly. “I recently came to live just outside Bishop’s Halt. Once you pass the Speaking Oak, it’s only another few miles to the inn.”

Though there was plenty of food for conversation-sparking questions in his statements—What on earth was a speaking oak? Who was the bishop and why had he halted?—Mrs. Twainsbury had warned her not to talk to gentlemen. An elderly man of mild visage might be a permitted exception to such a rule but not a well-spoken young man with laughter in his eyes.

She sniffed and turned her gaze toward what little she could see of the countryside through the smeary window. The aspect did not lend itself to maintaining a cheerful mood. Overcast and foggy, the sky and the landscape seemed indistinguishable except for the bleak skeletons of the trees. The very sight made Camilla wish she had a large fur muff like those she’d seen in a ladies’ magazine, but her mother did not approve of fur for unmarried girls. Camilla huddled into her brown woolen pelisse that she’d sewn herself. It had none of the style of a modiste creation, but she’d quilted the bodice and sleeves which helped to keep her warm.

She stole another glance at the man who shared the coach with her. He, too, gazed out the window, but seemed no more impressed with the view than she was. Dressed like any country gentleman in top boots, leather breeches and a brown fustian coat, he rode at his ease. The bumps and shudders of the coach seemed not to affect him.

Camilla couldn’t place him. He didn’t seem to be a professional man—neither lawyer nor doctor and certainly not a clergyman. Nor did he seem to be a respectable farmer or estate agent, for there was not enough agricultural matter on his softly gleaming boots.

During a second glance, Camilla saw that there were faded ink splatters on both of his blunt-fingered hands. Perhaps he was a schoolmaster or a tutor, but she was certain that such men were rarely so good looking.

The drumming of the horses’ hooves slowed, ringing out on pavement instead of muffling dirt. “Ah, we have arrived,” the stranger said. “The Red Knight Inn at Bishop’s Halt.”

The groom flung open the door, and the stranger hopped down as lithely as though every muscle weren’t cramped from the long, uncomfortable journey. “May I assist you?” he asked, holding out his hand.

“Thank you, sir.”

He chuckled. “So you can speak after all.”

“When necessary.”

Much more slowly than he, Camilla gathered up her few belongings. Taking his hand, she gingerly dismounted, her foot almost slipping off the little iron step, coated as it was with ice. The fresh, cold air entered her body as though it bore tiny spikes. In retrospect, the stuffy interior of the coach seemed warm and cozy.

Still holding her hand in a genial way, he turned to show her a low-roofed, white-painted inn. Two tall trees stood in the corners of the courtyard, bare now of leaves, but in summer they must have made the inn cool and welcoming. Little windows, like thatched eyebrows, nestled in the roofline, while large bay windows showed where the reception rooms must lie.

Looking around amid the bustle attendant on the arriving coach—grooms leading up fresh horses, the rooftop passengers, wind-whipped and red-cheeked, climbing down to seek the nearest fire, the hugely caped figure of the driver draining off a steaming jug of hot punch—Camilla realized her hostess must be waiting for her inside. Though Mrs. Twainsbury had been unable to give her daughter any notion of Nanny Mallow’s age, surely her own mother’s nurse had to be of advanced years. No elderly lady would wait out in the cold if she didn’t have to.

“What do you think of it?” the genial stranger asked.

“Charming. Is
it yours?”

“Mine?”

“You seem as proud of it as if you had built it yourself.”

“Do I?”

Camilla took advantage of his moment of confusion to free the hand he’d unaccountably retained. “Good day,” she said, walking toward the front door.

He caught up easily. “It’s interesting you should have seen that,” he said. “My ancestors had quite a bit to do with the building of this house. You see, it used to be an almshouse in the fifteenth century.”

“How interesting. Good day.”

“But before that, it was attached to an archbishop’s palace that used to be on that hill. It’s where the knights used to stop to polish up their armor and whatnot before being ushered into the presence. So ‘Red Knight’ is really a corruption of ‘Redding Knights,’ you see.”

“A most interesting legend. Good day.”

‘That’s three times you have said ‘good day.’ I might start to think you don’t want to talk to me.”

“We have a saying at home, sir. What I tell you three times is true. Good ...”

He started to laugh, his hands on his hips and his head thrown back. Camilla stared at him in alarm, sure he was suffering from some sort of fit. None of the men she knew ever laughed like this, from the pit of the stomach, as though laughter were some uncontrollable function.

Of course, the men she knew were older, settled, and serious. The vicar, the sexton, the doctor, and Mr. Van der Groot the apothecary were all grave men far past their first youths. Yet even the two younger men who occasionally called were not prone to laughter. Mr. Brase, estate agent, and young Jethro Fuster, only son of Sir John Fuster, discussed serious matters—like transubstantiation, philanthropism, and philosophy. Camilla sat and sewed and listened, wishing they’d use a word once in a while that she could understand. When they did recall her presence, they’d speak so slowly and with such blatantly patronizing smiles that she’d rather not know their subjects at all.

With a sideways glance at the laughing man, Camilla turned and walked swiftly into the inn. The landlord came out of a room off the main hall, wiping his hands on a dishcloth. “How may I help you, miss?”

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mallow. Is she waiting for me in the coffee room?”

“No, no women in the coffee room, miss. Ladies’ parlor’s the place for you.”

“Where is it?” Camilla asked.

‘This way.” He led her toward the rear of the house and opened a door on a dusty, but quiet chamber, hung with toile curtains.

Camilla peered in. “There’s no one here.”

“That’s right.”

“Then, no one is waiting for me.”

“It seems so. Would you care for some tea, miss?”

Finally a sensible question. “Very much. Thank you.”

He stood there, obviously expecting her to enter the “ladies’ parlor.” Camilla, always willing to do what was expected of her, began to step over the threshold. But the thought of being cooped up in a place that smelled of dust and cooking, even worse than the smell of dust and chickens which had haunted the coach, made her pause. “Is there somewhere I can freshen my appearance?”

“You’ll be wanting a room?”

“Only for half an hour. After driving for so long. You understand.”

The landlord’s broad face showed no understanding. “We don’t get many ladies at the Red Knight, miss, You’ll not be wanting to spend the night?” His tone was not encouraging.

“No, I’ll be staying with Mrs. Mallow. Perhaps she has mistaken the time of my arrival.”

“Everyone knows when the coach comes, miss. Belike she’s misread the day. Time out of mind, I’ve done that myself.”

Camilla realized this was probably true. An old woman might easily be confused as to the date, especially as she lived in so retired a spot

She reiterated her desire to freshen her appearance before tea, and with heavy reluctance, the landlord showed her to a small room on the next floor. He promised to send up a can of hot water as soon as someone could be spared to carry it.

Glancing in the few inches square which was all the mirror the room afforded, Camilla repressed a shudder. Her waving hair, usually so sternly controlled, had sprung forth in disordered elf locks. She flung her much-abused bonnet aside and set to repair the damage. No sooner had she ruthlessly contained her hair once more in a neat knot, than someone knocked on the door. “Water, miss,” a female voice called.

“Thank you.” Camilla received the maid with a smile. She felt encrusted with dust. The maid poured out the steaming water into the basin. “I beg your pardon,” Camilla said, fishing a small coin from her purse. “Do you know a Mrs. Mallow?”

“Nanny Mallow, miss? To be sure.”

“Thank heaven. The landlord didn’t seem to have any idea there was such a person.”

“Oh, him,” the maid said with a roll of her pretty brown eyes. “He don’t know nothing but hunting and shooting. ‘Tis the women that’d know Nanny Mallow.”

“Where does she live?”

“Two miles out of town. If you be feeling ill, miss, I can run to fetch her.”

‘You walk there?”

“Now and then when my grandmam is feeling poorly.”

“Could I find it, do you think?”

“Nanny Mallow’d come to you, miss, seeing how you’re gentry.”

“I’m not really. I’m supposed to be staying with her for a few weeks, but she hasn’t come to meet me.”

For a moment, the young maid looked troubled, but then her brow cleared. “No doubt she’s off helping folks.”

After drinking a cup of tea, Camilla set off to follow the maid’s directions. The maid had given what sounded like excellent directions. Having lived in the country for most of her life, however, Camilla knew that the clearest directions could sometimes contain snares for the unwary. She had occasionally found herself looking for signposts that had been painted out, ponds that had dried up, and houses that had long ago burned to the ground.

Camilla repeated the maid’s directions over to herself as she came down the stairs. “Half a mile, take left-hand fork at crossroads, look for turn at medieval cross....”

The man from the coach came out of the coffee room, looking over his shoulder to throw a last word into the pleased laughter of men. At the same instant, Camilla stepped down into the hall, making a sharp turn around the newel post. They collided at once.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, grasping her shoulders to keep her upright.

For the space of a dozen rapid heartbeats, Camilla looked up into his face. Their breath mingled, and the laughter faded from his eyes. He seemed to look both at her and
into
her more deeply than anyone ever had. His fingers tightened reflexively on her shoulders.

“I beg your pardon,” Camilla said, stepping back, confused and flustered. His hands fell away. “I should have been paying more attention,” she said.

“Are you going out?” he asked, his eyes flicking over her body.

‘Yes. I’m not staying here tonight.”

“Where are you going? Not that I have the slightest right to ask you,” he said, seemingly answering her thought.

Since he admitted it, she felt she couldn’t point it out. “I’m not going very far, sir. I thank you for your concern.”

“If you’ll wait, I shall be happy to drive you wherever you wish to go. It’s not fit weather for you. For a young lady, I mean.”

“Thank you again, but no.”

He pushed back a lock of dark hair that had fallen over his eye. “I don’t blame you for not accepting. You don’t even know my name. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Philip LaCorte.”

“Indeed. A pleasure, Mr. LaCorte.”

“It’s Sir Philip actually. I recently found myself a baronet.” He smiled as though it were the sort of thing that might happen to anyone.

He didn’t look old enough or distinguished enough to have garnered such an accolade through his own endeavors. “My condolences.”

“And your name is ... ?”

“I am Miss Twainsbury.”

“Miss ... Twainsbury.”

“Yes.” She had no intention of giving her Christian name to a chance-met stranger. Her name was her own affair.

“And you won’t accept my assistance, Miss Twainsbury? My driver should have been here already. I’m sure if you’ll wait with me for just a few minutes, we will soon be off.”

“I am grateful for the offer, but I feel I must be on my way.” Disquiet, like a cold current in an otherwise pleasant stream, ran through her, increasing from moment to moment. It was most peculiar that Nanny Mallow hadn’t appeared today. Certainly there could be many reasons why she’d not come to meet her, yet something compelled her to waste no more time.

BOOK: A Yuletide Treasure
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