One Mystical Moment – Laura Landon

Major Frank Collyard stared out the carriage window as they made their way through England’s wintry wonderland. It was the Christmas Season and he was on his way to Cherrywood Manor. He swiped his hand across his face. Bloody hell, but he hated this time of year. He usually devoted the week before and after Christmas to falling into a drunken stupor. It helped him forget. “I believe we’re almost there,” the Earl of Beckett said from the seat opposite him. “I’ll be more than glad when we reach the end of these merciless icy roads.” Frank made an obliging glance out the coach window before he replied. It was too open. The landscape was too beautiful, even as it sat waiting for the year’s first snow. No, it was entirely too pretty for his liking. Give him grimy London any day. “The roads do appear to have become worse,” Frank said in a half-hearted voice that didn’t show an over-abundance of interest. “I know Cherrywood Estate is quite out of the way.

I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to accompany me, major,” Beckett said, bracing his arms on the sides of the carriage when it hit another deep rut. “Lady Dunstan is my sister and I must admit she’s always been special to me. When she wrote that she thought her husband was in danger, I knew I had to do something to help.” “Did she say why?” At last here was something in which Frank could take interest. “Not with any certainty,” Lord Beckett said. “But my guess is that it has something to do with a controversial bill that will come up when the House resumes after the holidays.” Frank raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “What bill is that?” “It’s a measure that will restrict the long hours miners are forced to work below ground. As you well know, coal is a staple of our society, but it’s bloody difficult to regulate the miners’ working conditions and pay.” Beckett made a derisive huff.

“The most influential mine owners are members of the House of Lords and they keep too tight a tight fist on their profits to spare a ha’penny for creature comforts to the working class.” Frank looked out onto the rolling meadows. “Why me?” he asked his father’s long-time friend. “Why did you ask me to see to this? I know little about mining. And you well know that I don’t travel over Christmas, Beckett.” “Then maybe it’s time you altered your self-imposed Christmas exile and joined the rest of the world for the holidays.” “Did my father put you up to this?” “Heavens no,” he said on a laugh. “He learned a long time ago not to interfere in your selfflagellation. He knows as well as I do that nothing anyone says will convince you that you were not to blame for what happened.” “Then who is, my lord?” “Perhaps, no one.

Perhaps—” “Yes, I’ve heard it all before. We aren’t to question the tragedies in life, just accept them and know they happened for reasons only God knows.” There was a bitterness in Frank’s voice and in his words that he couldn’t hide. That he didn’t want to hide. The anger he felt was still too raw. “Perhaps, major,” Beckett said softly, “you can force yourself to pretend to enjoy the holiday festivities, and not ruin Christmas for my family.” Frank didn’t answer Lord Beckett, but kept his eyes focused on the blinding brightness of the countryside. Every inch of him wished he would have refused Lord Beckett’s request for help. But how could he? If not for the Earl of Beckett, Frank wouldn’t be here today. He wouldn’t have been able to survive.

Not after the tragic fire that killed his wife and children. Chapter 1 Tillie put the last of the greenery around the edges of the mantel, then arranged the nativity pieces where they belonged. She checked a second time to be certain she had the wise men coming from the east—as was correct—instead of the west, as she had mistakenly placed them one year. She could still hear her brother’s howling laughter when he pointed out her error. All was perfect. Tillie hurried to the window to check if Uncle John Beckett had arrived. When she saw the yard was empty, she went to the kitchen to inform Cook that the family would gather at five of the clock. They would want tea and pastries served then. Hopefully, the Earl of Beckett and his guest would arrive by then. Next, she rushed to the large drawing room—the one they all called the green salon.

A twelvefoot Christmas tree majestically reached toward the high ceilings in the cheery room. It was the largest tree Tillie could remember having, and it had barely fit through the double doors that led into the room from the terrace. It stood in all its glory in the cherrywood-paneled drawing room as if it had grown in that particular spot. Tillie could picture how magnificent it would be when it was decorated. But that wouldn’t happen until Christmas Eve, tomorrow night, as was tradition in Lord Dunstan’s household. Everyone would take turns placing ornaments on the tree, then they would string colorful ribbons and lace around the branches. When the tree was draped with miles of vibrant colors, the candles would be set into their holders secured on alternating branches throughout the tree. Warm cider would be served. Then Tillie’s sister Alice, Lady Halstead, would accompany them on the clavichord while they sang Christmas carols. But the most breathtaking moment wouldn’t happen until they’d sung Silent Night, lighted the tree candles, and opened gifts that had magically appeared, carried to the tree by gift-laden servants when everyone’s back was turned.

When the gifts were opened, they would relax with their warm cider while Tillie’s grandfather, the Earl of Dennison read the Christmas account from the family Bible. Tillie felt a tingle of excitement. She began looking forward to Christmas each year, the moment the weather cooled. Yet, unfortunately for her, the holiday season always came and went far too quickly. This year held a special air of anticipation for Tillie. Her uncle, the Earl of Beckett, had informed them that he was bringing a guest. A man of his acquaintance who would spend the next several weeks at Cherrywood Manor. The gentleman was a major in Her Majesty’s army, and had fought in the war in the Crimea. Surely there would be exciting tales of heroic rescues and hard-won battles to be shared with her father and grandfather. She was ever so eager to see something cheer up the gloomy Gus her father had become of late, and there was nothing like a good war story to do just that For several weeks now it had been clear that something troubled her father, that he was concerned about something of which he was unwilling to speak.

Maybe having her uncle here— someone with whom he could reminisce—would shift Father’s mind from whatever it was that had sunk him in the doldrums. Tillie turned when the door opened and her brother entered. “I knew I’d find you here,” George said, coming to stand beside her. “I doubt there’s anyone in England who looks forward to Christmas as eagerly as you do.” “Except perhaps for you?” Tillie teased her brother. “I swear you had to hire a small wagon to bring all the presents you purchased in London.” “That’s because our sister keeps increasing our family. It’s not enough to have a babe every other year, but now she’s resorted to presenting her husband with them two at a time.” “And you have made it your goal to spoil the twins unmercifully,” Tillie said with a laugh. “You have to admit that they are entertaining.

” Tillie walked to one of the clusters of sofas and chairs flanking the tree and beckoned George to join her as she sat. “What do you think of this mystery man Uncle is bringing with him?” George asked. Tillie tried to imagine the man. “If he’s an acquaintance of Uncle’s, I suspect he’s about the same age. Definitely not young if he’s a major.” “I overheard Mother tell Grandmother that Uncle was bringing him because he had no place to go for Christmas. He’s a widower and has no family left.” “No children?” “Evidently not.” “Then I’m glad Uncle’s bringing him. Being around all of us at Christmas should be a tonic for him.

” George leaned back in the sofa and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “Have you noticed anything different with Father lately?” “Yes,” Tillie answered on a sigh. “I thought perhaps it was just me.” “No. Something’s definitely amiss.” George turned his gaze to Tillie. “Do you think I should say something to him? It’s not as if I’m a lad fresh out of the schoolroom. I’m six and twenty. Perhaps if I ask, he’ll confide in me and I can do something to help.” “Oh yes,” Tillie answered.

“I think that’s a good idea. But don’t say anything to him until after Christmas. If it’s something serious, I doubt he’ll tell you what it is for fear he’ll ruin your Christmas.” Her brother nodded that he agreed with her, then he rose to his feet. “I think I shall go to the kitchen to make sure Cook has prepared enough pastries for tea. We wouldn’t want to run short with guests.” Tillie couldn’t stop the laughter from escaping. “When have we ever run short of pastries for tea? Especially during the holidays. You can’t fool me, George. You only want to see how many you can steal when you think Cook’s not looking.

” Her brother gave her one of his heart-stopping smiles and headed for the door. Tillie was alone in the room, breathing in the scent of holly and pine. The small crimped tins she’d fixed on the tree to guard the flames once the candles were lit already danced as they reflected the room’s chandeliers. The scene was set, and its perfection made her smile as she focused on the tree and imagined what it would look like when it was fully decorated and lit. Her smile widened. She was certain this would be the best Christmas ever. … The carriage slowed and Frank looked out the window. They’d arrived at Lord Dennison’s family estate. With every mile they traveled, Frank had wished he’d refused the Earl of Beckett’s request, but the idea that someone was threatening a member of the House of Lords because of an upcoming vote was too much of a temptation. Now all he could hope was that Lord Dennison’s family didn’t celebrate the holiday overly much, although he doubted he’d be so fortunate.

Hell, even the name of the blasted place sounded cheerful. Cherrywood Estate. Before they even arrived, Frank knew the following weeks were going to seem impossibly long. When the carriage stopped, a liveried footman opened the door and lowered the step. Frank followed Lord Beckett to the ground and took in his surroundings. His heart sank. A large wreath decorated with huge pine cones and holly berries hung from the door. Tied at the top of the wreath was a red velvet bow that draped halfway down the door. It was horridly, excruciatingly merry. “Merry Christmas, Uncle,” a man who looked to be three or four years younger than Frank joyfully greeted them.

“You’re just in time for tea.” He turned to Frank. “And you must be our guest.” Lord Beckett stepped aside. “George, allow me to present Major Franklin Collyard. I prevailed upon him to spend the holidays with us. Major, I’d like you to meet my nephew, Mr. George Rowley.” “It’s a pleasure,” George said with a smile that Frank found counter to the feelings he himself fought. “Likewise,” Frank answered.

“Come out of the cold,” George Rowley said as he stepped inside the house. “The family is gathered in the green salon.” Frank stepped inside the foyer that immediately seemed to close in around him. The railings on the double winding staircase were adorned with pine greenery. Massive red velvet bows hung at equal intervals up each staircase as well as across the second floor balcony. Their tales drifted lazily, buffeted by drafts caused by opening doors and bustling folk. Someone must have thought the massive fireplace at the apex of the foyer was the perfect place to crowd more pine boughs and red bows and candles and holly berries. They squeezed against each other until Frank doubted it was possible to crush one more red berry in among the others. Greenery adorned with sprigs of mistletoe and ivy draped each doorway. It all taunted him in merciless, inexplicable ways.

Frank thought he might be ill. For eight years he’d successfully skirted the holidays, so much so that even the scent of pine turned his stomach. He wasn’t sure he could stay here one night let alone weeks on end. But what choice did he have? He’d promised Lord Beckett he’d protect his brother-inlaw, and he couldn’t go back on his word. He owed Beckett more than he could ever repay. This was the least he could do for him. Frank realized Beckett and his nephew had gone ahead. He followed them across the foyer and down a hallway, working hard not to keep his eyes fixed to the floor. Even that had managed to betray him, as he stepped upon a needlepoint rug displaying the most rosy-cheeked Father Christmas he’d ever seen. Frank was aware of their destination before he reached the open doorway.

Laughter and the buzz of joyous conversation rose to a pitch loud enough that Frank’s stomach roiled. He wanted nothing more than to turn around and flee. Somehow he forced his legs to carry him forward. “Uncle!” a chorus of excited voices chimed in unison. “You’re here!” “Yes, we finally made it,” Lord Beckett grinned as he gathered several ladies’ outstretched hands. Before they could lead him to a chair, Lord Beckett turned to Frank. “Allow me to present our guest, Major Frank Collyard,” Lord Beckett said, standing to the side so Frank was fully exposed. “Major, my family.” When the ladies took their seats, the Earl of Beckett walked around the room and introduced Frank to each member. Their welcomes were warm and effusive.

They joked with Beckett and regaled Frank with countless family tales. The evidence of their Christmas cheer quite stifled him, so much so that he was capable of uttering only the simplest of responses. “And this is Viscount Dunstan, my sister’s husband,” Beckett said as they approached their host. “Lord Dunstan.” “And my sister, Lady Dunstan.” “Lady Dunstan.” A pretty woman rose from her chair and stepped to Lord Beckett and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here, John,” she whispered so softly Frank was sure no one else heard her. “And you’ve met George,” he said walking past his nephew. “And this is George’s elder sister, Lady Halstead, and her husband, Bertram Kenley, Earl of Halstead.

” Frank greeted them with a polite nod. “And—ah, there she is!” he exclaimed as he moved to the occupied chair at the far end of the circle, “My niece, Miss Mathilde Rowley, George’s younger sister. You have her to thank for the abundance of Christmas decorations. We call her our Christmas angel.” Lord Beckett stepped aside and Frank’s heart shifted in his chest. He tamped down the strange emotion he hadn’t felt for more than eight years. Simply because Beckett’s niece had hair the color of spun gold, eyes as vivid a blue as a clear summer sky, a pert nose that turned up at the end, and lips so lush and kissable that he had a difficult time pulling his gaze from them, was no reason to react so blatantly to her. Such emotions were a betrayal of everything he’d vowed never to feel again. “Miss Rowley,” he greeted, annoyed at the sour edge he heard in his own voice but unable to amend it. “Major Collyard.

Welcome to Cherrywood Manor.” “Thank you for your hospitality.” “Not at all.” She rose. “Please, have a seat. Uncle John, we brought in your favorite chair. Do sit and I’ll pour your tea.” Frank sat in an empty chair beside Lord Beckett, then took a pastry from the sumptuous plate Miss Rowley offered. He tried not to notice her graceful movements, or the smile that lit her face as if it were a permanent fixture. He tried not to notice how she showed an interest in each person in the room, and hovered over everyone as would a mother hen watching her chicks.

But most of all, he tried to ignore how her infectious laughter seemed to brighten the room. It was deucedly difficult. And it infuriated him because he couldn’t bear that she so enjoyed this time of the year when he hated the thought of suffering through another Christmas. And reliving the painful memory of all he’d lost.

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