Just 22 days ’til Christmas (which happens to be The Vamp’s lucky number, and not just because it rhymes with her name.) Today’s Christmas countdown treat comes courtesy of the delectable Leah Rhyne. Leah normally writes in the speculative fiction genre, so I shook things up and assigned her the Classic genre, with a nod to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Read on for a beautiful Christmas story worthy of Mr Darcy…
by Leah Rhyne
The air in the ballroom was thick and steamy. Sparkling embers from the roaring fire flickered on the hearth. Shimmering perspiration from the dancers lent the atmosphere a sticky bodily odor barely suppressed by cinnamon sticks and cloves boiling in small pots along the walls. And as the latest reel drew to a close, the partner of Miss Violet Billingsly, the eldest daughter of the Lord and Lady of the house, kissed her hand and stole toward the door of the anteroom. There sat the Lord himself, playing a round of whist, and Mr. Wick, a man of ten thousand pounds per annum, sought his audience.
Pressing a hand to her forehead when she found herself without a partner in the middle of the dance floor, Violet sought escape, scanning the vast ballroom of her father’s home. The walls were drenched with rich velvet drapes – the customary red for the holiday season – and candles stood in sconces nestled safely away from the heavy fabrics. In one corner stood a tree, decorated with crimson holly berries and still more candles flickering merrily in the dim room. The band struck up a lively waltz, and couples paired around her. Violet took small, short steps, hindered by her high-heeled slippers and the train of her dress, which she draped over her forearm to aid in a quicker escape.
I’ve drunk too much champagne. The room wavered before her eyes like waning candlelight.
As she neared the small, plain door that led to the hallway between the ballroom and the kitchens, a voice sounded in her ear.
“Going so soon? While Mr. Wick rushes off to speak to Papa?”
Violet forced a smile, though she knew the high color of her cheeks would give her away as plainly as any words. “Oh, Rose. Merry Christmas, dear. I saw you dancing with that fine young officer from town. Did you enjoy his company?”
Rose kept in step with Violet, providing a pleasant distraction while Violet expedited her escape.
“He was a pleasant dancer, yes,” said Rose, taking hold of Violet’s elbow with her small, gloved hand. The scent of primrose from the hothouse bouquet she carried filled Violet’s nose. Candlelight glittered on the jeweled combs in Rose’s yellow curls as she tossed her head with a laugh. “But I’m here to ask you why Mr. Wick rushed away with such a look of bold determination.”
Violet’s own laugh was unnatural to her ears. Rose didn’t seem to notice. “What a funny sister you are,” said Violet. “Always concerned about your eldest sister’s affairs. Some would call you nosy.”
Rose feigned surprise. “Some would, perhaps. Or perhaps only you, dear. Am I to assume, based on your playing coy, that I will hear nothing of the business passed between you and Mr. Wick until after he’s spoken to Papa? But can I also assume that the news will be a wonderful Christmas gift to my mother? You know how she so worries about our futures.”
They neared the door. Rose, Violet was sure, knew of her destination, and wouldn’t keep her. The two sisters were close friends and confidants, their teasing banter a hearty escape from the doldrums of life in the country. Tears filled Violet’s eyes and she turned away, her hand reaching for the door. She heard the catch in her voice as she spoke. “Assume nothing, dearest, but that I will do my duty, as always, and marry well. That’s all a woman can hope for, isn’t it?”
She didn’t wait for the answer, but instead slipped silently from the glittering ballroom into the darkness of the servants’ hall.
Violet paused to catch her breath. Her head swam, with champagne or with music she couldn’t tell. The darkness of the hall was soothing, though, and she hoped a few minutes would put her to rights. The servants would be in the kitchens, preparing for the supper that capped the festivities of her parents’ annual Christmas Eve balls. She would have a few moments of peace there in the darkened hall.
“Ten thousand per annum,” she whispered to no one at all. “Ten thousand.” Truly her life would become what her mother hoped for her, and truly she should be delighted. That Mr. Wick was nearly thrice her age, that she would be his third wife, and that she would become mother to his seven children, the eldest of whom was less than two years younger than herself, should hardly matter in such a match.
Violet knew as much, but tears spilled forth from her eyes. From her pocket she drew a lace handkerchief and dabbed the evidence of her despair from her cheeks.
From the shadows came a deep voice. “Miss Billingsly, why do you cry?”
Violet startled, but covered her movement with a cough. “William! What are you doing, lurking in the shadows that way?”
The footman stepped into the beam of light cast from the ballroom through a colored glass window. “Begging your pardon, ma’am. Mrs. Marsh sent me to check on poor old Mr. Spitz. Apparently he was feeling ill, but by the time I reached him he waved me away. A pretty girl was by his side, I suppose that’s why.” His smile was tentative, as though he knew he shouldn’t speak that way of his Lord’s guests. “When I saw you walk this way I came ahead to wait. You looked ill, and I wanted only to help.”
“I’m fine, thank you William. A little lightheaded from champagne, perhaps, but no cause for alarm.”
“You’re pale. Let me help you to the parlor.” He took her arm, his hand warm and gentle, the cotton of his glove smooth against her bare skin.
She pushed him away with a firm shove. The parlor was too close to the ball, and there she might meet her father, or worse, Mr. Wick. She shuddered.
William stepped closer. She felt his breath, hot against her neck. “Miss Billinglsy! Please! You’re not well. Let me help you.”
Violet forced herself to laugh. “Yes, perhaps you’re right. Too much dancing and champagne, like I said. But please, not the main parlor. The servant’s sitting room is closer. Please, William. Please take me there.”
A fire warmed the servants’ sitting room, and a modest tree stood decorated with popped corn and cranberries. Beneath it sat gifts, festively decked with ribbons and colored paper. The room smelled of pine and cinder. A more pleasant space, Violet could never have imagined.
“The servants trade gifts?” she said as William led her to a tattered old armchair near the fire. “I never knew.”
“May I get you some tea, Miss Billingsly?” he asked as he helped her sit. Before she could respond he pulled a small stool from beside the hearth and placed it before her. “Here, rest your feet on this.”
Violet smiled. “Tea would be lovely. Thank you, William.”
As William busied himself with the kettle near the fire, Violet watched. William had been with the Billingsly family since he was a boy, in the stables until proving himself worthy to be admitted to the footmen service. A particular favorite of Lord Billingsly, it was murmured that when Old Fitzsimmons grew too feeble, William would become butler, a high station for a boy from the hovels outside the village.
What Violet had never noticed before, though, was the breadth of his shoulders, and the strength they belied beneath the fine, dark coat he wore. She’d never noticed his smooth, dark hair – almost black – and the way it absorbed the firelight.
When he turned, a cup of tea balanced on a small, plain saucer, she also noticed the way his eyes were the blue of the sky on a crisp winter’s day. They snapped and smiled, somehow, in a way Violet had never seen.
He was different, so different, from the aging Mr. Wick. Violet’s lips parted and curled into a smile as he leaned over, teacup in hand.
“Here you go, Miss Billingsly,” he said.
Violet took the cup. “William, why have you never used my Christian name? It’s Violet.”
“Yes, I know, Miss Billingsly, but it wouldn’t be proper to use it, ma’am.”
Her head still swimming, but now with giddiness, Violet set the tea on the stool and stood, ignoring the brief look of concern that appeared upon William’s face. She stepped closer to him. “But if I tell you it’s proper, then is it not? And I think, with as long as we’ve known one another, it would be proper.”
She stepped closer, a hand reaching for him. He pulled away.
“It isn’t. Ma’am.”
“William.” She dropped her voice. “Whisper it then. Barely let me hear it. But please do let me hear it. It is, after all, Christmas Eve. Let that be my Christmas present.”
“I cannot.” He cast his eyes to the fire, refusing to meet her gaze. But she saw something in them, something she desired. Something she knew she’d never find in Mr. Wick.
Violet pulled her glove from her hand and touched his cheek with her bare fingertips. He jerked but did not pull away.
William’s skin was smooth, as though he’d not yet begun to shave, though she could see in the firelight where the hair of a fine beard could grow. She allowed her fingertips to trace William’s jawline. She touched his hair. He stood as though made of marble, his eyes watching her every move with suspicion…and desire. Yes, she could see the desire.
She touched his lips. “Do you want me? William?”
“I cannot have the things I want. Especially not you, miss.”
“Call me Violet.”
Her heart racing, Violet pressed her body to William’s, but still he stood stiff. Violet was suddenly, achingly aware of the many layers of thick fabrics separating them, and she reached around William to pull off her other glove. She dropped both to the floor where they puddled and shined in the dim light.
She stood on her toes – William was taller than she by far – and pressed her cheek to his. He neither leaned into her nor pulled away.
“Why will you not hold me?” Violet’s voice was deep and husky. She’d never heard herself like that before. “I’m asking you to. Are you not supposed to do as I say?”
The slightest shake of his head. “No, ma’am. Not when it’s something I cannot do.”
“You can do this.”
She slid her hand to his neck, then back to his cheek, marveling at the smooth warmth of his skin. Still their faces touched. She had never been so close to a man before.
“But I’ve always wanted this.”
As soon as the words left her lips they were true. Yes. She had always wanted William, had she not? Hadn’t his face always been the one to catch her eye among the footmen? Hadn’t he always been the biggest and the handsomest? Yes, now it seemed to have always been true.
“So have I.”
William caved. He melted, his body curving into hers as though he, himself, was her body’s glove. His hands slipped to her waist.
“It’s Christmas.” She whispered the words. “Tonight you can have me. Tonight I can be yours.”
Violet had never been so bold. But neither had she ever wanted something so desperately.
“Tonight can be ours.”
William pulled his head back, a sigh escaping his lips. “But I can’t keep you.”
“So let us make tonight special.”
“Violet. Beautiful Violet.”
He was hers. Their lips met as the fire raged and Violet’s head filled with feelings she’d never imagined. William was warm and held her strong within his arms, and it was her turn to melt.
It lasted only a moment, a heartbeat, before William pulled away with a sudden jerk, a finality, his face awash in terror. “Miss…ma’am…I shouldn’t have…” He turned and left the room, leaving Violet behind. Her knees trembled and threatened to give way, so she sank heavily to the stool.
When Fitzsimmons appeared in the doorway a moment later, carrying a tray of champagne, his face paled, and he set the tray down on the ground with a clatter.
He knelt beside her. “Miss Billingsly, what ails you? Shall I get your father?”
For the second time that night, Violet forced herself calm. She drew her lips back in what she hoped was a smile. “No. Fitzsimmons, please. Be a dear and find my maid? I’d like to go to bed now. Something in the party…didn’t agree with me. I’m not well.”
He stood, surprisingly spry for an elderly butler, and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
The morning sun peeked through the drapes pulled tight across Violet’s window as her bedroom door opened with a creaky wail. Rose appeared, holding a lit candle and wearing her nightclothes.
“Merry Christmas, sweet sister,” Rose said, rushing to Violet’s bed. She slipped beneath the thick coverlet, setting her candle down on the small night table and blowing it out. “I noticed you left the ball quite early.”
“I think I sipped too much champagne, and it’s left a storm raging in my head.” Violet closed her eyes against the bright, probing fingers of sunlight. A storm indeed.
“Well, you must wake up and start moving, then, dearest. Christmas breakfast will be soon, and I hear your fiancé will be joining us.” Rose giggled. “Fiancé. It still feels queer to say that, but I’ve been practicing all night. I’ll be so sad to see you go, but please do accept my congratulations. I’m sure Mr. Wick will make a perfectly amiable husband.” Rose kissed her cheek.
Violet sat up with a start. Mr. Wick? Fiancé? The events of the night before flooded back into her memory, setting the storm to raging even more desperately. Yes, she’d accepted his proposal. But then she had gone and seen William and…
“Violet! Dear! What’s wrong? Why, you’re white as a ghost!”
Just then, a knock came at the door, and Violet’s maid Eliza pushed it open. She carried a small tray with tea for the sisters, which she set down at the foot of the bed. “My Christmas greetings,” she said with a slight curtsey. “And if you don’t mind me being so bold, my sincerest congratulations.”
When Violet didn’t respond, Rose nodded. “Thank you, Eliza. That will be all for now. My sister and I are going to enjoy the quiet before the storm.”
The storm, thought Violet. Yes, the storm.
On the silver tray sat a small envelope with her name.
“What’s that,” said Rose.
“I don’t know.”
Violet opened it. The handwriting within was less than refined, but the name at the bottom caused her face to burn. William.
Rose pressed her cheek to Violet’s, and together the young ladies read.
My dear Miss Billingsly,
Or shall I now say, “my dearest Violet,” for after last night you’ll never be anything but the most beautiful, most dear, Violet to me for the rest of my life.
I have given my resignation to your father, my Lord Billingsly, at dawn this very morning, and am hastening away to find my fortune on the high seas. I expect to be away for several years, but then, my dearest Violet, I’ll return to you with enough land and holdings to have earned your hand in marriage.
Will you wait for me, dearest Violet? Will you allow me to earn the right to call you mine on a night that isn’t Christmas Eve?
I shan’t await a reply, but will instead get to work. I will come back, my darling. Wait for me.
“Violet Billingsly, you tell me what happened last night.”
Violet’s head pounded and throbbed. I will never taste another sip of champagne, not as long as I live. She closed her eyes and tried to muster the appropriate words. Mr. Wick’s proposal. Her public joy and private dismay. Leaving the ball. William. The servant’s quarters.
Her behavior in the cozy room below the ball flooded back as though she stood still in William’s arms. A tear slid from between her clasped lids and she shuddered. Rose slipped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
“It’s all right, dear. Whatever happened, we’ll make it better.”
I will not cry again, she told herself in silence. To Rose she spoke aloud. “I’m afraid he mistook a bit of flirtation for love, and now he’s gone and ruined his affairs.”
She told Rose of the pertinent parts of her evening of flirtation, leaving off before she kissed William beside the raging fire. “I meant only to have a bit of fun. It was abominable of him to so mistake it.”
Her determination not to cry set firmer in her stomach at the sound of her own words. Never had she spoken so true, she was sure of it.
Rose paused a moment before speaking. “It’s all very romantic, though, is it not? No one has ever behaved thus for me. But I wonder. Will you wait for him? Are you in love? What about Mr. Wick?”
The utterance of her fiancé’s name cleared Violet’s head completely. She no longer had any doubts. “No,” she said, her voice suddenly low and firm. “It was only the champagne last night. Lesson learned, if in a dreadful fashion for William. I’ll not stray again.”
She reached to the night table and gave a small silver bell a decided ring. “Eliza,” she called. “Please come in.”
The maid appeared in the doorway and Violet reached out to her with a steady hand. “Help me dress now, please, Eliza. It’s going to be an eventful Christmas day.”
Leaving Rose beneath the covers on the bed, Violet rose and walked toward her dressing room with Eliza. “Can you imagine, dear? Ten thousand per annum. We’ll be living in style once I’ve married Mr. Wick.”
From the bed, Rose made a small sound. Violet turned to face her. “But what about…” Rose began.
Violet silenced her with a look. “Rose, as the eldest daughter of our father, Lord Billingsly, I will do my duty. I will marry Mr. Wick. Ten thousand per annum. As we both know, a Lordship does not equate wealth such as that. My marriage will open doors to better society for you and our dear sisters. So yes, Rose, I will do my duty, and I will smile as I do it. For I am a Billingsly, just like Papa. Congratulate me again, sister, and to you I wish the merriest of all merry Christmases. ”
At breakfast, Rose was quiet and withdrawn. Violet endeavored to cover her sister’s reticence with her own ebullience; to Mr. Wick she was charming and flirtatious. To her mother and father she was complimentary – never had there been such a joyous Christmas breakfast as the one before her on that fine, cold morning. In time, she believed her own words and actions, never guessing at Rose’s silent resolution to wait for William, and to be worthy of his love in a way her sister Violet never would.
When, three months later, word reached the Billingsly estate that a man who was once in their employ, a young man named William, was killed at sea when pirates attacked his merchant’s vessel, Violet was away, celebrating her honeymoon with her husband Mr. Wick on European holiday.
Among the servants, grief was vast, but among the family, Rose was the only one to mourn.