The Virtues of Christmas
A Regency Holiday Duet
A duet of Regency holiday novellas set at the time of year when toes might be cold, but hearts are warm, and true love earns a helping hand from some well-placed mistletoe.
Respect for Christmas features Henrietta Whitlow, who’s leaving behind the life of a very successful courtesan in hopes of making peace with her family in the shires. Michael Brenner’s family all but ignore him, despite his shiny new baronial title, and his errand along the Oxford road isn’t half so benign as Henrietta’s. While trying to settle a debt of honor involving Henrietta, Michael instead loses his heart, gains a friend, and learns an important holiday lesson.
Patience for Christmas is the story of advice columnist Patience Friendly, whose relationship with her stubborn, over-bearing, publisher, Dougal MacHugh, is anything but cordial. Dougal challenges is Patience to take on a rival columnist in a holiday advice-a-thon, and sparks fly clear up to the mistletoe hanging from every rafter. Will Patience follow the practical guidance of her head, or the passionate advice of her heart?
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“I tell you, John Coachman, there is no room at this inn!” The innkeeper banged a hand on the counter, as if knocking down goods at auction.
The coachman, a substantial specimen of middle years, leaned forward so he was nose to nose with the innkeeper.
“Your stable is nearly empty,” he said, a Scots burr in every syllable. “Your common room boasts exactly one gentleman awaiting a meal, and you will find accommodations for my lady.”
Lord Michael Brenner, Baron Angelsey, the gentleman in question, sat before the common’s bow window, which was close enough to the foyer that he heard every word of the argument between the coachman and the innkeeper. Beyond the window, an enormous traveling coach with spanking yellow wheels and four matched chestnuts stood in the yard. The horses’ breath blew white in the frigid air, and one of the wheelers stomped a hoof against frozen ground.
No crest on the door, but considerable fine luggage lashed to the roof. Why would an innkeeper with rooms aplenty turn away a wealthy customer?
“I’m expecting other parties,” the innkeeper said. “Decent folk who expect decent accommodations.”
A woman emerged from the coach. She was attired in a brown velvet cloak with a cream wool scarf about her neck and ears. She was tall and, based on her nimble descent, young. The second woman, a shorter, rounder specimen in a gray cloak, emerged more slowly and teetered to the ground on the arm of a footman.
What self-respecting innkeeper refused accommodations to two women, at least one of whom was quite well-to-do? Michael waited for a drunken lordling or two to stagger from the coach, or one of London’s more notorious gamblers—he knew them all—but the footman closed the coach door.
The taller woman removed her scarf and wrapped it about her companion. Michael caught a glimpse of flaming red hair before the awning over the inn’s front door obscured the women from view.
Ah, well then. The puzzle began to make sense.
“If you’re expecting other parties,” the coachman retorted, “they won’t be underfoot until sundown. My lady needs a room for only a few hours, while I find a blacksmith to reset a shoe on my off-side wheeler.”
“My guests might arrive at any moment,” the innkeeper shot back. “The sky promises snow, and I don’t give reserved rooms away.”
The front door opened, an eddy of cold air reaching even into the common room.
“He’s being difficult, ma’am,” the coachman said to the red-haired woman. “I’ll make the cheating blighter see reason.”
“Mr. Murphy’s difficult demeanor is one of the reliable institutions on this delightful route,” the lady said. “Rather like the potholes and not quite as inconvenient as the highwaymen. Fortunately, Mrs. Murphy’s excellent housekeeping is equally trustworthy. How much, Mr. Murphy?”
The woman’s voice was cultured and amused, but also just a shade too low, a touch too knowing. Whether she intended it or not, her voice held a hint of something not entirely respectable. Had the common been full of men, every one of them would have eavesdropped on the conversation because her voice was that alluring.
“No amount of coin will produce an extra room,” Murphy retorted. “Your kind think everything can be bought, but I run a proper establishment.”
“My kind is simply a cold, tired traveler far from home and willing to pay for warmth and privacy. A room, please.”
Coin slid across the counter. Murphy watched the lady’s gloved hand and then studied the gold glinting up from the worn wood.
“I told you after your last visit, Henrietta Whitlow, you are not welcome here. Now be off with you.”
“And you call yourself an innkeeper,” the coachman sneered. “A woman willing to pay you good coin for a short respite from elements, and you send her back out into the cold when anybody—”
“Excuse me,” Michael said, rising from his table and joining the group at the front desk. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Miss Whitlow is welcome to use my rooms.”
“But, sir!” Murphy expostulated. “You don’t know to whom you’re offering such a kindness. I have good, substantial reasons for not allowing just anybody to bide under this roof.”
Michael well knew to whom the innkeeper was being so rude.
He passed Miss Whitlow’s coins to the coachman. “The holidays are upon us, Mr. Murphy, which means the weather is nasty, and travel is both dangerous and trying. The lady and her companion are welcome to use the parlor connected to my bedchamber. The hospitality extended is not yours, but mine, and as my guests, you will please show them every courtesy. Miss Whitlow.”
He bowed to the redhead, who executed a graceful curtsey in response. Her companion had come inside and watched the goings-on in unsmiling silence.
“My thanks,” Miss Whitlow said. “Though I know not to whom I’m expressing gratitude.”
“Michael Brenner, at your service. Mr. Murphy, the ladies will take a meal and a round of toddies in your private parlor once they’ve refreshed themselves above stairs. John Coachman and madam’s staff will similarly need sustenance and hospitality. Do I make myself clear?”
Murphy scowled at Miss Whitlow, who regarded him with the level stare of a cat deciding whether the menu would feature mouse, songbird, or fricassee of innkeeper.
The scandal sheets and tattlers didn’t do Henrietta Whitlow justice. Her features were just one degree off from cameo perfection—her nose a shade too aquiline, her mouth too full, her eyebrows a bit too dramatic, her height an inch too grand—and the result was unforgettable beauty. Michael had seen her from a distance at the theater many times, but up close, her impact was… more than physical.
Duels had been fought over Henrietta Whitlow, fortunes wagered, and her amatory skills had become the stuff of legend.
“Mr. Brenner, might I invite you to join us?” Miss Whitlow asked. “You are our host, after all, and good company always makes time pass more pleasantly.”
The invitation was bold but, at a coaching inn, not outlandishly improper.
“I was awaiting my own midday meal,” Michael said. “I’ll be happy to join you.”
Michael’s day had been laid out according to a careful plan, but plans changed. A man didn’t have a chance to share a meal with London’s most sought-after courtesan every day, and Michael had been growing damned hungry waiting for Murphy to produce a bowl of soup and some bread.
Nothing about Lord Angelsey’s demeanor suggested he expected Henrietta to repay his kindness with intimate favors, though she knew better than to trust him. British gentlemen were randy creatures, particularly wealthy, titled British gentlemen.
Though his lordship had chosen not to mention that title. She and Angelsey hadn’t been introduced, but Michael Brenner would soon learn that newly minted barons had almost as little privacy as courtesans.
His lordship was tall and handsome, though not precisely dark. His hair was auburn, and his voice bore a hint of Ireland overlaid with plenty of English public school. He was exquisitely attired in tall boots, breeches, brown riding jacket, and fine linen, and his waistcoat was gold with subtle green embroidery vining throughout.
Newly titled, but a lord to the teeth already. Such men took good care of their toys, from snuffboxes, to hunters, to dueling pistols, to mistresses.
Henrietta was heartily sick of being a well-cared-for toy.
Lord Angelsey ushered her into a cozy parlor with a dining table set for four and blazing fire. Lucille trundled along as well—she was fiercer than any mastiff when it came to Henrietta’s safety—and passed Henrietta back her scarf.
“If madam will excuse me,” Lucille said, “I’ll step upstairs for a moment while we’re waiting for a meal.”
“Take your time,” Henrietta replied, then fell silent as Lucille bustled off. A courtesan excelled at conversation, Henrietta was exhausted, and fatigue predisposed her to babbling. A self-possessed quiet was always a far better course than babbling.
“May I take your cloak?” his lordship asked.
“Of course.” She passed him her scarf, then undid the frogs of her cloak and peeled it from her shoulders. In London, Henrietta would have made sure to gild the moment with a brush of fingers or a lingering gaze, because a courtesan never knew who her next protector might be.
London, thank the Almighty and John Coachman’s skill, was many snowy miles to the south. Henrietta hoped never to see its smoky, crowded, noisy like again.
Nothing in Angelsey’s gaze lingered—another small mercy. After he hung Henrietta’s cloak and scarf on the hooks on the back of the door, he held a chair for her.
“Have you far to go?” he asked, taking the opposite seat. He’d put Henrietta closest to the fire, and the heat was heavenly.
“Another day or so, weather depending. What of yourself?”
The distance Henrietta wished to travel, from the pinnacle of the demimonde clear back to respectability, was far indeed. Some had managed, such as Charles Fox Pitt’s widow, but she’d taken years and years to accomplish that feat and had called upon a store of charm Henrietta could only envy.
“I am traveling to my estate in Oxfordshire,” his lordship said, “and tending to some business along the way. Will you celebrate the holidays with family?”
Henrietta’s brothers and their wives hadn’t cut her off, but Papa was another matter. “My plans are as yet unconfirmed. Have we met before, Mr. Brenner?”
She wanted the dangling sword of her former occupation either cut loose from over her head, or plunged into her already bleak mood.
Damn the holidays anyway.
“We have not been introduced, though I’m sure we have mutual acquaintances. The Duke of Anselm and I have invested in the same ventures on occasion.”
Henrietta’s last protector, and the best of a curious lot. His Grace was married now, and happily so.
“Then you are aware of my reputation, your lordship. If you’d prefer my maid and I dine without you, I’ll understand.” Henrietta wished he’d go strutting on his handsome way. Men either wanted something from her, or reproached her for what other men paid handsomely to take from her. The hypocrisy was as stunning as it was lucrative.
“Miss Whitlow, I make it a habit not to judge people on the strength of reputation. Too often, public opinion is based on hearsay, anecdote, and convenience, and when one meets the object of gossip in person, the reality is either disappointing or dismaying. The beef stew here is above reproach, though I’ve sustained myself mainly on bread, cheese, and ham.”
A serving maid brought in a tray of toddies, and the scent alone nearly made Henrietta weep. She was cold, exhausted, angry, and should not be taking spirits, but these toddies would be scrumptious.
“I asked you to join me for the meal,” she said, “so Murphy would not serve me boiled shoe leather with a side of week-old cabbage. You mustn’t think me hospitable.”
His lordship set a steaming toddy before her. “I think you tired, chilled, and in need of a meal. As it happens, so am I. Happy Christmas, Miss Whitlow.”
He touched his glass to hers and waited for Henrietta to take a sip of hot, sweet, spicy heaven. The spirits were good quality—not fit for a duke, but fit for a retired courtesan. When his lordship launched into a discourse about the potential for increased legal trade in Scottish whisky—of all the undrinkable offenses to pleasurable dining—Henrietta wondered if the baron might be that rarest of specimens, the true British gentleman.
Michael was already engaged in thievery, a skill he’d hoped never to rely on again. He was stealing the trust of a woman who would doubtless prefer he take her last groat or the clothes off her back. He didn’t need her money, and he didn’t want her trust.
The yearning to remove the clothes from her back filled him with a combination of self-loathing, amusement, and wistfulness.
“Happy Christmas, your lordship,” Miss Whitlow said, taking a sip of her toddy. “Why did you introduce yourself without the title?”
He hadn’t noticed that blunder—for it was a blunder. “Habit,” Michael said, which was the damned sorry truth. “My last employer was of such consequence he could command favors from the sovereign. A barony was the marquess’s way of thanking me for years of loyal service, or so he claimed.”
Miss Whitlow held her drink in both hands, and even that—the way she cradled a goblet of hot spirits with pale, unadorned fingers—had a sensual quality.
“You refer to the Marquess of Heathgate,” Miss Whitlow said. “A refreshingly direct man, in my experience, and he hasn’t a vain bone in his body. My path hasn’t crossed his for years.”
Arrogant, Lord Heathgate certainly was, but the lady was right—the marquess was not vain. “What you call direct, others have deemed shockingly ungenteel. I suspect hanging a title about my neck was Heathgate’s way of getting even for my decision to leave his employ. A joke, by his lights.”
She traced her finger about the rim of her glass, and Michael would have sworn the gesture was not intended to be seductive.
“The marquess’s joke has not left you laughing, my lord.”
If he asked her to call him Michael, she’d probably leave the table, if not the inn. “When I turned in my notice, the marquess wasn’t laughing either.” Though Heathgate had probably known Michael was contemplating a departure before Michael had admitted it to himself. They’d been a good fit as lord and lackey, a rarity for them both, particularly prior to the marquess’s marriage.
Miss Whitlow took another leisurely sip of her drink. “Is this where you lament the terrible burden placed upon you by wealth, consequence, and the sovereign’s recognition?”
Mother Mary, she was bold, but then, a courtesan had to be. “I was born bog Irish, Miss Whitlow. You could hang a dukedom on me, and the stink of peat would still precede me everywhere. I respect coin of the realm as only one who’s done without it can, but I don’t give a counterfeit farthing for titles, styles, or posturing.”
The maid intruded again, this time bearing bowls of steaming soup, a small loaf of bread, and a dish of butter.
She’d bobbed half a curtsey and headed for the door when Michael thought to ask, “Would you like a pot of tea, Miss Whitlow? Or chocolate, perhaps?”
“Tea would be lovely. Gunpowder, if it’s available.”
He would have taken her for a hot chocolate sort of a woman, but he liked that she’d surprised him. So few people did.
“If titles, styles, and posturing don’t earn your respect, what does?” she asked.
Michael knew what she was about, turning the conversation always to him, his opinions, his preferences, and yet, he liked even the fiction of interest from her.
Which was not good at all.
“I admire honesty, courage, learning, and determination.” Says the man bent on deceiving a woman who’s done nothing to deserve the slight. “What about you?”
She tore off a chunk of bread, there being no serrated knife on the table. “Honesty is too often counted a virtue, even when it causes an unkind result, and education is largely a privilege of wealthy men. I value compassion, tolerance, and humor. Determination has a place, provided it’s tempered by wisdom. Would you please pass the butter?”
A lady would have waited until somebody produced the proper sort of bread knife and recalled to pass her the butter rather than make do and speak up. Such ladies likely endured much needless hunger.
“I’ll trade you,” Michael said, passing over the butter and appropriating the bread. “Where do you suppose your companion has got off to?”
Miss Whitlow dabbed a generous portion of butter onto her bread, considered the result, then added more.
“Lucille is exhausted from packing up my household, getting the new tenant settled, and organizing my remove to Oxfordshire. I suspect the poor dear is fast asleep on the sofa in your parlor. I can fetch her down here, if you would rather we have a third at the table.”
She turned the same gaze on him she’d treated the innkeeper to: feline, amused, and subtly challenging. No wonder princes and dukes had vied for her favors.
“I’m sure, Miss Whitlow, that my virtue, or what’s left of it, is safe in your hands. Unless you’re concerned that my behavior will transgress the bounds of your tolerance, we can allow Lucille her rest.”
She popped a bite of bread into her mouth. “Your virtue, and the virtue of the male of the species generally, is safe from my predation. I’ve retired from that game, not that I ever had to stalk the poor, defenseless male. Behave how you please, provided you don’t expect me to allow the soup to get cold.”
Henrietta Whitlow had retired? Michael belonged to several clubs, though not the loftiest or the most expensive. He owned gaming enterprises among other businesses, rubbed shoulders with journalists and Bow Street runners, and remained current on all the gossip as a matter of business necessity.
Also, old habit. “Am I the first to learn of this decision?” He’d known she was journeying to Oxford for the holidays, as she had every year for the past five, but not that she’d removed from the capital entirely.
She gestured dismissively with the buttered bread. “My comings and goings are hardly news. The soup is good, compared to some I’ve had. Mr. Murphy apparently respects your custom.”
“Or my coin,” Michael replied, taking a spoonful of steamy beef broth. “May I ask what precipitated your decision to quit London?”
He ought not to have inquired. The question was personal as hell, and a criminal’s professional detachment was integral to achieving Michael’s objective.
“I’m not simply quitting London, my lord, I’m quitting my profession. My reasons are personal, though boredom figured prominently among them.”
She took a dainty spoonful of soup, when Michael wanted to salute her with his drink. She’d been bored by the amatory attentions of aristocrats and nabobs? Bored by the loveliest jewelry the Ludgate goldsmiths had on offer? Even the king had expressed an interest in furthering his acquaintance with Henrietta Whitlow, without apparent result.
On behalf of the male gender, Michael acknowledged a set-down all the more devastating for being offered with casual humor.
“Maybe you aren’t bored so much as angry,” he suggested.
Miss Whitlow drained her toddy. “My upbringing was such that my temper is seldom in evidence. I do find it tedious when a man who barely knows me presumes to tell me what sentiment holds sway over my heart. Boredom and I are intimately acquainted, my lord. I try to keep my distance from anger.”
She wrinkled her nose at the dregs in her cup.
Michael had the sense that Henrietta Whitlow’s temper could cinder London, if she ever cut loose, and every red-blooded male over the age of fourteen would line up to admire the spectacle at peril to his own continued existence.
Men were idiots, as Michael’s four sisters constantly reminded him. “Shall I order more toddies?” he asked.
“The tea should be along shortly, and my appreciation for a hot, sweet cup of pure gunpowder rivals my love of books.”
Another surprise. “Books?”
“You know,” she said, dipping her buttered bread into her soup. “Pages, printing, knowledge, and whacking-good stories. Growing up, my brothers were given free run of my father’s library. I was limited to sermons, lest my feeble female brain become overheated with Mr. Crusoe’s adventures. I’ll have the rest of the bread, if you don’t care for it.”
An Irishman treasured fresh bread and butter almost as much as he favored a good ale. Michael passed her the remains of the loaf.
“What’s your favorite book?”
As they consumed their meal, Miss Whitlow gave up a small clue to the rest of her: She knew her literature, as did Michael. He’d come late to his letters and had studied learned tomes as a way to compensate for a lack of education. Henrietta Whitlow had a passion for books that had probably stood her in good stead among Oxford graduates and comforted her on those occasions when the Oxford graduates had proven poor company.
The maid arrived to clear the plates, a half-grown boy on her heels bearing a tray.
“Mrs. Murphy sends along the plum tarts with her compliments,” the maid said, setting a bowl down before Miss Whitlow, then a small blue crock of cream.
“How very gracious of her,” Miss Whitlow said as the maid served Michael his portion. “The soup was excellent, and the bread perfect. Please thank everybody from the scullery maid who churned the butter to Mrs. Murphy. The kitchen here is truly a marvel.”
From across the table, Michael watched as Miss Whitlow offered the maid a smile so purely warm-hearted, the half-grown boy nearly dropped the tray and the serving maid’s curtsey would have flattered a queen. That smile made all right with the world and gave gleeful assurances of happy endings just waiting to come true.
Harmon DeWitt, Viscount Beltram, still spoke fondly of that smile, even as he plotted against the woman who wore it.
“My thanks as well,” Michael said. “Would you be so good as to ensure that Miss Whitlow’s maid has some sustenance? She’s enjoying a respite in the parlor adjoined to my bedchamber.”
“Certainly, sir. Come along, Gordie.”
The lad tried for a bow, but kept his gaze on Miss Whitlow the entire time. She winked at the boy as he backed from the room.
“You’ll spoil him for all other ladies,” Michael said.
The smile faded into a brittle light in Miss Whitlow’s eyes. “Good. We should all exercise the greatest discernment when choosing with whom to share our time and our trust. If I’ve preserved him from a few scheming chambermaids —for chambermaids are not to be trusted where juvenile males are concerned—then he’s better off.”
Nothing in her tone suggested even mild annoyance, and yet, Michael sensed reproof again—no creature on earth was less of a threat to anybody than a harried chambermaid—or… something sadder.
Bitterness, perhaps. Well-earned, entirely appropriate bitterness.
Happy Christmas, indeed.
Patience for Christmas: Chapter One
“Professor Pennypacker is wise, kind, cheerful, and witty. Why shouldn’t I loathe him?” Patience’s Friendly’s honest question met with smirks from her dearest friends in all the world, though she’d spoken the plain, seasonally inappropriate truth.
“You don’t loathe the professor,” Elizabeth Windham said. “You have a genteel difference of opinion with him from time to time, such as educated people occasionally do. More tea?”
Patience paid regular visits to the four Windham sisters because they were excellent company, though their lavish tea tray figured prominently in her affections as well.
“Half a cup, and then I must be going.”
Elizabeth obliged, her idea of a half portion coming nearly to the cup’s brim.
“It’s the first Monday of the month. Does Dreadful Dougal demand your time, again?” Charlotte Windham asked around a mouthful of stollen.
“Mr. MacHugh is my publisher. I ought not call him that.” In her thoughts, Patience called him much worse. “He might be lacking in polish, but Dougal P. MacHugh ensures my little scribblings find their way into many hands.”
Dougal referred to Patience’s advice columns as little scribblings, but the coin her writing earned was not so little to a spinster without means.
“Your advice to that boy who bashed his sister’s dolly was lovely,” Megan Windham said. Unlike her sisters, she wasn’t embroidering (Elizabeth), knitting (Anwen), or devouring tea cakes (Charlotte). Megan had a quiet about her that soothed, though Patience suspected that quiet also hid a lively imagination.
All four sisters shared Patience’s red hair, but they were from a ducal family. If they’d gone swimming in the Serpentine, it would have become the latest rage. Their red hair made them striking, while Patience’s earned her frequent admonitions from her publisher to control her temper.
“I’ll take you up with me in the carriage,” Anwen said. “I’m to read to the boys this afternoon, and one wants to be punctual when setting an example for children.”
“You’re passionate about the orphanage,” Patience said. “I wish Dread—Mr. MacHugh permitted me to write about the plight of poor children in winter, instead of limiting me to an advice column.”
Nothing, nothing in all of creation, compared to the pleasure of a good, strong cup of black tea on a cold December day, unless it was the same cup of tea shared with friends. Without the company of these four young women, Patience would likely have been reduced to rash acts.
Marriage to the curate, for example.
As Anwen put away her knitting and Charlotte wrapped up the stollen—most of the loaf for the orphans, but two slices for Patience—snow flurries danced outside the parlor window. A brisk breeze pushed them in all directions, and the gray sky threatened a proper snowfall.
Mr. MacHugh would call it a braw, bonnie day, but he was Scottish, and his view of life paid litte heed to tea cakes, cozy parlors, or mornings spent with friends. He was all business all the time, the opposite of the company Patience treasured most dearly.
“You’ll come by a week from Wednesday to see how we’re progressing with our holiday baking, won’t you?” Elizabeth asked as Patience accepted her cloak and scarf from the Windham butler. “We still use your mama’s recipe for lemon cake.”
A woman who lived alone didn’t bother with the expense of holiday baking. “I’ll see you a week from Wednesday, same as usual, and I’ll try to get Mr. MacHugh to do a piece on Anwen’s urchins. If people won’t contribute to charity at Yuletide, then we’ve become a hopeless species, indeed.”
The prospect of persuading Mr. MacHugh to do an article on Anwen’s favorite orphanage was daunting, and as Patience bundled into the Windham coach beside Anwen, a predictable melancholy settled over her, as heavy and familiar as the woolen lap robe.
How many more years would pass in this same pattern? Writing at all hours, battling with Dougal MacHugh over the content of the columns, envying friends their holiday luxuries, and hoping the winter was mild?
The problem wasn’t entirely poverty. Many families with little means found joy in one another’s company, looked forward to brighter tomorrows, and celebrated the holidays cheerfully.
The problem was Patience’s life, and no advice columnist in the realm—not even her kindly, wise, dratted competitor, Professor Pennypacker—could tell her how to repair an existence that felt as bleak and barren as the winter sky.
“I have never met a female more inappropriately named than Patience Friendly,” Dougal MacHugh muttered. “If I ask her to meet me on the hour, she’s fifteen minutes early, and if our meeting requires an hour of her time, she’s pacing my office thirty minutes on. Send her in.”
“Shall I put the kettle on, Dougal?”
Harry MacHugh was a good lad, but he was a cousin—most of Dougal’s employees were cousins of some sort—and thus he presumed from time to time where prudent men would not.
“She’ll not take tea with me, Harry. Ours is a business relationship.” A lucrative one too. But for that signal fact, Patience would doubtless have ejected Dougal from her life as briskly as she dispatched her readers’ problems.
“Even business associates can share a cup in honor of the season,” Harry said. “I’ll just—”
“You’ll just show the lady in, and then dash off a note to your mum and da. It’s Monday.”
Oh, the martyrdom a fifteen-year-old could put into two words and a heavy sigh. Over the past year, as Harry had shot up several inches in height, his penmanship had improved, as had his vocabulary and grammar. Dougal had the boy review the ledgers too, and purposely made the occasional error to test Harry’s skill with figures.
Harry clomped out of Dougal’s office as the clock on the mantel struck a quarter till the hour. Miss Patience Un-Friendly whisked through the open door a moment later.
Once a month, Dougal endured the disruption of her presence in his office. Discontent accompanied her everywhere, a discontent she channeled into repairing the lives of readers without the sense to solve their own problems—bless their troubled hearts. Even the rhythm of her footfalls—rapid, percussive, confident—spoke of a woman determined on her own ends.
And the damned female had the audacity to be lovely. She wasn’t simply pretty—pretty was for daffodils and landscapes—she was… all wrong.
A woman dispensing advice as the practical, blunt Mrs. Horner ought not to have a full mouth made for kisses and smiles. She ought not to have features that begged for the understated grace of porcelain angels, and she had no business having a figure that made Dougal think of cozy Highland winters and a wee dram shared before bed.
He’d hoisted a rare wee dram to Miss Friendly’s curves, and many more to the blazing intelligence and nimble pen attached to them.
“Miss Friendly, good day. Perhaps your watch is running a bit fast.”
“Mr. MacHugh, greetings.” She pulled off her gloves and tossed them onto the mantel. “Sooner begun is sooner done. Shall we get to work?”
She usually remarked on how much Harry was growing, and how fat the office cat—King George—had become.
“Are you in a hurry, madam? We can reschedule this meeting if you’d like, but I’ve a special project to discuss with you.”
“No time like the present, Mr. MacHugh. Let’s be about it.” She took her customary seat at Dougal’s worktable, a battered, scarred article that had been in the MacHugh family since Robert the Bruce had been in nappies.
“Shall I build up the fire, Miss Friendly?”
“Why would you do that? Coal is dear, Mr. MacHugh, as you well know.”
From her twitchy movements and the bleak quality in her gaze, Dougal knew something was bothering her—more than the usual weight of the world she carried on behalf of her readers. The daft woman took her job seriously, considering her replies to each letter as if the fate of entire neighborhoods might rest on whether she could solve the reader’s dilemma.
Dougal added half a scoop of coal to the fire in the hearth. “You’re still wearing your cloak. I thought you might be cold.”
She shot to her feet and plucked at the buttons marching down the front of her cape. “You’re absolutely right. How silly of me. My mind is on this month’s stack of letters, and—”
Miss Friendly fell silent, her expression disgruntled as she fussed with the fastenings at her throat. In the clerk’s office, she would have had a mirror to aid her, but Dougal had no need to examine his own features.
“Allow me,” he said, brushing her hands aside. She’d knotted the strings more tightly rather than loosening the bow, and Dougal took a small eternity to get her free. In those moments, Miss Friendly stared over his shoulder as if he were a physician taking medically necessary liberties, while Dougal tormented himself with stolen impressions.
She smelled of damp wool, for the day had turned snowy, but also of lemons and spice. Clove, cinnamon, he wasn’t sure what all went into her fragrance, but it put him in mind of Christmas cakes, cloved oranges, and blazing Yule logs.
The backs of his fingers brushed against her skin, which was surprisingly warm, given the inclement weather. Also soft. For a moment, her pulse beat against his knuckles, and then the strings came free.
“There ye go.” His burr showed up at the worst moments, when he was angry or tense.
“My thanks.” Miss Friendly stepped away to draw the cloak from her own shoulders. She hung it over a coat rack near the door and started fishing in the pockets.
Her hems were damp, and her boots were likely soaked. Dougal discreetly moved her chair closer to the fire and waited for the lady to take her seat.
“Are you looking for something?” he asked when she’d searched both pockets thoroughly.
“I’ve misplaced my glasses, or forgotten them. Without them—”
“Use mine,” he said, plucking the spectacles from his nose. “You’ll be able to see halfway to the Highlands with them.”
Her gaze went from the eyeglasses in his hand—plain gold wire and a bit of curved glass—to his face, back to the glasses.
“I couldn’t take your spectacles, Mr. MacHugh.”
Because he’d worn them on his person? “We’ll get nothing done if you can’t see the letters to read them. I have a spare pair.”
He retrieved the second pair from his desk and donned them, though the earpieces were a trifle snug and the magnification wasn’t as great.
“So you do. Well.” Miss Friendly was practical, if nothing else. She put the glasses on and took her seat. “Let’s get to it. The holidays bring all manner of problems, and I’m sure I can offer some useful advice in at least a few instances.”
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Dougal said, settling into the chair across from her.
Always across from her, for two reasons. First, so he could torment himself with the sight of her, sorting and considering, losing herself in her work; and second, so no accidental brush of hands, arms, or shoulders occurred.
“I do not care for your tone, Mr. MacHugh,” she said, taking off the spectacles and polishing them on her sleeve. “I always do my best for my readers. If you imply something to the contrary, we shall have words.”
“I’m a-tremble with dread, Miss Friendly,” he said, passing her a wrinkled handkerchief. He loved having words with her. She hurled words like thunderbolts, didn’t give an inch, and was very often right—and proud of it.
“What is this?” she asked, peering at the embroidery in the corner. “Is this a unicorn?”
“Wreathed in thistles. My cousins Edana and Rhona MacHugh do them for me. Winters are long in Perthshire, and Edana and Rhona like to stay busy.”
Eddie and Ronnie had a small business, about which their brothers probably knew nothing. They and the ladies of their Perthshire parish embroidered various Scottish themes on handkerchiefs, gloves, bonnet ribbons and so forth, and shipped them to Dougal. He distributed the merchandise to London shops and fetched much higher prices for the goods than the women could have earned in Scotland.
“It’s quite pretty,” Miss Friendly said, passing the handkerchief back. “More of a lady’s article than a gentleman’s though, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps, but it reminds me of home and family, and fashion is hardly foremost in my mind.”
“One could surmise as much.” She gave him a perusal that said his plain attire was not among the problems she was motivated to solve, then picked up the first letter in the stack.
This was Dougal’s favorite part of the meeting, when he could simply watch Patience at work. She read each letter, word for word, considered each person’s problems and woes as if they were her own, then listed and discarded various possible solutions to the challenge at hand. By the time she left, she’d have a month’s worth of worries put at ease, a month’s worth of difficulties made manageable for some poor souls she’d never meet.
“We’ll have to work quickly today,” Dougal said before she’d reached the end of the first letter.
“Because of the weather?”
The snow was coming down in earnest now, though it could easily let up in the next five minutes.
“Because I’ve got wind of a scheme Pennypacker’s publisher has devised to take advantage of the holidays. You said it yourself: The holidays bring problems, and old Pennypacker isn’t about to leave his readers without solutions.”
“It’s unchristian of me, but I dislike that man.”
“No, you do not.” Dougal hoped she did not or the poor professor was doomed to a very bad end.
“The professor takes issue with my advice at least once a month, and directs people into the most inane situations. Why he’s become so popular is beyond me, though I’ll grant you, the man can write.”
Ever fair, that was Miss Friendly. “He can make you a good deal of coin too.” Dougal rose to retrieve a ledger from the blotter. “These are your circulation figures from last November and from this November.”
She studied the numbers, which Dougal had checked three times. “We’re doing better. We’re doing… appreciably better.”
That news ought to have earned Dougal a smile at least, but the lady looked puzzled. “I’m not doing anything differently,” she said. “Mrs. Horner’s Corner dispenses kindly, commonsense advice and responds to reader pleas for assistance with domestic problems. What’s changed?”
Exactly the question a shrewd woman should ask. Dougal passed her another sheaf of figures.
“Take a look at August and then September. The numbers begin to climb, and the trend continues into October and then last month. The increase isn’t great between any two months, but the direction is encouraging.”
The rims of Dougal’s spectacles glinted in the firelight as Miss Friendly ran a slender, ink-stained finger down a column of figures. The picture she made was intelligent, studious, and damnably adorable.
“That man, that dreadful awful man,” she murmured, setting the papers aside. “Pennypacker began writing his column in August. You think the readers are comparing my advice to his?”
“I’m nearly certain of it,” Dougal said. “All too often, Pennypacker deals with at least one situation that’s remarkably similar to the ones you choose, and his advice is often contrary to your own. In the next column, you’ll elaborate on your previous suggestions, annihilate his maunderings, and further explicate your own wisdom. He returns similar fire, and in a few weeks, we have a bare-knuckle match over the proper method for quieting a querulous child at Sunday services.”
“Gracious, I’m a pugilist in the arena of domestic common sense.”
Now she smiled. Now she beamed at the flames dancing in the hearth as if Dougal had handed her the Freedom of the City and a pair of fur-lined boots.
“Pugilists have to defend their titles, Miss Friendly, and if we let this opportunity slip by us, the crown will go to Pennypacker.”
She glowered over the spectacles. “He’s a posing, prosy, pontificating man, Mr. MacHugh. Why on earth his opinions of household management should signify, I do not know. The professor has likely never changed a baby’s clout or kneaded a loaf of bread, if he’s even a professor.”
Had the prim Miss Friendly ever tended a baby? Did she long for a baby of her own, or even a family complete with adoring husband? Self-preservation suggested Dougal ask that question at another time.
“You might think gender alone disqualifies Pennypacker from having anything useful to say,” Dougal replied, removing his spare glasses before they gave him a headache. “But his publisher intends to let him natter on for twelve consecutive days as we lead up to Christmas. Yuletide special editions, the publisher’s holiday gift to the masses, though the gift won’t be free.”
Miss Friendly drew off the spectacles and covered her face with her hands. The gesture was weary, but when she dropped her hands, sat back, and squared her shoulders, the light of battle shone in her blue eyes.
“Twelve consecutive days? That means answering dozens of letters.”
“Sundays off, I’m assuming, but yes. At least three dozen letters answered in less than two weeks. I know it’s a challenge when your friends will be expecting you to socialize and exchange calls.”
Her shoulders slumped. “They will. It’s baking season. Drat.”
When Dougal had opened his publishing house three years ago, he’d faced enormous odds. London had a thriving, highly competitive publishing industry with each house specializing in certain products—herbals, sermons, animal husbandry, memoirs, and so forth. A readership took time to develop, and Dougal’s inheritance was all he’d had to sink into his business.
He’d teetered on the brink of ruin until Patience Friendly had shown up in his office, full of ideas, pen at the ready.
Mrs. Horner’s Corner had rescued an entire publishing house—women were avid readers, it turned out—and when Dougal had moved her column to the top of the front page, the entire business had found solid footing. He was on his way to becoming the domestic advice publisher, and Patience Friendly was his flagship author.
Dougal could not afford—literally—to either coddle her or earn her disfavor. “I know the timing is poor,” he said. “I’m sure you don’t want to spend your holidays ignoring friends and family—but this is an opportunity. If we don’t step into the ring with the professor now, we’ll lose ground when we could take ownership of it. You have the better advice, and the ladies who buy my paper know it.”
“My readers are very astute,” she said, worrying a nail. Her readers, not the customers, not the readers. Hers. “And they depend on me. Do you know, my laundress discusses my column with my housekeeper, and they both say that at the baker’s, the ladies talk of little else.”
Yes, Dougal knew, because he frequented taverns, coffee shops, booksellers, churchyards, street corners, all in an effort to aim his business where the public’s interest was most likely to travel.
Dougal kept his peace. Twelve special broadsheet editions in fourteen days was an enormous undertaking, but he was determined that his business thrive, and that Miss Patience Friendly thrive too.
He owed this woman.
And he always paid his debts.
Heavenly choruses, a dozen columns in two weeks!
The part of Patience that loved to be of use, to write, to feel a sense of having made a contribution leaped at the prospect. The part of her who’d had enough of Professor Pontifical was ready to answer every letter in Mr. MacHugh’s stack.
But other parts of her…
Across the table, Dougal MacHugh waited. He was deucedly good at waiting, arguing, persisting—at anything necessary to further his business interests. Patience admitted to grudging admiration for his tenacity, because at one time MacHugh’s determination to build a business had been all that stood between her and a life in service, or worse, dependence on a spouse.
She didn’t like his tenacity though. Didn’t like much of anything about him, though he had a rather impressive nose.
He’d taken off his spare glasses, and thus good looks entirely wasted on a Scottish publisher were more evident. Untidy dark hair gave him a tousled look that made Patience want to put him to rights.
He’d probably bite off her hand if she attempted to straighten his hair.
His eyes were a lovely emerald color, fringed with unfairly thick lashes, and his mouth—Patience had no business noticing a man’s mouth. Anybody would notice Mr. MacHugh’s broad shoulders though, and his height. He was a fine specimen, which mattered not at all, and a finer businessman.
That mattered a great deal.
“You think we can do this, Mr. MacHugh? Put out twelve special editions in two weeks?”
His regard was steady. Patience liked to think of it as a man-to-man gaze, because not even her dear friends regarded her as directly.
“I think you can do this, Miss Friendly.”
Did Mr. MacHugh but know it, his confidence in her was worth more than all of the pence and quid he paid her—and he did pay her, to the penny and on time.
“My compensation will have to reflect the effort involved.”
“Madam, if this goes well, your compensation will result in a very fine Christmas for some years to come.”
Patience longed to pick up the next letter and lose herself in the worries and quandaries of her readers, but she’d yet to agree to take on Mr. MacHugh’s project.
“What do you mean, a very fine Christmas for some years to come?”
He came around to her side of the table, bringing pencil and paper with him. He moved with an economy of motion that Patience associated with cats and wolves, not that she’d ever seen a wolf.
Mr. MacHugh took the chair beside her. “Look at the numbers, Miss Friendly.”
Who would have thought a publisher would smell of apples and pine? That scent distracted Patience as Mr. MacHugh explained about the printer’s pricing scheme, the potential market for broadsheets in London, the publishing houses that had recently closed, and the magnitude of the opportunity awaiting Mrs. Horner’s Corner.
“So the professor has chosen an excellent time to cast a wider net,” Mr. MacHugh concluded. “I’d suspect him of being a Scotsman, his maneuver is so exquisitely timed.”
Patience picked up the page, half covered with numbers and tallies. Impressive tallies. “Not all keen minds are Scottish, sir.”
Patience wasn’t feeling very keen. Her earnings had crept up, true, but she’d used the monthly windfall to pay off debts and set aside a bit for leaner times. What would it be like to know she had enough when those lean times came around?
For they inevitably did.
“You hesitate to spoil your holiday season with too big an assignment.” Mr. MacHugh stuck his pencil behind his ear. “I can’t blame you for that, it being baking season and all.”
He lowered his lashes in a manner intended to make Patience shriek, his tone implying that crumpets would of course hold a woman’s attention more readily than coin.
“Without a steady income, Mr. MacHugh, there can be no crumpets. My concern is that the work you put before me must meet the standard I’ve set over the past two years. Perhaps the professor can churn out his drivel at a great rate, but my efforts are more thoughtful.”
“Your efforts are very thoughtful.”
Mr. MacHugh knew how to deliver a compliment that was part contradiction, part goad. Rather than toss his own spectacles at him—they were fine eyeglasses—Patience got up to pace.
“Christmas falls on a Saturday this year,” she said. “If we’re to publish twelve editions, the last on Christmas Eve, that means—”
“The first edition should come out this Saturday, December eleventh. The twelfth and the nineteenth being the Sabbath, that means—”
“This Saturday! That means we go to the printer’s four days from now.”
“Aye. Glad to see your command of the calendar is the equal of your ability with words. Can you do it?”
Could she give up the baking, the buying last-minute tokens for Elizabeth, Charlotte, Megan, and Anwen? Hustle past the glee clubs singing in the holidays on London’s street corners when she longed to linger and bask in the music? Give up sitting quietly at church just to hear the choir rehearse the holiday services?
Oddly enough, she could. Putting aside holiday folderol for two weeks to secure a nest egg was the practical choice.
“You hesitate,” Mr. MacHugh said, tossing his pencil onto the table. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build Mrs. Horner’s Corner into an institution, and you hesitate. What are you afraid of, Miss Friendly?”
Of all Dougal MacHugh’s objectionable qualities, his perceptivity ranked at the top of the list. Were he not also unflinchingly, inconveniently, relentlessly honest, Patience could not have endured his acuity.
When her writing was weak, he told her. When the solution she proposed to a problem was poorly thought out, he told her. When she was repeating herself, preaching, making light of a problem, or otherwise missing the mark, he told her.
And worst of all, when he was wrong—a maddeningly infrequent occurrence—he admitted it.
Patience took her seat beside him, where the fire threw out the most warmth. “What if I can’t do this?”
“Failure is always a possibility, but we minimize it with planning and hard work.”
“You haven’t left me any time to plan.”
“Opportunity looks like inconvenience to the indolent.”
She wanted to stick her tongue out at him. “Must you be so Scottish?”
“I am Scottish.”
“You needn’t make it sound as if that’s the most wonderful status a man could boast of. Back to the matter at hand, if you please. If I attempt this twelve-edition madness and fail, it’s worse than if I’d let the professor bore everybody for two weeks straight. The readers will say I’ve exceeded my limits and overtaxed my dim female brain.”
“Your brain, while admittedly female, is anything but dim. Think like a general. What do you need for your campaign to succeed?”
Generals were not female… except some of them were. Patience had learned from the same tutors hired to instruct her brother—Papa had seen no reason to also pay governesses—and throughout history, some generals had been female.
There were female deities, female saints, and female monarchs. All the best tribulations in mythology had been female too. The Medusa, the sirens, the furies.
“I’ll need help,” she said. “I’ll need immediate editorial reviews, somebody to run errands for me, and… crumpets. Lots and lots of crumpets.”
She’d surprised him. How Patience loved that she’d surprised the canny, competent, Scottish Mr. MacHugh.
“There’s a bakery on the corner for your crumpets. Detwiler will be happy to edit material as you complete it, and I will be your personal errand boy. Shall we begin?”
Gracious warbling cherubim. Patience knew the bakery well—she walked past it every time she dropped off her columns. Mr. Detwiler was as fast as he was competent, but as for that other item…
Apparently, Mr. MacHugh could surprise her too.
“We begin now, and your first assignment as my errand boy is to fetch me a batch of crumpets.”