Room for One More

This short story features characters mentioned in the third Holiday Pleasures book, Season for Scandal, but who never appear on the page. I wrote it for a holiday blog series run by Ramblings from This Chick, who gave me the topic “finding an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve.” At first I was stumped. How to bring together Christmas cheer with something so desperately vulnerable?

And then I realized that I had already created characters who would understand this situation. In Season for Scandal, the hero has long been separated from his sisters in Cornwall. And they miss him; especially at Christmas, they feel his absence. They’re eager for family and for company. This story takes place at the same time as the ending of Season for Scandal. It features the hero’s wistful youngest sister…plus a bit of romance.

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ROOM FOR ONE MORE

In Cornwall, windstorms grappled with windows and doors in a daily December refrain. So often did angry weather hammer against the house that tonight’s storm faded into the back of Mary’s awareness.

She was curled before a generous fire in the smallest and warmest parlor, reading one of the books her brother had sent for an early Christmas gift: Henry Fielding’s bawdy novel Tom Jones. A note from Edmund suggested Mary hide it from their mother, so she and her older sister Catherine—dark eyes winking at one another—had found a place to stash the forbidden goods.

In the many years since Edmund had left home, this was the first time he had sent a note with his gifts. At the age of twenty-three, Mary could hardly remember her elder brother, who had left for school around the time their father had died. Was it seventeen years since he had last been home? Eighteen? That wasn’t the sort of question one asked one’s mother, who took on a pinched, tired look every December as stern weather walled them in, as they spent another holiday alone.

Thud. Thud. The window’s panes rattled as if eager to free themselves from their wooden frame. Mary’s brows knit as she turned a page. This windstorm was worse than the usual. Thank goodness Browning had arranged to have extra coal and wood laid in. The barony’s steward, a handsome young Londoner Edmund had hired three years before, thought of everything.

Everything except Mary.

She turned another page, then another—no longer reading the words, but imagining a very different story. One in which her light hair was swept up and jeweled, and the quick, tall form of Browning cut toward her through a crowded London ballroom.

With a tap at the parlor door, the object of Mary’s thoughts entered. Dark-haired and bespectacled, the usual crimp of concentration marked his forehead. “Are you all right, Mary? This has turned into a dreadful storm. Hardly the way we’d want to see in Christmas. I’m not sure how your mother and sister are sleeping through the rumpus.”

Mary fumbled her book as she sat up straight in her fireside chair. “I’m fine, thank you. I was just—”

Thud. Thud. The storm seemed louder now, beating with resonance at the walls of the old family home.

No—that was more than the sound of wind. “Browning, could someone be knocking at the door?”

He tilted his head, firelight reflecting on the lenses of his spectacles. Thud, came the sound again. “Yes, I do believe so.”

Without another word, he turned on his booted heel and made for the front door. So much for Mary, for polite inquiries about her well-being, for a few moments alone. But the door must be answered. Especially in a storm, especially on Christmas Eve.

Her heart clenched. Would it be her brother, after so many years? More likely it was a scoundrel. A thief. A highwayman. Leaving behind her illicit book, she snapped up the fireplace poker and followed after Browning.

As he swung the door open, she saw no one at all; only a sweep of darkness, then rain driven inward to spatter their faces. And then—a thin cry brought her gaze downward.

Her hand went nerveless; the poker clattered to the stone floor of the entry hall. “Good God.” She sank to her knees and snatched at the small bundle left before the door. “A baby. Someone has left a baby.” Quickly, she gathered up the blanket-wrapped infant and scooted backward into the dry entry hall.

“One moment, Mary.” As she held the shivering bundle, crooning low, Browning darted outside. He was back in less than two minutes, wiping at lenses made opaque by heavy rain. “I can’t see a thing out there. No one. Nothing. There’s hardly any moon, and the —”

“And the person who abandoned this baby probably doesn’t want to be found.” An unwed mother, most likely, poor and desperate. One of the barony’s tenants? Mary could think of no one who might have borne a child recently.

But there were more immediate concerns. The little one was wet and cold—and so was Browning. “Come back to the red parlor,” Mary said. “All of us. We’ll get warm, then decide what to do.”

Still wiping at his spectacles, Browning squinted at her. His eyes were hazel, softer without the shield of their glass lenses. “Very well.” His mouth curved in a smile. “Lead on, Mary Ware.”

The back of her neck prickled as she led him back to the cozy parlor. Her feet seemed to fall awkwardly knowing that her paces were watched—and that she had no idea what to do once she reached the fireside. A baby, for God’s sake. What was she to do with a baby?

Well. First she must get the baby warm. Laying the infant before the hearth, she unwrapped its sodden blankets. “Can you find something dry for the baby?” she asked.

Browning’s footsteps moved away as he searched the corners of the room for a blanket. Mary rubbed at the infant’s shivering skin, soft as a petal. The thin cries had gone quiet as the baby settled into a doze. A very young babe, still with the curled-kitten look of a newborn. “It’s a girl. Someone has left us a little girl, Browning.”

“Anthony.” Strong hands tucked a wool blanket around the infant’s sleepy body.

Mary looked, puzzled, to where Browning now crouched next to her. He had replaced his glasses, but his eyes still had that soft look. “Please—call me Anthony. I wish you would.”

For a moment, Mary gaped. Then a grin spread through her: heart to fingertips, face to toes. “Yes, Anthony. I would love to.”

“And what shall we do with this little one?”

We, he said. Mary liked that he said we. “Someone has given her to us as a Christmas gift, or us to her. Someone who could not care for her, who trusted we could.” A life laid in their hands. It was almost unimaginable, that someone could grant such trust to strangers. She bent over the tiny head crowned with fuzzy dark hair and kissed the girl’s forehead.

Her eyes closed. “She is ours to care for, Brow—Anthony. Whatever that may involve.”

“Whatever that may involve.” The words fell slowly from his lips.

“For any of us,” she corrected hastily, sitting back on her heels. “For my mother, and Catherine, and…”

“Is that who you meant?”

His hand covered hers, spread out on the carpet. A tower of coal tumbled and fell in the hearth, showing its fiery heart.

“I…” She stared at his fingers entwined with hers. At the little girl, slumbering and silent. So long ago, her family had been broken into pieces; this taste of sweet togetherness was painful in her throat.

Mary swallowed the lump in her throat, patting the sleeping baby’s soft belly. Soon the little girl would need to eat. Milk and treacle might do until they could find a wet-nurse.

They. She. Anyone. Pronouns didn’t matter to a baby.

“Mary.” Anthony nudged her. “Did you hang mistletoe?”

She followed his gaze, up, up the line of the carved chimney-piece. “Oh. Yes. I did that earlier today. It’s festive, isn’t it? But silly. I know it’s silly.”

“Not at all.” His thumb traced the line of her cheek. “It’s perfect, just as it is.” And he smiled, his voice low and bright as the opening notes of a carol.