24th December 1817
Amelia Chilson was bored of red roses. She rethreaded her needle yet again with red silk and began stitching the edge of a petal. The sounds of her parents’ friends laughing came through from next door into the library where Amelia had slipped away to work. No-one would miss her and if this embroidery wasn’t finished by after Christmas her little enterprise would be ruined by disappointing Miss Bains.
The door swung open and Amelia looked up to see her mother.
“You ought to be playing parlor games.” Her mother seemed to float rather than walk, elegant as ever. “I need to talk to you.”
Amelia put the embroidery away into her trunk as her mother approached.
“I have some news, and I hope you won’t be upset with me.” Her mother pulled up a chair and sat opposite her.
“How could I be?” Concern trickled down Amelia’s back even as she pasted a cheerful smile on her face. These Christmas parties were important to her parents and, even if she had to hide away in the library for a couple of hours to ensure that her wealthy patroness had a romantic embroidered fire-guard front as a Burns Night present for her fiancé, she wanted her mother to be happy.
“We haven’t talked about seating arrangements for dinner tonight.”
“I don’t mind you seating me next to Mr. Harris.” That wasn’t strictly true, but she could put tolerate his poor jokes and boasts about his aristocratic connections.
“That’s…” Her mother looked away, out of the window where the snow was falling gently on the ground as the light faded. “Well, the thing is, the way the table plan is, I have to put you next to Robert.” Her mother tapped her lips and swallowed. “He’s coming for Christmas.”
“Robert?” That name. It still made her heart pound even after, how long? Five years? “Robert who?” Her mother couldn’t possibly mean… Robert. The last time Amelia had spoken to him, she’d hissed that she never wanted to see him again.
“Robert Danbury.” Her mother’s mouth twisted with guilt.
“No.” She could not see Robert Danbury. “You told me the Danburys were coming. You didn’t mention their son.” Robert Danbury, the only man she’d loved and thought she’d marry. She’d have stayed in London, filial duty be damned, if she’d known he’d be here.
“Please understand, darling,” her mother pleaded. “The Danburys have been very worried about him. He’s been practically a recluse since his wife died.”
Her heart twinged for him, but she rejected the sensation. After all, he wouldn’t feel anything for her.
“They wrote and asked if he could come for Christmas with his daughter.”
“Mother…” Her hope of marriage had disintegrated like a thread burning to ash when she’d watched Robert announce his engagement to Miss Isabella Garway, a prettier, more vivacious lady than her.
“I couldn’t say no.” Her mother leaned forwards, eyes full of supplication. “Surely you can understand I couldn’t say no to my friends when they’re worried about their only son.”
“And you didn’t see fit to tell me until today? How could you?” She stared at her mother, her chest feeling like a pin cushion.
“I know you once held a bit of hope in that area. But you’ve told me many times now you don’t intend to marry.” Tilting her head, her mother regarded Amelia with eminent reasonableness. “It was a long time ago. You have your own life now.”
She did. She had a little business doing embroidery for women disinclined to work but wanting the credit of being accomplished. The safety and comfort of Aunt Henrietta’s London townhouse felt much too far away.
“I’m going home.” Was it too late to ride? It was Christmas Eve. If she could borrow a good enough horse it wouldn’t matter that all the coaching inns would be closed. She’d ride all the way on… Father wouldn’t lend her a horse. She’d walk. With all her luggage.
“Please don’t. It’s one meal.” Her mother’s brows furrowed. “I don’t want you to be alone at Christmas.” Frequent company to help with Amelia’s decline after Robert had married was one of the reasons her mother had suggested Amelia go to live with Great Aunt Henrietta.
“I know… I just.” She couldn’t see Robert. After he’d announced his engagement, Robert had asked if they could still be friends, his face earnest and his hand held out towards her. He’d been pushed upright by the force of her rejection.
Leaving at Christmas would hurt her mother, who had tried to help her and mess up the numbers at table. Besides, Great Aunt Henrietta had given the servants time off for Christmas. She would be cold and hungry until after Boxing Day at least if she returned to London.
“You can make well-mannered conversation for a couple of hours.” Her mother attempted a confidence inspiring smile.
“That’s always been my forte,” Amelia muttered. The sarcastic remark was either not heard or acknowledged by her mother.
However much she protested she was shy, her mother swore practice was the only cure, and she’d been partially right. It had taken Amelia’s determination to stitch herself back together and find a new design for her life to overcome her reticence. She’d thought marriage and love was her purpose, but over the last five years, that had changed. If sometimes she felt a pang that she wouldn’t have a family, taking clothes she’d made to the orphanage assuaged it.
She still liked time on her own. But Christmas was for being happy and grateful for what one had, even if it was not what one wanted. The least she could do was stay and try not to ruin her mother’s plans. She’d go home after Christmas and everything would go back to normal. Nothing could change so drastically in just a couple of days.
Amelia took a fortifying breath. “I’ll stay. It’s nothing.”
“You’re so good.” Her mother beamed as she stood. “Robert will be staying in the blue room so he can be close to his daughter.”
“The blue room is opposite mine.” Amelia’s muscles bunched up and she resisted the urge to put her head in her hands and sob. It would look like she’d arranged it for a liaison. Usually, Great-Aunt Henrietta took the blue room. But Henrietta was spending Christmas with her friend Caroline, for the first time, and she would be having a much jollier time than Amelia was.
Frowning, her mother looked down at her. “I thought you moved away from the nursery?”
“No.” Amelia dragged her hand through her hair, only to remember it had been carefully pinned with little silk flowers by her mother’s maid, rather than the simple bun she typically wore. “Don’t you remember? We discussed it when I visited in the summer, but you wanted to finish redecorating the Chintz room first.”
If Henrietta was here, there would be no space in the house for Robert Danbury. But Amelia couldn’t truly resent her. She owed her great-aunt not just for helping her when she’d been sure nothing would make her happy again, but for helping her find a purpose in life with her embroidery business. Amelia was glad Henrietta and Caroline were finally spending the season together. Except for this issue of the blue room.
“Oh bother.” Her mother put her hand to her mouth and hummed as she thought. “We can move your things-oh no, that won’t work-the Wisbeches are in that room. If you’re quick, you can-”
The sound of a carriage rumbled outside on the gravel.
“That’s the Danburys.” Her mother pulled Amelia up and kissed her cheek. “There’s no time to sort it, I’m sorry.” She turned Amelia and her deft hands straightened her hair. “Forgive me.”
“Of course.” This Christmas was a disaster.
Robert stepped out of the carriage and her heart skipped a beat. She’d forgotten how attractive he was. His top hat made him seem even taller than she recalled. In the last five years, her memory must have toned him down to a shadow of his real self. Probably to help her forget him, but it was like making a thread too long when sewing: it seemed like a good idea, but made it knot and snag.
His shoulders were broader than when she’d last seen him. He’d grown from a handsome youth into a devastating man.
There were other differences too. In the past, he’d always walked intently toward his object, hessian boots thumping. Now he waited patiently. Turning back to the carriage, he held out his hands. A little girl stood on the edge of the step. The child said something and Robert nodded. There was a blur of blue pelisse and Robert’s great-coat as he lifted her out of the carriage and spun her around.
A pang went through Amelia. If he’d proposed to her, he might be father to a daughter of their own.
Robert was laughing, crinkles of affection next to his eyes. The expression froze as their gazes met and recognition shot between them. He looked away as he lowered his daughter to the ground.
Beside her, Mr. and Mrs. Danbury were being greeted by her parents with cries of ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘welcome’. Amelia joined in, smiling and hugging Mrs. Danbury, but she watched Robert. At the bottom of the steps up to the house, he stopped to have a whispered conversation. Robert was leaning down to the little girl, his head next to hers, the same shade of dark brown.
The little girl appeared to be shy. Amelia’s throat ached like it had been sewn up. She’d been an only child herself, and terribly withdrawn. She’d thought she’d always be that way, and would one day have a family of her own to insulate herself from the rest of the world. But being heartbroken had caused her to overturn both of those assumptions.
Robert walked up the steps slowly as the girl trotted up, peeping to either side warily. Out of the corner of her eye Amelia saw her parents share a look. She supposed they were surprised the child wasn’t being carried by a nursemaid, as would be more usual. As formal welcomes from her parents were in progress with Robert, his daughter fiddled with her skirts and looked at Amelia covertly.
“Happy Christmas.” The girl looked up at her with big, serious brown eyes just like Robert’s.
“Happy Christmas to you too.” Amelia knelt. “We haven’t met before. What’s your name?” Above her head, she sensed more than saw Robert turn.
“Miss Edith Danbury.” She enunciated every word carefully, but in barely more than a whisper. Amelia’s stomach became liquid at the little girl’s concentration.
“An excellent, strong name.” Amelia glanced up at Robert. In his expression she saw as much apprehension as was probably in her own face, as well as a streak of pride. Understandable. If she had a daughter like Edith, overcoming her apprehension to greet her hosts correctly, she’d be overcome with pride. “My name is Amelia Chilson.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Chilson,” Edith said as though she’d been taught it by rote.
“Oh, no.” Amelia struggled to keep her fingers still. They suddenly longed-for silk threads and a needle. “I’m Miss Chilson. My mother is Mrs. Chilson, she’s over there.”
“You’re a Miss like me.” Edith’s eyes lit up.
“Yes.” An unmarried woman was considered by society in general no different than a little girl. She stood and brushed off the snow that had landed on her dress.
There was only so much snow to be dusted from her skirts, but she shouldn’t have looked up. As soon as she did she was caught by his face. He wasn’t as clean shaven as he used to be, with dark stubble across his jawline. There were tiny laughter lines around his eyes and mouth. His expression was carefully neutral, perhaps even concerned.
“Mr. Danbury.” She couldn’t trust herself to say his Christian name. The word Robert might come out with all sorts of intonation she couldn’t control or predict. A game of voice roulette – it could be angry, longing, accusatory, resentful, or supplicant. She had no idea. She was wholly unprepared for this encounter.
“Do come inside.” She clasped her hands behind her back to prevent herself from grabbing his lapels and shaking him until he went home or she shook out of him the reason he’d looked over her and married another woman instead. “It’s cold out here and there’s mulled wine in the parlor.”
Miss Danbury only needed a little encouragement from her father and held his hand as they walked into the entrance hall. Amelia stood and watched them for a second, his heavy footsteps and her tripping little gait.
Hadn’t she learned anything? She might have forgotten how attractive he was, but her heart hadn’t forgotten how to jump at the sound of his voice. It was a good thing she had also not forgotten what she’d sworn when he’d broken her heart. She’d promised herself she’d never fall in love again, or dream of marriage. Especially not with Robert Danbury.
He hadn’t seen Amelia in five years, then, it seemed without warning, he was sat next to her at Christmas Eve dinner. But she was still as beautiful as he recalled. He’d forgotten that her nose was a little snub. It gave her the cuteness that had faded to a vague sweet taste in his mind.
“I didn’t think you’d be here.” Amelia didn’t face him, looking fixedly at her plate as she picked at the slice of pheasant breast she’d been served and pushed around the carrots and parsnips.
She wasn’t pleased to see him. What had he expected? He’d been courting her, she’d rebuffed him, then he’d married Isabella. Their last meeting hadn’t been amicable. He’d been desperate to salvage something from the ruins of his situation and she’d made it clear again that she hadn’t had any tender feelings for him.
“I didn’t know either.” He’d been so focused on ensuring his mother and Edith had a wonderful Christmas, since they might not have another together, he’d hardly thought of anything else. Little had he realized when his mother had revealed to him that she was ill that this would be the result. His father had taken him aside and told him what his mother hadn’t wanted to admit. The doctors were not hopeful for her and she grew weaker every day. When his mother had asked if he’d break his self-imposed exile and come to Christmas, he’d agreed immediately, if reluctantly.
“We don’t have to converse.” Amelia didn’t turn.
The view of her graceful neck was unintentional but still made her hair glint in the candlelight. The sight made his fingers itch with the desire to run his hands up from her back into the soft blond curls. He took another mouthful of pheasant to prevent himself from doing something truly stupid. The tender meat and rich red-wine sauce were delicious, the parsnips perfectly cooked, but he couldn’t enjoy it. He’d told himself intermittently over the years that he hadn’t loved Amelia and it had been a flight of youthful fancy.
His mother caught his eye from further up the table and gave him a tired smile. He returned it. She nodded toward Amelia and made an expression he recognized as, ‘go on’.
“I want to talk to you,” he said. It was like the reckless urge to touch a thorny plant. Amelia had strung him along, making him think she’d cared for him, only to shatter him by point-blank saying she didn’t love him and denying him a kiss. Too late of course, because he’d already given her the largest part of his heart. Everything had gone wrong thereafter, but seeing her again made him wish for that kiss.
“You’re seated opposite me tomorrow.” She ignored his previous statement entirely. “And do beware, my mother has put mistletoe practically everywhere.”
“I see,” he replied. She’d probably refuse to kiss him anyway, as she had years ago. Though there was a prick of resentment in her tone as if she loathed the idea of kissing him at all. Maybe she really had just tolerated him all the time they’d been flirting.
“What have you been doing?” It was an act of self-torture to want to know, anything to feel close to her. After such a long drought, even Amelia snapping at him felt like the barb of a rose, just a part of the experience that he’d missed as much as the rich scent and the soft petals.
“There are a number of charities my great-aunt and I help,” she stated. Just a fact, not a boast. “I make clothes and blankets for the poor.”
“Oh, what a good work,” Mrs. Wisbech cut into the conversation from across the table. “It’s so important to ensure those without means or skills are provided for.”
She had no children of her own, so she was generously aiding those in need. His chest tightened. In the years since he’d last seen Amelia, other things had taken precedence to his feelings. His marriage to Isabella. Her death. His daughter. The estates. The success of the paper mill felt hollow because of what was lost.
All that had convinced him that he was indifferent to Amelia and over his calf love. He wasn’t. But amongst genuine admiration for her work, there was a hint of disappointment that she’d chosen such an earnest, but uninteresting, path. Every gentle-woman in the country helped the parish poor by knitting socks and handing out pennies to those who were ‘worthy’ and ‘suitably’ grateful.
“Your mother says you made a beautiful christening gown with the most intricate embroidery.” Mrs. Wisbech smiled across at Amelia. “Did you donate it? Or are you hoping to have use of it one day?”
“It was nice.” Amelia’s face went blank. “I donated it to the Women’s Society of Hope. It’s run by my great-aunt’s friend Caroline. That’s who Henrietta is spending Christmas with rather than being here with us, as Caroline is recently widowed.”
“The Society of Hope.” It sounded more like the Amelia he remembered, quiet and well-mannered, with a core of bright determination. “What does the organization do?”
“It helps fallen women and their children.” Amelia looked at him levelly.
Mrs. Wisbech’s knife clattered onto her plate. There was an awkward silence.
“Well.” Mrs. Wisbech picked up her knife. “I’m sorry to hear it was given to those who won’t appreciate it and don’t deserve it.”
“I regret you feel that way. I think every baby deserves to be christened in a beautiful gown.” Pink had risen in Amelia’s cheeks and she spoke into her plate. But she spoke boldly.
Robert was struggling to restrain his grin and his shock. A charity for prostitutes was out of the usual. It spoke of a kind but independent spirit. It was the Amelia he remembered, but bigger, like a fully grown flower where he’d seen the green young plant.
“It is not the child that is at fault, it is the mother.” Mrs. Wisbech’s earnest condemnation of fallen women quietened the chatter at their end of the table.
Amelia’s lips flattened into a pale line and her knuckles whitened as she gripped her fork. “At Christmastime, isn’t it beholden on us to think of every child as baby Jesus, and every mother as Mary?”
“The blessed mother of Jesus was a virgin.” Mrs. Wisbech arched an eyebrow, as though she’d won the argument.
Amelia didn’t retort. That was probably best, but he could see her scowling at her carrots.
“If certain men didn’t request such acts, women would not provide them.” He directed his comment to the table generally. “One cannot blame a single party in such cases.” If he could restrain himself, other men ought to. He’d never sullied his marriage vows, as he knew some of his friends did and had been alone since he’d been a widower.
“The foundling hospital would have been a good charity for the gown.” Mrs. Wisbech declared. “Perhaps you will focus your efforts towards orphans in the future.”
“They’re half orphans,” Amelia mumbled, only just audible to him.
He stifled a laugh.
“Mr. Danbury.” A footman was at his elbow. “Your daughter’s nursemaid is insisting Miss Danbury see you before she goes to bed. I’ve told her-”
“I’ll come immediately.” He always saw his daughter before she went to sleep, usually to read her a story. He folded his napkin next to his plate. “Please excuse me for a moment.” He began to stand.
“Oh, Mr. Danbury, bring the little poppet down,” Mrs. Wisbech said, loud enough to be heard all the way down the table. “What do you think, Mrs. Chilson?”
He hesitated. Edith could be overwhelmed by lots of people and it had already been a long day.
“That would be lovely.” His mother’s face brightened.
Mrs. Chilson nodded to the footman. “Please bring her down.”
He sat back into his chair and looked across to Amelia. She didn’t meet his gaze.
Edith’s eyes were wide when she walked into the dining room. She was wearing her pale blue dress with the puffy sleeves. Pushing out his chair, Robert held out his arms and she came straight to him. He scooped her up and put her on his knee and she turned into him, shielding herself from the smiling faces around the table. It was hardly believable some days she was the same child who he’d cradled on his arm when she was born. He hugged her tight. “Did you have a tasty dinner?”
Edith nodded. Curiosity overcame shyness and she peeped around the side of his shoulder. She looked around the table with all the quiet subtlety of an overawed four-year-old child
It took him a moment to realize she was staring at Amelia. With her blue eyes and shining waves of blonde hair, Edith would be drawn to her. He ought to distract her from being rude.
“Are you excited about Christmas?” Amelia asked from beside him, before he could say anything.
“Do you think your papa has brought you a lovely present?”
More vigorous nodding this time. “Dolly.” His daughter’s voice was a breathless whisper of excitement.
“Will your dolls have tea together?” Amelia asked.
A shake of the head this time. “Adventures.” She said it just the same way as he did when he suggested they go out together, ad-ven-tures, with all the emphasis on ‘ven’.
His heart tried to push out of his chest like a plant struggling to escape a cloche it had outgrown. He and Edith went on adventures to the glasshouse or the woods, and she wanted to take her dolls for adventures too. They were their special activity, and somehow just saying the word in Amelia’s presence invoked the thought of the three of them exploring the gardens together, Edith watching Amelia for how to hold her skirts out of the mud, or step over a stile gracefully.
“Adventures sound exciting for your dolls. Let’s hope your papa knows what you’d like.”
Their gazes met over Edith’s head and his heart jolted as though he’d forgotten again how lovely she was. She must charm all the women and children at her charity, just like she had effortlessly charmed Edith.
Reminded of his presence, Edith’s gaze slid around back to him expectantly, as if she thought he would reveal the German-made doll he’d bought her, with stunningly painted wooden hands and feet, and real hair. It was only when he noticed Amelia watching them with a wistful expression that he realized he’d picked a doll with blue eyes exactly like hers. He swallowed.
“You had better go to bed, so you can be ready for your adventures tomorrow. I can’t read to you tonight, but we’ll have a story tomorrow morning to make up for it.” He grasped Edith under the armpits and lowered her to the floor. She looked up at him wordlessly, waiting.
Edith wasn’t going to leave without him saying it. In front of all the dinner guests. Amelia would think him a weakly indulgent father who denied his daughter nothing since she didn’t have a mother. But perhaps that was closer to the truth than he would like to admit.
“Night-night, sleep-tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” He leaned down and kissed her little cheek. As he drew back, he couldn’t resist smoothing the stray wisp of hair out of her eyes.
Edith’s nursemaid led her away and Robert managed not to watch his daughter like a besotted fool, replacing his napkin in his lap and only checking once as she left the room.
“She’s a sweet child.” Amelia toyed with the little sprig of holly and ivy next to her place setting. “You must dote on her.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Was it that obvious? He picked up his knife and fork, but belatedly realized he’d finished his food. Discussing his daughter with Amelia was more than he could do. Not after seeing her speak so tenderly to Edith.
“I see.” Her tone was playful. “She isn’t sweet, or you don’t dote on her?”
He spoiled his daughter, that was the truth. Edith ought to have a brother or sister so she wasn’t the focus of so much of the attention. Honestly, it was what he had always wanted, a house full of giggling children. He’d once thought he’d have that with Amelia, but that wasn’t going to happen now. He couldn’t allow himself the folly of imagining the three of them together.
“Do you live here all year round?” he asked. The abrupt change of conversation rang hollow.
“I live in London with my great-aunt.” The hard edge had returned to her voice. She looked to her other side, where there was a lull in conversation. “Do you visit London at all, Mr. Harris?”
Amelia had been shy years ago, frequently not daring to voice her opinions to any but a select few. She’d been a wallflower, budding and hiding her beauty behind a screen of leaves. Since then she’d bloomed, and although she wasn’t a showy flower, she was strong. Being a companion and her charity work had obviously given her confidence. There would be no space in her refined London life for a quiet widower and his daughter. A good thing too, since he couldn’t marry again, as lovemaking was out of the question after he’d lost Isabella in childbirth.
It had been Christmas when he’d lost Amelia and by some miracle, they were together again at Christmas. Though it could never come to anything and it was years too late, he still wanted from Amelia what he’d desired five years ago. A kiss.