Anne here with our final Sunday snippet for the year from our Christmas anthology, The Last Chance Christmas Ball. Here's the start of Jo Beverley's story, Miss Finch and the Angel.
Four steaming horses swept the post chaise up the drive of Holbourne Abbey and were halted by their postilions, snorting and stamping, before the impressive pillared entrance. Liveried footmen hurried out, their own breath white in the crisp air, to open the carriage door and extract luggage from the boot.
First emerged a valet. Then followed a fashionable young gentleman in a many-caped buff greatcoat and a glossy beaver hat set at an exact angle on golden hair. He regarded the house, smiled slightly, and strode forward to climb the steps.
"And you, my lord. May I offer season's greetings?"
"I'm sure you may," the young gentleman said pleasantly. "All in order?"
"In general, my lord. Mr. Kimball still chooses a contemplative life."
"Even at Christmas?"
"Indeed, my lord, but the ball will take place as usual."
"Of course it will, especially as it's the fiftieth. Where is Lady Holly?"
"In her rooms, my lord."
Lord Gabriel Quinfroy nodded his thanks, left the hall on his left and ran lightly up the wide stone stairs. He was well accustomed to Holbourne, its inhabitants, and its geography. The Dowager Countess of Holbourne was his godmother, but in addition he was distantly related to the Stretton family and had paid many, long boyhood visits. His father, the Duke of Straith, had not thought his "spare" should become too attached to his home, which had suited Gabriel to perfection. Holbourne was much more fun.
Soon he rapped at a door and was summoned to enter the dowager's domain. She'd been known to the world since her marriage as Lady Holly — sprightly, beloved, but not without spines, which could even draw berry-red blood if she was outraged.
The old lady sat enthroned in a berry-red chair by the fireside, screened from the direct heat by a fire-screen depicting a scene that involved half-naked Grecian athletes. He knew that if she was minded to present a different impression it could revolve to show a vase of flowers.
Thespia Holbourne had been a beauty in her youth and known for her saucy ways. She was a beauty still, in her way, with a plumply wrinkled face, clear blue eyes and frothy white hair beneath a lacy cap, which he saw with amusement was now trimmed with a sprig of mistletoe.
He obligingly went over to kiss her cheek.
"So you came," she said.
"You commanded, dear heart."
She snorted. "It must have suited you."
"It did. Crampton's bride was trying my temper, and quarrels are so very unseasonal, don't you think?" Crampton was his older brother, heir to the dukedom of Straith.
He subsided elegantly onto a sofa at a distance from the roaring fire, glancing once at the slender lady who sat to one side quietly stitching something plain and white. Her simple, high-necked gown was in an odd shade he could only think of as mouse-grey, and her plain cap revealed nothing more than that her hair was straight and brown.
"Don't know why he married her," Lady Holly said and he turned back.
"Forty thousand pounds," he said. "All my fault, of course. Uncle Milius left me his fortune, but until father joins the angels poor Cramp must subsist on the income from the heir's estate. So he's married money. Now, tell me why you summoned me. Kim?"
He referred to the younger son of Holbourne, who'd been wounded in the war in more ways than one, and who, he'd been told, was living a hermit's life in the medieval tower still attached to the classical modern house.
"If you can do anything to the purpose there, I'm sure we'd all be grateful. He's hardly to be seen, and since guests began to arrive for the Christmas celebrations he's disappeared. They say time heals, but it's being demmed slow about it. No, I bade you here for other charms."
"My dearest dear, you want to set me up as your flirt!"
"Impudent puppy! Though if I were thirty years younger and not your godmother…." She waggled a beringed finger at him. "You're too attractive for anyone's good."
"It does me good," Gabriel pointed out mischievously, and shot another glance at the mouse. He caught her in a frosty glare, but she immediately looked down. Who was she? A distant dependent of the family? If so, someone should dress her better. Where was the jolly Miss Bunting, Lady Holly's friend and companion since he'd been a grubby urchin?
He stared. "Enhance? You think I'm a dancing master?"
"I'm sure you could be if you waste your all."
"Devil a bit."
Did his language cause a stir to his left?
"I have taken an interest in some young ladies, and I wish you to bring them out a bit. Make them blush. That always does a girl good. Why so many refuse to use rouge these days I've no idea. Help them to relax and show to greatest advantage. I'm hoping at least one will find husbands. Merely being asked to dance by you will raise their appeal."
"Only with idiots. There's more to choosing a wife than snatching another man's fancy. Money, for example. I assume your charity cases have none."
"None or very little," she admitted.
"Not to any remarkable degree." Lady Holly was known for her eccentricities as well as her enthusiasm for Christmas, but this seemed an odd start all around. "Every gel should have at least one grand ball," she stated, "if only to remember. Wearing a pretty gown, flirting with eligible gentlemen, and only sitting out if she needs to catch her breath. For these, it might be their last chance to attract a suitor."
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Anne again. I hope you enjoyed catching up with our Last Chance Christmas Ball, and enjoyed the various snippets. I had fun choosing images to go with Jo's story. It's almost Christmas now, and I hope you're all enjoying your preparations for the holiday season. After Susanna's post tomorrow, we word wenches will be doing out usual daily post over "Christmastide" — in other words, the twelve days of Christmas. See you then.