I love the Christmas season. What better way to get in the mood than with a sweet Christmas story? Enjoy this excerpt from the BRAG award winning The Darcys’ First Christmas.
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Congratulations to winner Andrea Lee!
The Darcys’ First Christmas
Elizabeth anxiously anticipates her new duties as mistress of Pemberley. Darcy is confident of her success, but she cannot bring herself to share his optimism.
Unexpected guests unsettle all her plans and offer her the perfect Christmastide gift, shattered confidence.
Can she and Darcy overcome their misunderstandings and salvage their first Christmastide together?
Sunbeams teased her awake and alerted her that she was alone. That was not unusual, Darcy barely slept until dawn most mornings. He hated to rouse her as much as she him, so he rose quietly, and disappeared before she ever knew he had moved.
It was thoughtful and considerate to be sure. But the bed was large and empty, and the space beside her cold. There was a price to be paid for sharing a room and a bed with him. Most mornings, it was entirely worth it. But some days, the loneliness ached.
She rang for the maid and dressed. If he was not out riding, he would be in his study, preparing his correspondence before breakfast. He had invited her to join him several times, but since Mama met with Hill first thing in the morning, it seemed the right time to meet with Mrs. Reynolds, too.
Perhaps not today, though.
She made her way down the grand staircase’s wide marble steps. The broad expanse was beautiful, but it often reminded her of how much she missed Longbourn’s awkward, creaky stairs. The white and grey streaked stone did not creak or moan. It did not talk with her and acknowledge her passing, but only stood silent as a liveried servant doing its job.
The study door stood open a crack. An invitation? A welcome?
Hopefully, perhaps both. She scratched at the door and pressed it open.
Darcy hunched over his desk, peering at a document. Quill in hand, the nib hovered over a half-written sheet, covered in the precise loops and lines of his hand.
The room was neat and exact as he. The elegant mahogany and leather furniture had been chosen placed and placed for efficiency. Every book, every article had a place and resided there without argument. Even the sunbeams seemed to strike the desk in a precisely ordered way.
“Elizabeth?” He lay his pen aside and jumped to his feet. “What is wrong?”
She opened her mouth, but found no words to speak. She rushed into his warm arms and buried her face into his coat. The wool tickled her nose and scratched her cheek. It smelt like him, like acceptance and comfort, and she pressed in closer.
He cradled the back of her head with his hand and laid his cheek atop her head.
His words often failed, but his actions made his meaning clear.
“What is troubling you?”
She sniffled and shrugged. “I am not really sure.”
“Pray do not tell me it is your nerves.” He kissed her forehead.
She sniggered. “What, you do not wish to befriend them as my father has my mother’s?”
He guided her to the window seat, the only place in the room where they might sit side by side. She leaned back against the window frame. The cool air around the glass soothed her raggedness.
“Did your interview with Mrs. Reynolds go poorly last night?”
“No, no, not at all. It went very well in fact. She produced all the plans from previous balls, giving us a grand start on planning this one. Georgiana even found her place to help.”
“Indeed? I did not anticipate she would take on any such a responsibility. I am pleased she is willing. Pray, what is she to do?”
Elizabeth looked aside and chewed her knuckle. “She told us how little the children enjoyed the last ball. We decided to not to include the children this year. Rather, we will hold a Christmas picnic for them. I know it has not been done before and such a change may not be very welcome. I hope it does not displease—”
He took her shoulders in his hands and gripped her firmly. “Elizabeth, pray stop. You make it sound as though you expect me to be some ogre waiting to find fault with everything you do. Do you truly see me that way?”
“No, no, not at all.”
“Have I not discussed with you the changes that I have initiated and those which I yet hope to implement?”
“At great length.”
“Then you see. I am not averse to change.”
“But Mrs. Reynolds—”
“She waxed on about Pemberley’s traditions?”
Elizabeth nodded a bit more vigorously than she intended.
He leaned his head back and stared at the plasterwork moldings on the ceiling. “Oh my dearest, Mrs. Reynolds is a dear and wonderful woman for whom I have the deepest fondness and appreciation. All that is not to say she is without her foibles. Tradition happens to be one of those. She was very fond of both my parents. I think she remembers those days with perhaps more partiality than they rightfully deserve. Do not permit her nostalgia to prevent you from making your mark as Mistress of Pemberley. This is your home now, as much as it is mine.”
A knot tightened in her throat so taut it brought tears to her eyes. She sniffled and swallowed it back.
“The Christmastide entertaining is yours. Do with it what you will, and it will be pleasing. I just pray you, no playing of characters drawn from a hat, and do not ask me to dance with any woman but you. With those two requests fulfilled, I am pleased with whatever you choose to do.”
“I believe your desires may be accommodated, sir.”
He smiled a smile that for the moment made her believe all would be right in the world.
Would that she might rest in his confidence as easily as he.
He made it all sound so simple, so obvious. Perhaps it had been silly to become so concerned over something so minor. Still, parties and balls were tricky beasts apt to turn on one like a cornered fox.
Once the season was over she could rest more easily.
A fortnight later, a letter appeared on his desk. An unwelcome letter. A letter he would have preferred to ignore.
He raked his hair and stormed out of his study.
The room was too confining, far too confining. He needed space to walk … and to think. Had it not been raining, he would have been on horseback, galloping through a field until he and his horse were lathered and out of breath.
But why should the weather cooperate today when nothing else did?
The gallery—that was the place!
He took the steps of the grand staircase two at a time, leaving his heart racing and breath coming in hard pants.
Cold radiated from the bright windows. He rubbed his hands together briskly. With no fire to chase the chill away, his Darcy and Fitzwilliam ancestors peered down from their portraits with frosty stares.
He paced the length of the gallery, twice, and came to a stop before Lord and Lady Matlock. Prickles raced along the back of his neck.
They had a perfectly good townhouse … in London. They liked to entertain … in London. Their yearly twelfth night ball was anticipated among the ton … in London. That was where they belonged for Christmastide … in London.
What possessed Lady Matlock to decide to spend the holiday season in Derbyshire? At least she should have had the basic decency to keep to her own seat until invited otherwise.
The invitations for the ball were set to go out tomorrow. That should have kept them at home until the day before the ball. How was he going to tell Elizabeth that their arrival was imminent?
Clearly, he should never have answered the Matlocks’ congratulations on their nuptials. He stalked away from the glowering Matlock portrait.
How could he ignore the backhanded slights made against his bride? Mother had warned him to control his Fitzwilliam temper. Allow the calmer, Darcy blood to temper the hot-headedness.
He should have listened.
No doubt his sharp words and challenge to Lady Matlock’s insulting insinuations raised enough Fitzwilliam ire to fuel a war of wills. One he had no desire to wage, especially with Elizabeth in the middle.
Unfortunately, hindsight offered few answers. He required immediate, actionable answers before he was called upon to negotiate a truce not even His Majesty’s emissaries would embark on lightly.
The back of his neck prickled as though he were being watching. He turned and stared out of the window.
No, that was simply not possible.
He ran to the window and pressed his forehead to the glass. Two coaches and a wagon trundled down the main lane toward Pemberley. The distance blurred the details, but there was little question the Matlock crest adorned both those carriages.
He tore down the stairs. Where would Elizabeth be this time of day? Mrs. Reynolds would know, but where would she be?
At the base of the stairs, where he nearly collided with her.
“Master?” She grabbed the banister.
He caught her elbows and held her until she regained her balance. “Forgive me. Pray, where is Mrs. Darcy?”
“She planned to call on tenants this morning, the east-most cottages as I recall.”
“Should she not be at home to receive guests?”
“I do not believe she has established her at home days yet. Unexpected callers—”
“Are nearly at the door, Mrs. Reynolds.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the front door.
“Pray excuse me, sir. I do not understand.”
“The Matlock coaches approach as we speak. Two, with a wagon of luggage. I cannot image they are planning for a quarter hour’s social call.”
Mrs. Reynolds’ eyes grew wide. “I shall have their rooms readied directly.” She bit her lip. “Mrs. Darcy did not expect them. She intended to use the rooms the Earl and his family favor to accommodate her aunt and uncle later this month.”
“The Gardiners are most reasonable people. I have no doubt they will be able to better weather a change in accommodation than my aunt and uncle.”
A deep furrow shadowed her brow. “Yes, sir. Do you desire a tray of refreshments for them as well?”
“Yes, yes, that is an excellent plan. Send a footman in search of Mrs. Darcy. Instruct him to say we have guests, and her presence is required immediately.”
She twitched her head in a little ‘no’ but said, “Yes sir,” curtsied and hurried off.
Three quarters of an hour, perhaps a bit less. He had that long to prepare.
Pressing his temples, he retreated to his study. What were those things Aunt Matlock complained about most vehemently?
She wanted traditional Fitzwilliam dishes at the table.
And bed clothes!
How could he have forgotten? She required two down mattresses, one to sleep on and one to sleep under, and the bed ropes needed to be tightened. Oh, the counterpane? Which one did she demand? He rang for the butler and jotted notes for the cook.
Sampson appeared at the door. “Mrs. Reynolds sent—”
“Good, then you understand. Send the junior footmen to help the upstairs maid prepare the bed for Lady Matlock. One for Lord Matlock as well. He demanded the down mattresses replaced with flocked the last time they stayed.” He shoved the hastily scrawled paper into Sampson’s hand. “Give this to the cook. The menus must be changed for tonight’s dinner— oh, and tell her they prefer to keep fashionable hours even in the country.”
“Immediately, sir.” Sampson bowed and disappeared.
What else? Surely he was forgetting something. No doubt Aunt Matlock would take great pleasure in reminding him.
“Brother?” Georgiana tiptoed in. “Is it true, what the maid just told me?”
“The Matlock coaches are on their way here? Yes, I saw them. I just received her letter this morning, but she did not say they would arrive today.”
Georgiana blanched. He hurried to her side lest she swoon and fall.
“I do not wish to see them … to see her.”
He helped her to his favorite chair near the fire. The leather wingback engulfed her, making her look so like a little girl.
“She was so …”
He crouched beside her. “I know she was not kind to you when you stayed with her after …”
“You can say it, brother, after Ramsgate. Elizabeth has been so kind and gracious to me. She is so understanding. I had almost forgotten how terrible—” She pressed her fist to her mouth.
“I will not allow her—”
“Pray forgive me, brother, but how do you think you will stop her? No, she will take every opportunity she can find or manufacture to recap my failings, to criticize me, and to remind me how fortunate I am not to have been shipped off to Scotland for my deeds. Then she will lament how unfortunate it is that I am now related to him!” Her words tumbled out in a screech and she sprang to her feet.
“She has not.” He gritted his teeth, hands clenched.
“Indeed she has.” She ducked behind the chair. “Her last letter went on for pages about how it was entirely inappropriate for me to be connected to him. She said I should take every effort to carefully avoid the influence of my new sister—not the one married to him. Can you imagine? She declared Elizabeth must surely be a trial and a daily evil to be tolerated.”
And that same woman expected to be a welcome guest in his house?
“Make no mistake, she comes with a purpose. She is determined to put both of us, Elizabeth and me, in our places. You must believe me, I am quite certain of it. If she has her way, I will soon be promised to a Scottish lord’s youngest son and Elizabeth will be sent off for a long visit to your property in Scotland to chaperone me as I meet my future husband.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
She looked away, chewing her knuckle. “It was … in her most recent letter to me … perhaps a se’nnight ago. I have been so dumbstruck by the shock of it all. How could I tell you something that would upset you so much? I did not envision we would see her again so very soon.”
He rubbed his jaw. “Indeed not.”
“Pray do not make me face her now, I simply cannot.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“Go upstairs then and inform Mrs. Annesley you are not to be disturbed by any save Mrs. Darcy and that I shall personally sack her if she fails in this duty. You do not need to see Aunt Matlock tonight.”
“Thank you, brother, thank you.” She bounded away, a young doe fleeing from a poacher.
He sank into the empty chair.
How dare Aunt Matlock attempt to interfere in his family thus? His arms twitched and hands flexed, quivering. His boot heel bounced on the carpet, ready to leap.
If she were a man …
This would not do. Somehow he must get himself under better regulation before they arrived.
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