Part of the Holiday Anthology series
Two holiday novellas:
“The Appeal of Christmas” previously published in the anthology Christmas in Duke Street:
Hazel Hooper is the daughter of barrister Gervaise Stoneleigh’s old mentor, and over the years has become Gervaise’s reliable sounding board, conscience, and chess opponent. While Gervaise abhors the Yuletide holidays, he most assuredly does not abhor Hazel, though lately he’s been distracted by an unsigned love letter he came across at their favorite bookshop…
“A Knight Before Christmas” previously published in Christmas in the Duke’s Arms:
With her year of mourning at an end, Penelope Carrington must remarry in haste, or her portion of her late husband’s estate won’t be enough to dower her younger sisters. Shy, handsome man of business Sir Leviticus Sparrow longs to give Penelope a marriage proposal for Christmas—and his heart—but Sir Levi must first foil the other bachelors scheming to meet Penelope under the mistletoe in his place.
Enjoy An Excerpt
Read a Scene from The Appeal of Christmas:
Barrister Gervaise Stoneleigh has come to On The Shelf bookshop in search of reading that will ease him past the nonsense of yet another holiday season, when his friend and neighbor Hazel Hooper arrives, intent on a different agenda…
The shop’s doorbell tinkled as a gust of cold air riffled the paper in Gervaise’s hand.
“Mr. Stoneleigh, hello.”
Hazel Hooper stood near the door, snow dusting the hood of her cape, her hems damp. The cape was brown, her scarf was an incongruous red, and her gloves—
“I despair of you, Hazel Hooper,” Gervaise said, folding up the letter and tucking it into an inner pocket. “You are abroad on a winter evening without benefit of proper gloves. What would your papa say?”
“Papa wouldn’t have noticed if I’d worn chain mail and a tiara. Have you seen Annabelle?”
Gervaise was a competent barrister, and as such he relied on a mind well suited to analytical thinking. Hazel’s response tweaked the tail of his instincts rather than his intellect, however. He’d known her forever, since he’d been a mere youth, learning the law under her father’s tutelage.
“Annabelle has stepped into the back room. She said she’d be right back. What’s amiss Hazel?”
For even Hazel, who cared nothing for convention, would not normally have come out of doors without gloves or a muff on a winter night.
“Nothing’s amiss.” Hazel plucked off her spectacles, for predictably, the warmth of the shop had caused them to fog.
Gervaise took the eyeglasses from her, produced a handkerchief and wiped each lens clean.
“Something is wrong,” he retorted, returning the spectacles to their owner. “You haven’t yet reminded me to find Christmas tokens for Peter and Daisy.”
Gervaise didn’t particularly enjoy his sister’s company, but his niece and nephew were interesting little people, and he was their only uncle. Christmas was an inexcusable lot of bother, but an uncle’s responsibilities were not to be shirked, not even his Yuletide responsibilities.
“I bought them each a book last week,” Hazel said. “I’ve been meaning to send the books over to you.”
Hazel threw herself into Yuletide nonsense with all the determination and sincerity of a veteran criminal begging the court for mercy prior to transportation. She decorated, she baked, she gave tokens to the servants and sprinkled half days around like biscuit crumbs cast onto the walkway for the birds. She exhausted herself on Boxing Day, and observed every absurd New Year’s tradition ever to inflict itself on British society.
Watching the snow melt on the fringes of her worn scarf, Gervaise realized that he’d…. missed her. Missed her sharp wit, interesting chess, and liberal politics.
“Are you standing there in hopes I’ll take pity on you, sir?” Hazel asked.
She had finally focused on Gervaise, and let go of whatever errand had sent her pelting through the cold to On the Shelf.
Hazel had blue eyes and auburn hair, a combination that had unsettled Gervaise until he’d realized auburn hair generally went with green or brown eyes. Hazel turned those blue eyes on him now, and more than their color, their clarity of focus struck him. She had an earnest quality, a directness that disconcerted as it endeared. She was like a child or an elderly woman, both blunt and kind, artless and insightful.
“What do you mean, take pity on me, Miss Hooper? If you’ve already procured books for Daisy and Peter, what pity is there left to take?”
With one bare, reddened finger, Hazel pointed upward, to the darkened rafters crossing the shop’s ceiling.
Gervaise tipped his head back. Immediately above him hung a bunch of wilting mistletoe, pale green leaves and white berries dangling over his head like a noose.
Hazel had become accustomed to Gervaise hiding for the month of December. He hid in his work, in his library, in his legal tomes. Last year, he’d gone clear to Yorkshire in an attempt to ignore the holidays, and quite possibly, Hazel herself.
In January, he’d showed up in her parlor, muttering darkly about old friends with new wives, about amorous rabbits and the price of coal, though Gervaise Stoneleigh, foremost barrister in the realm, could afford to heat half of London.
Hazel suspected he did provide heat for many a poor household, and hope as well.
A year ago, Hazel had at least had a note from him. “Off to Yorkshire on a case. Please look in on Mallachan if you have time. G.”
Not Sincerely, G. Not Best wishes, G. Most assuredly not Love, G.
He stood beneath the mistletoe, so good-looking that even after ten years of close acquaintance, Hazel still wanted to shield her eyes at the sight of him. Dark hair, darker eyes, and features cast in the mold of a righteous angel. Aquiline nose well suited to peering down, sharp facial bones such as a fasting saint would be proud of, enough height to intimidate criminals and judges alike, though Gervaise often considered criminals and judges of a piece.
Gervaise also had enough height that Hazel herself, whom he referred to as under-tall, could not have kissed him on the cheek without his cooperation.
He took a step to the left. “I will never understand why every modicum of sense must go begging at Christmas along with the drunken carolers. Kissing beneath a sprig of poisonous shrubbery must be the most ridiculous tradition of all.”
“You’re growing worse,” Hazel said, marching up to him. “You’ve always been ill-natured around the holidays, but mistletoe’s provenance goes back to Norse legend and beyond. The goddess Frigga declared that all who stand beneath the mistletoe are safe from harm, though they might be kissed. Are you really so uncomfortable over a few kisses, Gervaise?”
He’d kissed Hazel on any number of occasions, maddeningly harmless pecks on the cheek or the brow. She did not have time to bait him now, but somebody needed to tease or bully him out of his holiday megrims, and for years, that somebody had been Hazel.
He drew himself up, as if preparing to deliver one of his closing arguments. Hazel frequently observed him in court, and his rhetoric could bring tears to the eyes of hanging judges, and inspire accused felons to hope.
“I make no objection to kisses,” Gervaise said. “In the right company, I might even venture an interest in kisses. This annual farce of feasting and imbibing to excess, of proclaiming goodwill to all, while ignoring the child starving on the church steps, that I cannot abide.”
Hazel climbed one step up the ladder, so she was eye-to-eye with the pride of the Middle Temple.
“No sermons, Gervaise. Please, not in front of the books. I need to find Annabelle, and you apparently need to find a book.”
He always needed to find a book, though Hazel had her own theories about what Gervaise Stoneleigh was truly in search of when he spent hours with Virgil and Seneca.
“Arguing again, you two?” Mrs. Merriweather asked, as she parted the curtain separating the bookshop from the family’s office and makeshift parlor. “Bad form with the holidays upon us, if you ask me. My, that snow hasn’t let up in the least, has it?”
“No, it has not,” Gervaise said, reaching past Hazel to take down a slim volume. “The naughty earl will come with me, and he and I will walk the naughty Miss Hooper home. This will allow me a greater opportunity to scold her for not wearing gloves, and she can explain more Norse mythology to me.”
So oblivious was Gervaise Stoneleigh to Hazel’s person, so indifferent, that when he reached over her head to fetch down his book of verse—Gervaise was partial to the rascally Earl of Rochester—Hazel was fleetingly pressed between Gervaise’s chest and the shelf that held morality pamphlets and sermons.
Gervaise’s scent was both familiar and marvelous, as if Hazel stood in the middle of a pine forest, downwind from a honeysuckle hedge, with lavender blooming somewhere nearby.
Then the heat, scent and masculine contour of him were gone, and Mrs. Merriweather was cyphering under her breath as she wrote up the sale of the book of poems.
Even from the back, Gervaise was attractive. Broad shoulders, erect posture, Bond Street tailoring finished to perfection, dark hair a tad longer than was strictly tidy. Hazel might have fallen in love with those looks, though her pride would not allow it.
Handsome looks could disguise a mercenary heart.
If she were to fall in love with a man—and approximately ten minutes after meeting Gervaise, she’d done exactly that—then she had pride enough not to fall in love with something so shallow as his appearance.
“Take these,” Gervaise said, shoving his gloves at her when she’d abandoned the ladder. “I can’t have your death from a lung fever on my conscience. Mallachan would glower at me for the next age, and shed on my best waistcoat in judgment.”
Mallachan shed on anything and everything he was pleased to shed on.
“Keep your gloves,” Hazel retorted, tucking her hands into her pockets. “I’m not a delicate flower, and we don’t have far to go.”
Gervaise tried staring down his nose at her, which was entertaining, and then he held the door open, and allowed Hazel to sweep out of the shop before him.
“I have never met a creature as stubborn as you,” he said, falling in step beside her. “You realize you are at risk for becoming eccentric?”
“I passed eccentric by the time I was twenty. How was court?” The question was guaranteed to keep Gervaise fuming and recollecting and strategizing for most of the distance to Hazel’s door. Gervaise, unlike some barristers, took his work seriously, and chose his clients based on merit rather than ability to pay. This had the paradoxical result of creating demand for his services among the most wealthy, and he’d even been asked to consult on trials held in the House of Lords.
For Gervaise Stoneleigh would not represent a party unless he was reasonably sure the party was innocent. Charges were occasionally withdrawn, simply because Gervaise took the case.
Gervaise worked relentlessly on such cases, amassing evidence, preparing arguments, and interrogating witnesses ’round the clock. He toiled with the same zeal if his client was a Haymarket streetwalker or a widowed countess.
“You did not purchase a book,” he said when they were two streets from Hazel’s door. “Did you think to buy me a book for Christmas, and then change your plans when you found me at the shop? I’ve told you not to buy me gifts. Every year, I remind you that I have no patience with—”
“Hush,” Hazel said, linking arms with him, though that meant her right hand was exposed to the chilly air. “I’ve bought you nothing for Christmas. You’ve no holiday spirit, and don’t deserve any gifts. I’ll get a little something for Mallachan, and there’s nothing you can say to that.”
“Suppose not,” Gervaise replied, his gloved fingers resting over Hazel’s knuckles. His steps slowed, now that he’d summarized the day’s legal battles for her. He really ought to be a judge, though he was too good a barrister to succumb to that temptation. “How are you getting on, Hazel?”
He wasn’t asking about the decorating, which had been done within twenty-four hours of making the Christmas pudding, nor was he inquiring generally about Hazel’s health, which was reliably sound.
“I manage,” Hazel said. “I still miss him, though. You?”
“I recall your papa fondly, of course. Have you ever considered traveling at the holidays?”
“And miss the pleasure of watching you grouch your way to the New Year?” She’d spoken a little too brightly, for Gervaise studied her by the light of a street lamp.
The snow was coming down at the softly relentless pace that muffled sound, and meant significant accumulation was likely. Hazel’s memories of Gervaise were like the snowfall, gossamer soft taken individually, a significant weight considered as a whole. Deceptively attractive too, when viewed from behind a cozy parlor window, but nasty cold to slog through alone on a winter night.
“Your Papa was most inconsiderate, dying at Yuletide,” Gervaise said, taking off his scarf. He shook it, then grasped both of Hazel’s hands, and wrapped the scarf around them like a warm, soft muff. “I left you alone last year. I’m sorry for that, but it couldn’t be helped.”
“You needn’t look after me,” Hazel said, though Gervaise was a caretaker in a barrister’s robes.
He took her by the arm, and led her in the direction of her home. “You look after me, so you’ll have to bear with my fumbling attempt at reciprocity. Friends do that, you know.”
Friends. Never had such a benign word left Hazel feeling so hopeless. “Does my friend feel up to a game of chess tonight? We can play in the library, which bears not even a wreath in the window to remark the season.”
“You’ll beat me,” Gervaise said. “I’m not at my best after the day I’ve had. You’ve yet to tell me what sent you to the bookshop, Hazel. I’m a barrister, and getting answers to my questions is my stock in trade.”
“You’re my friend. Respecting a lady’s privacy is a good friend’s stock in trade, so I suggest you be about it.”
Gervaise was the most intelligent person Hazel knew, smarter even than Papa had been, for Gervaise was quick like a lawyer and shrewd like a successful criminal, too. He’d known something more pressing than finding yet another Christmas gift had sent her out into a snowstorm after dark.
But he was her friend—drat and blast him—and thus he escorted Hazel the rest of the way to her door in silence.
Read a scene from A Knight Before Christmas:
Penelope Carrington must remarry before Christmas or lose the ability to dower her younger sisters and pay off her father’s debts. She’s turned to Sir Leviticus Sparrow, her late husband’s friend and former solicitor, to aid her in her search for a husband, so to speak…
Sir Leviticus Sparrow’s mind operated at a rate inverse to the speed of his words or his actions. Pen had taken a year to understand this about him. Levi was brilliant, but his brilliance was no more evident on the surface than the teeming life in the sea was apparent from sunlight sparkling on placid waves.
Sixtus had called his man of business Sir Leviathan, saying his solicitor liked to dwell in the depths and had long tentacles of influence. The analogy hadn’t seemed to fit the big, quiet, dark-haired man who’d shown up at Carrington Close once a month with voluminous files and little conversation.
Then Sixtus had fallen ill, and the visits had become more frequent.
“Is there any way to modify the terms of the will?” Penelope asked.
A slight pause—Levi Sparrow was a great one for pausing—and then, “No, my dear, not unless you find a crooked judge or effect a change of law. You have until the twenty-eighth of December to marry, or you will lose all but the jointure and life estate specified in the will. May I ask what has precipitated this change of position?”
So polite, while Penelope wanted to smash her tea cup against the hearthstones. “Must I tell you?”
His glance shifted to the desk, where he doubtless had more interesting business to transact than Penelope’s marital campaign. The elegant manner in which he crossed his legs at the knee suggested he was irritated.
Well, so was she.
“You are under no obligation to tell me anything, madam, though if you are in trouble, if you have gambling debts, or if your grief has led you to intimate indiscretions which some fool thinks to turn to his financial advantage—”
“Indiscretions? You think I’ve been out merry-widowing, with Sixtus not yet gone a year? Dancing on his grave? You too, Levi?”
Levi Sparrow was not precisely her friend, but he’d been Sixtus’s friend, also the solicitor entrusted with Sixtus’s most delicate transactions and negotiations. For Levi to suggest she’d taken lovers during the limited mourning Sixtus had prescribed hurt.
Hurt badly, and did not bode well for her plans.
“My dear lady, calm yourself. I lost my Ann eight years ago.” He took a bite of fruitcake, probably a strategic move to buy time to gather his thoughts. Levi gathered thoughts like old women knitted on familiar needles. Click, click, click, in rapid, sure succession, all of a piece.
“Eight years is a long time.”
He fell silent. Levi liked his silences, just as he took liberties with pauses, and yet, Pen had forgotten this about him: He was a widower. He’d known loss, and maybe that explained why months after the condolence calls had ceased and all but the most determined bachelors had stopped sniffing about her skirts, Levi still came to see her.
He’d advised her against donating all of Sixtus’s clothes to the staff or the poor, suggesting she keep at least a good suit of clothes, a dressing gown, and the old fellow’s favorite riding boots.
She’d cried, clutching those boots. Cried for an old man who hadn’t been able to sit a horse in years.
An astonishing thought intruded on that dolorous memory.
“Levi, are you telling me you took lovers during your mourning?” The question exceeded the bounds of any inquiry she’d made of him in the five years of their acquaintance. “Don’t answer that. I’m left much to my own company, and sometimes I don’t know if I’ve said something aloud, or merely thought it. I’ve doubtless taken my first step down the slippery slope of eccentricity.”
Levi neither made light of her outburst nor ignored it. Instead, he picked up a piece of fruitcakes sporting a thick smear of butter and held it up to her mouth.
“You must eat. Cook takes her company baking seriously, and I offend her at my peril.”
Penelope took a bite, smooth, fresh butter blending with candied fruit and spices. Another extraordinary thought popped into her mind, though this one she kept penned up behind her lips: He was teasing her somehow, perhaps even—dare she hope?—flirting.
End of Excerpt
Christmas Treats is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
November 14, 2016
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