Today we have a story as divine as the name of the one who wrote it – Jessie Devine. He’s snarky, witty and an excellent writer, and today he delivers the warm and fuzzies in his first ever historical fiction.
Happy New Year!
The Heart of Christmas
by Jessie Devine
“What’s that?” Emily lost the voices of her parents in the glow of the Christmas candles, but she hears her own name. And Pierre Beauchene’s, and that can’t be good.
Her mother and father look at her sharply and she clears her throat, trying not to sigh against her corset. She still isn’t used to the thing.
“Please, excuse my interruption mother and father.” She dips her head. “What’s that you’re saying about Mister Pierre and myself?”
Her father blows a grunt out from under his moustache. “Pierre Beauchene has made clear his intentions to court you. He has requested your accompaniment to the Holiday Ball.”
Emily shakes her head wildly before she thinks. Her light brown ringlets fly about her face. “No, no. I’ll not be going.”
“Why, you headstrong little—”
“I’ll not be going!” Emily rises without asking to be excused.
“You will sit down, Emily Rose.”
Emily crosses her arms and plops back down in the ornate, high-backed chair. Her gaze returns to the Christmas tree. I wish one of those candles would set it on fire.
“You could do far worse than the Beauchene boy. He’s sent you quite a lovely Christmas gift. I was going to wait until tomorrow, but . . .” He waves a hand at Emily’s mother.
The small woman scurries off. I don’t know how she moves so fast in that corset. It makes me want to puke.
Emily’s father waits in awkward silence, and she refuses to look at him. In a moment, her mother returns from the parlor with a large, flat box and lifts the most beautiful purple and black ball gown from it. For just a split second, Emily reconsiders. I might go to a ball in that.
It is a very beautiful dress. It must have cost a fortune! Not that the Beauchenes care about that—their ladies have a dress for every day of the week.
The purple fabric is so shiny it reflects the candlelight. It’s trimmed with spirals of black ribbon and lace, and it will touch the floor. It might even make her look like a lady. A real lady. The dress was obviously designed for the ball, with its off-shoulder cut and deep, daring neckline. Her own proper, high-necked bodice pinches her throat.
“I’ll not accept that. I’ll not be going.”
Her mother lays the dress on the table. “Won’t you even try it on?” Her voice is wounded.
Emily studies the fabric. It would look rather nice on me. “I suppose I might try it.”
She follows her mother upstairs, and their maid helps her out of her dress. Emily keeps on her drawers and her whalebone corset, and her camisole.
“Take off your petticoat, darling. We’ve had a fancier one made for this dress.” Emily removes her petticoat and the maid hands her a black one with white, damask embroidery.
“A black petticoat! Whoever heard of a black petticoat?” The idea positively delights Emily as she puts it on. Then she looks down at her stockings. “Oh no!”
“What, dear, what is it?”
“I shan’t wear white evening stockings with this dress!”
“Well, you can’t wear black daywear, darling.”
“I shall need violet for the ball,” Emily decides, and then she remembers she isn’t going.
“Then we’ll buy violet. But for now, wear white.”
Emily nods and the maid pulls the gown over the corset and petticoats and steel hoops.
“Oh, Emily! How lovely!” Her mother takes her to the mirror.
The dress truly does look lovely. Her waist looks very tiny. Black satin and lace ribbons weave through the violet fabric and make a V from her navel to her shoulders. Her small breasts don’t look so small now, the tops pushed up out of the bodice as they are. Layers of black lace and violet satin spill over the bustle in the back, and large, black bows tie up the skirt’s outer layer to create cascading ruches.
“Come, you must show your father.”
Her mother leads her back down the stairs, Emily prancing like a princess.
Her father stands when he sees them. “Emily! Beautiful, just beautiful, dear. Pierre shall love it on you.”
Emily scowls. Her fingers toy with a lace ribbon on the side of the dress. She loves it very much. But not enough to spend the evening in Pierre Beauchene’s arms. “It’s quite beautiful, but we will send it back. I’ll not be going.”
“You will be going.”
Emily’s voice rises. “I can’t, father, I can’t.”
“Mind your manners, Emily!” her mother crows.
Her father slams his fist on the table. “What is so wrong with Pierre Beauchene? He’s a good boy from a good family!”
Tears are on the verge of spilling onto Emily’s face. “He’s—he’s a pompous ass!”
Her mother’s hand flies to her chest like she might faint. “I never! Wherever did you learn that sort of language?”
Emily rolls her eyes and sniffs. “Where else? Father called Henry Sivault that just a day ago.”
Her father glances at the table and shrugs. “Henry Sivault is a—”
“Emily, that language is inappropriate for a lady. And Pierre’s family spent a great deal on this dress, to send it to you as a Christmas gift. The least you can do is attend the ball with him,” her father says.
“Maybe I’m sick of being a lady. I’m sick of Pierre’s rich family, and I’m sick of expensive Christmas gifts, I’m sick of the Holiday Ball! I’ll not be going!”
Her mother and father look at one another, and her father sighs. Emily fills with dread. There should be rage at that outburst, not sighing.
“We understand your feelings. But Christmas is about making an impression. The Beauchene family is one step down from French nobility. You must attend the ball with Pierre so the world may see you at his side in expensive fashion, and we may benefit from it. It is the same reason you shall marry him when the time comes. Do you understand?”
“What?” Emily demands. “I’ve not—”
Her father cuts her off. “It’s already been decided. Do you understand?”
The tears run down her face now. The corset, which is always too tight, now feels like it’s trying to suffocate her. She runs down the hall, past the study and the parlor, and out the front door.
She throws herself against the rail, sobbing. The back of her mind tells her it’s highly inappropriate for her to make such a display in public. But it’s dark. It’s night, and it’s freezing. It’s unlikely anyone will see her, and she can’t be in the house with her parents. Not now.
How could they do this? How? They know Emily doesn’t care for the Beauchenes. Not enough to attend a ball with him, and certainly not enough to marry him. “I can’t . . .” she whines to the empty porch.
“Hey there, miss. Are you alright?”
Emily jumps back from the rail. A boy a year or so older than her, perhaps seventeen, stands on the sidewalk. He looks the rough sort. The ends of his sleeves are dirty and the bottoms of his trousers are ragged. He wears shabby bowler hat slightly off-kilter.
Emily sniffs. “No. I’m not alright. I’m about to go to a ball tomorrow in this awful dress and marry a boy I don’t even like.”
He shrugs. “It seems an awful nice dress to me. You like beautiful, you do.”
Emily blushes. She knows she doesn’t look beautiful with her eyes puffed and red with snot in her nose from crying. But she curtsies, because it’s polite. “Thank you, Mister . . .”
“Aw, my name’s Michael. Ain’t no mister about it.”
“Mister Michael.” She walks right down the stairs to him and curtsies again. “Thank you for your compliment.”
He doffs his hat to her, and then he looks at the ground. “You don’t have any food, do you?”
Emily tips her head to the side. “Food?”
“I’m only looking for some food for my brother and mother. I thought I’d give them a right Christmas this year, but ain’t got nothing for it.” He looks awfully embarrassed.
“Oh, I don’t have any right now.” She touches the dress as if she’s searching for pockets. “There’s no room in this bloody corset.”
Michael laughs. She likes his laugh. “Never heard a lady say bloody before.”
Emily giggles. “I’ve never said it before, either. Just, hold on a moment. I’ll get something from the kitchen.” She turns to go back up the stairs just as the front door opens.
Her mother gasps. “Emily! Get away from that urchin!”
“But, don’t we have a bit of bread we can spare for his Christmas dinner? He has none.”
“No! George! Emily, you get inside this instant.”
“We don’t associate with that sort of riffraff. George! George!”
“I best be going, Miss Emily. I don’t want to get you in trouble,” Michael says. His face is turning crimson, and it stabs Emily’s heart.
“No, just wait.”
Emily’s father stands in the arched doorway next to her mother and points at the ground at his feet. “Come here, now, Emily.”
“I will right when you get him some food for his family for Christmas.” She laces his hand with Michael’s. He looks at her in utter shock, and she holds on tighter so he can’t get away.
Her father looks around the deserted street in horror like someone will see them. “You get inside this instant before you get a whipping,” he hisses.
Emily blinks. She hasn’t had a whipping in years. It’s just not appropriate now that she’s “a lady.” At least, that’s what they keep telling her. But here her father is, threatening her right on the front porch for anyone to hear.
And why? Rage hotter than any she’s ever felt swells in her chest, and her disgust with her world solidifies in that moment. “You are awful!” she cries.
Her father marches down the stairs, and Emily’s eyes fly wide.
“Run! Michael, run!” Hand still locked with his, she barrels down the street away from her father.
“Where are we going?” Michael shouts.
“I don’t know! Somewhere they won’t find me!”
They race hand in hand down the sidewalk and turn left onto a street harboring mostly shops. Michael pulls her into an alley between buildings, and they crouch behind some rickety stairs to the back door of a pastry shop.
Breathing heavily, Emily glances at the ground. Her dress is muddied and her kid slippers are totally destroyed from the run, delicate as they are. She bites back her laughter as her father grumbles past their hiding place.
A minute later, he hasn’t walked back past.
“Now where?” Emily whispers.
“Shouldn’t I take you home?” Michael asks.
“No, no, not in a million years.”
“But, won’t they have the police out searching for you?”
Emily looks up into his gray eyes. “Ha! My parents would never alert the police. They’d be too embarrassed. Don’t worry; I’m not going to get you in trouble.”
He glances at her face. “I’m not worried about me being in trouble. I’m always in some sort of trouble.”
Emily scowls. “I’m always in trouble too.”
Michael sighs. “It’s Christmas Eve. Don’t you have nobles to entertain and food to eat and gifts to receive?”
She grunts and plops back on her bottom, right into the slushy mud. “I’d rather not.” She urges all the disgust she has into those three polite words. Then a different worry jerks her eyes back to his. “Do you not want me here, Mister Michael?”
“No! That’s not at all what I meant.”
“Then what is it?”
He shrugs and stares straight at the ground. “You’re so pretty, and kind like a little angel.” His eyes meet her sparkling blue ones and touch the ringlets around her face. “And it’s my fault you’re out here; it’s my fault you’re in trouble, and it’s my fault you’re going to miss all the feasts and fancy things.”
Emily shakes her head. “Michael, Christmas isn’t about fancy things.” She takes his hand and holds it right against her chest. “It’s about this.”
He closes his eyes and feels her heartbeat against his palm and smiles. Then he jerks his hand back like he’s offended her bare skin by touching it. “Are you sure?”
She cuffs his ear and laughs. “I’m sure.” She stands up, the tattered ends of her purple-and-black skirts brushing the ground. “Let’s find something for you to eat.”