Day 8: The Duchess’s Christmas Wish

misteltoe

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  Today we’ve got a mischievous dowager duchess and a reluctant widower earl in 1870s England, along with some pesky mistletoe.  This “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — features (some if not all) of the following words: snuggle, impress, mask, collapse, icicle, regret, famous, sneeze, scandalous, spark, impulse, and fantasy.

So here, courtesy of 8L Nancy, is today’s story.

The Duchess’s Christmas Wish

Bennett Fairbank, Earl of Sandalwood, stood in front of the newly-stoked hearth in the study of his son-in-law’s country house and hoped very hard he had not allowed his beloved daughter Lucinda to marry badly. He’d been about to ask her about the inattentiveness and slowness of the servants in her new home when the maid had finally arrived with tea service.

“I’m so sorry.” Lucinda reached for his hands as soon as the maid had left the room and finally stood still long enough for Bennett to kiss her cheek. “We’ve had to hire so many new staff so quickly, what with fifteen guests arriving for the weekend, and Christmas preparations well underway.”

“I’d have thought your husband would have had a full staff ready for his new bride.”

Lucinda squeezed his hands. “Daddy, don’t—”

“Lady Lucinda, here you are!” A familiar voice grated on Bennett’s ears.

The Dowager Duchess of Bridgehampton sailed into the room, bringing with her a blast of cold air from the hallway that reminded Bennett of the long icicles hanging from the eaves, one more task unattended. He might have to take the new servants in hand himself.

“I’m perfectly fine,” the duchess told his daughter, and Bennett realized he’d missed the conversation. “You go see to His and Her Grace.”

Lucinda flashed a smile and dropped a quick curtsy before flying out of the room as fast as the duchess had flown in, ruining yet another chance for him to have a private word with his daughter.

“Uh-hm.” At the sound of the duchess’s throat clearing, Bennett glanced at her. The woman had ensconced herself on the black leather settee, her fitted green gown with its waves of ruffles on the skirt flowing around her like an emerald sea.

Bennett shook his head slightly, wondering when he’d last been distracted by the color of a lady’s gown and realizing it matched the green of her eyes and, more perplexingly, why these unbidden thoughts had come to him now, just as he was considering taking his leave to find Lucinda.

“Uh-HM.”

This time Bennett caught sight of the duchess’s face. Those dress-matching eyes bored into him and her mouth was set in a slight scowl, as it usually was when he was in her company.

“I do hope you’re not coming down with something, Your Grace. Have you taken to sneezing, along with that cough?”

She arched an eyebrow. “I’ve nothing a spot of tea won’t fix.”

Bennett glanced at the untouched tea service. “Of course! Where are my manners?” More importantly, where were the wayward servants? He busied himself with attending to the duchess, pouring her tea “with two sugars,” which she needn’t have reminded him in that haughty tone. They had sat across from each other over far too many teacups this past year. As he passed her the cup and saucer, his fingers brushed against hers – ungloved and weighed down in jeweled rings, as always – and he could have sworn he felt a spark, a strange frisson past between them.

He put it down to the overly dry winter air. He poured a cup of tea – strong and uncut – for himself, and smiled in his unwanted companion’s direction.  “Lady Bridgehampton, I’m surprised to see you here, now that your son – His Grace – and all of his old schoolmates are married.”

One of those schoolmates had married his own dear Lucinda, after a slightly scandalous incident in a moonlit garden. Bennett had no doubt the meddling of the duchess had had something to do with it. For her part, the duchess took another sip of tea and widened her eyes as though thoroughly innocent.

“I was unaware that the mother of a married son was forbidden from attending Christmas house parties. My younger son is still unmarried, if that allows for an exception to this bizarre new rule.”

Bennett chuckled, then covered it by sipping his own tea. “I see.”

The duchess fidgeted with her hand in her lap and glowered at him. “What is it you think you see, my lord?”

He recognized that thinly-veiled hiss from the lioness and silently reminded himself to tread lightly. Then he opened his mouth and forgot again. “I see what has brought you all the way out here in the midst of a winter storm. Is it possible your unmarried son will be joining us? I’m sure the maidens in our company will be charmed.”

The duchess set down her cup and laced her hands together. “Are you insinuating that I plan to meddle in my son’s life? Or perhaps that I have already done as much where my older son is concerned?”

Now Bennett widened his eyes and took on an air of innocence. “Why ever would I suggest such a thing? I am sure it is mere coincidence that your son, and before him all four of his closest friends, were all felled by love in the same year.”

A small smile played on her lips, which looked so much fuller when she smiled. Proud of herself, was she then? “Providence works in mysterious ways.”

Bennett sat back in his chair, relaxing for the first time since he’d arrived. “Yes, it does.” As do marriage-minded mothers, he didn’t add.

The duchess fidgeted with her hands again and Bennett caught the flash of something red between her fingers. He leaned forward for a better look. “Are those dice, Lady Bridgehampton?” First meddling, now gambling. There was no end to this woman’s shamelessness.

Bennett thought back to his daughter’s courtship with her now husband, about the suspicion he’d had about cards and gambling, suspicions that had not borne fruit upon investigation. But now, the duchess with her dice…Once more he was sure this woman had somehow maneuvered Lucinda into marriage with one of His Grace’s friends, so as to surround her son with married men to influence the young man’s own plans. And it had worked. The minx had gotten away with it. Bennett jumped to his feet and meant to snatch the dice from her conniving hands.

“Don’t look so panicked, Lord Fairbank. They’re just for fun. I rarely place bets on games of chance.” She closed her fist over the dice, leaned forward, and dropped her voice. “I only make bets I’m sure I’ll win. In fact, there is a wager I would make right now if…” She leaned back and shook her head.

Bennett crossed his arms over his chest and refused to ask her to continue. She remained silent as the mantle clock clicked away seconds, then minutes. “Oh fine!” He threw his hands into the air. “You obviously have something you want to tell me, my lady. Let’s have it.”

She grinned and her green eyes sparkled. In that moment, Bennett had the strangest impulse to run the pad of his thumb along her lower lip. The fantasy was broken when she spoke.

“Your mention of my younger son has planted the seed of an idea in my mind.”

That was doubtful, but Bennett, for once, held his tongue.

“I have one of two children unmarried,” she continued, “But it occurs to me you that four of your six children are in a similarly distressing state.”

“We’re none of us distressed, Lady Bridgehampton, I assure you.”

She rose to her feet and stood uncomfortably close to him, but she spoke so quietly, he couldn’t step away or would risk missing her words.

“Four children whose futures are unsettled. Surely that gives you at least a moment’s pause, perhaps in the dead of night when you lie awake in a slumbering house and wonder what will become of them.”

The audacity of the woman to speak of him in his bed shocked Bennett into further silence. His face flushed warm in a way it hadn’t since he’d been a school boy in short pants. The duchess didn’t pounce on that, but her gaze flitted over his face, a sure sign that she knew she’d affected him, had thrown him off-balance, as was always her game.

Bennett backed away from her, then turned on his heel and crossed the room to the partially ajar door. “I really must find Lucinda to have a word with her.”

The duchess, her hands clasped behind her back, merely smiled. “Don’t be frightened away, Lord Fairbank. I merely suggest a wager regarding my son and one of your children.”

The power and money bestowed on her by her late husband had obviously rendered the duchess a bit mad. Still, Bennett’s pride kept him from sprinting through the door and down the hall in search of Lucinda, her husband, other guests, a lackadaisical servant – anyone to get him away from this outrageous woman. He fought the urge to cross his arms over his chest and use his size advantage in a standoff. Instead, he took a deep breath and slowly counted to five as he exhaled, releasing the tension in his shoulders along with the breath. It was a calming technique his late wife had taught their children. His beloved children, whose lives the duchess seemed hell-bent on treating as a game.

“A wager?”

She nodded and took a few steps in his direction. “These things take time, so naturally, neither of us will be able to claim victory by the end of the weekend.” She smiled again. “Although I wouldn’t surprise myself if I could carry it out by the start of the new year.”

“You have me at a disadvantage, Your Grace. I have no idea what this wager – which I refuse to take, out of principle – is.”

She had smiled more broadly when he’d used her more formal title, and continued to advance on him. Bennett wondered if he’d been bested somehow.

“It’s very simple,” she said as she moved one small step at a time. “I wager I’ll see my younger son engaged before you see one of your four unmarried children in the same state.”

“I would never trifle with my children’s lives that way.”

“Marriage is hardly a trifle, my lord. It’s very serious business.” She stopped just a foot away from him. Her smile had faded. “And I take it as seriously as it deserves.”

Bennett shook his head, but otherwise felt powerless to move away from her.

She glanced over his head. “You’ve chosen an odd spot in which to stand. I might think you were trying to tell me something.”

Bennett looked up to see the bunch of mistletoe tied with a red ribbon dangling just inches from his head. The childish flush filled his face once again.

The duchess held out her left hand, and he realized she was offering to hand over her dice to him. A surrender, then, of this ridiculous notion to bet on their children’s futures. He held out his right hand to receive the dice, but she slipped her soft, warm right hand into his instead. She was just inches away from him now and she held his gaze without a shred of shyness. But why should she shy away from him? She was no maiden. They were of nearly the same age, even if the blonde hair piled so enchantingly on top of her head held no hint of the gray that bedeviled his own dark hair. Her face was gently creased near her eyes and mouth, subtle laugh lines that spoke of a life well lived with a beloved husband and children.

But her gaze gave away the pain and loneliness she covered with that dazzling smile. Most would miss it. Bennett could not. It was akin to what he hid behind his own practiced cheer.

“So it’s a bet.” The duchess spoke so softly, it took him a moment to be sure he’d heard correctly.

“It’s a…What did you say?”

She glanced at their hands still clasped in front of them. “We’ve shaken on it. We have a bet.”

He’d been bested, after all, and so damned easily! He meant to snatch his hand away from her and give her a firm set-down in no uncertain terms. But something else flared with his anger. He was struck dumb by the fierce desire to touch her lips, those slightly curved, self-satisfied lips.

She began to extricate her hand. He tightened his grip. “Not so fast, Lady Bridgehampton.” He nodded to indicate the greens above his head. “Have you forgotten I’m standing under mistletoe?”

She widened her eyes and parted her lips, but made no move to step away from him. With her right hand still soft and warm in his warm grasp, he slid his left hand to the nape of her neck. When he bent his head to hers, he heard her quick intake of breath. Pure need replaced any last vestige of sense he’d had. He pressed his lips to hers and felt that spark again, but this time it caught and grew into a fire that raced through his blood.

Dice clattered to the floor. Lady Bridgehampton, Bennett’s nemesis for more years than he cared to count, pressed against him and grasped his lapel. And the outrageous dowager duchess kissed him back.

# # #

I hope you enjoyed that.  Drop by tomorrow for another short story.

Day 7: Mistletoe and Ivy

mistletoe-and-ivyWelcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  So far, our stories have included rhinoceroses, villains, celebrations, and love, with settings from Derbyshire to New York.  Today our story location will be “a cabin”, where we’ll be meeting Rob Smith (not his real name).  This “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — features (some if not all) of the following words: snuggle, impress, mask, collapse, icicle, regret, famous, sneeze, scandalous, spark, impulse, and fantasy.

So here, courtesy of 8L Jilly, is today’s story.

Mistletoe and Ivy

Rob Smith (not his real name) fixed a large spray of mistletoe to the deer antlers that branched conveniently over the sheepskin rug in front of the log fire. Saving the free world from the bad guys was what he did, three hundred and sixty four days a year. Accepting personal thanks from a single representative of those he saved was his annual gift to himself on the three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth.

This year he had the Ambassador’s daughter to snuggle with. When he’d returned the gorgeous Gina safe and sound to her famous, wealthy and relieved father, she’d made it clear, in scandalous detail, that she wished to reward him in person.

Gina hadn’t been happy he’d made her wait so long, but really, what better time than Christmas to turn that fantasy into reality?

His pager buzzed. Oh, no, you don’t. Not today.

He turned it off.

It turned itself back on and buzzed louder. Continue reading

Day 6: A New Year of Possibilities

© Eldridge Photography

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  In the the last two stories, we stepped into the past and met Bunny Blavatsky and her magical camera.  Today we’ll be meeting Maggie and finding out whether there is a Happily Ever After in her future, based on the rules from another “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — featuring any or all the following words:  New York, Casanova, giraffe, heartbreak, horseback, love, poetry, celebration, faith, velvet, firecracker, and villain.  Extra kudos with sparkles for Christmas references.

So here, courtesy of 8L Elizabeth, is today’s story.

A Year of Possibilities

Maggie knew her time dating Antonio, aka the Manhattan Casanova, was limited, she just hadn’t realized their relationship was over until New York fashion week rolled around.

Gabriella had big dark eyes, legs that went on forever, and a long, thin neck. It was no mystery why she was nicknamed The Giraffe, especially in the leopard print gown she was currently modelling.

Rumor had it she was attempting to break free of an abusive relationship. Antonio never could resist a damsel in distress. During the show, he had eyes only for Gabriella and Maggie doubted he even remembered she was sitting beside him.

After the show they said their goodbyes, she hailed a cab, and that was that; an inauspicious end to what had been a whirlwind affair full of lavish parties, horseback rides through the park, romantic poetry, and thoughtful gifts.

Maggie had met Antonio on an unseasonably cold day in October on the Staten Island Ferry. She had no coat and he offered his. He was an ideal escort – passionate, witty, charming, and generous – but like the real Casanova, he was drawn to the quest for pleasure and sex like a moth to the flame. Continue reading

Day 5: Bunny Blavatsky Arrives in New York

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  Yesterday we learned how Bunny’s camera became magical and today we’ll be meeting Bunny Blavatsky herself, based on the rules from another “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — featuring a short story including any or all the following:  New York, Casanova, giraffe, heartbreak, horseback, love, poetry, celebration, faith, velvet, firecracker, and villain.  Extra kudos with sparkles for Christmas references.

So here, courtesy of 8L Michaeline, is today’s story.

1898 train advertisement with a young mother, her husband, children and a family come to meet them in a horse-drawn sleigh. Christmas Greetings is the banner.

Bunny was not quite so comfortable on the train. She could scarcely contain her excitement about moving to the big city. (I found this at The Old Design Shop. http://olddesignshop.com/2012/12/lake-shore-michigan-southern-railway-christmas-ad/)

Bunny Blavatsky Arrives in New York

I don’t recommend arriving in New York for the first time on Christmas Eve. The train is packed with holiday excursionists, the hansom cabs are taken, and there is no room in the inn, no matter how much money you have. And I didn’t have a lot.

And let’s not even talk about the ghosts.

Ah, Christmas Eve, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is very thin, and the holidays wears everyone’s tempers even thinner. All of the love, the heartbreak, the celebration and the sheer life of the living draws them nearer.

I found a warm drugstore, and was sitting at the counter, slowly drinking my cup of hot coffee, wondering how I was to find a place to stay on Christmas Day, when a drugstore-casanova came in. Oh, he was ready to help me find a place to stay! Such a masher. The ghosts of three poor girls clung to him. They looked like immigrant girls who had caught some sort of consumption.

The poor dears were in love beyond the grave.

A rush of patrons flooded into the store, and a soprano voice from heaven commanded the masher to “Move on out, Dooley. You should be ashamed to break hearts tonight.”

She was a red-headed goddess, and I could see the traces of stage make-up around her eyes. She extended a hand. “Sarah Kelso. You look fresh off the boat!” Continue reading

Day 4: How Bunny’s Camera Became Magical

She saw through the veil, until a curse ripped it away and showed her the terrifying realness of the world. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Miss Cook lived well into her 80s, never looking a day older than she did that Christmas Eve in 1898. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  Today we’re continuing with another story, based on the rules from the first year of our annual “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — featuring a short story of no more than 500 words including ‘Derbyshire’ and at least three of the following:  Darcy, Rhinoceros, Woolly, Admire, Love, Mine, Villain, VolcanoGhost.  Extra kudos for including more than three, and kudos with sparkles for Christmas references.

So here, courtesy of 8L Michaeline, is today’s story — a holiday ghost story.

The Return of Mr. Glossop

The music room was ready for the seance; the dearly departed Mr. Glossop’s prized rhinoceros head gazed phlegmatically over the scene below. Colonel Black firmly ignored the stuffed beast and gave his cameras a final check. With any luck, they would capture Mr. Glossop’s image, and the all-too-material Mrs. Glossop would fund his society for psychic research. The cameras were primed, and gelatin plates waited below for the cameras’ reloading. Black shivered. Snow was falling again.

Miss Cook drifted in, a cloud of white muslin shod in woolly slippers to ward off the drafts. “I see they have followed my directions perfectly.” She stepped lightly into the magic circle of thirteen chairs and wafted into the club chair at the head of the table.. Black saw her check the mechanism that would lift the table into the air.

“It’s Christmas Eve. You’ll hardly be needing that with the veil so thin,” Black scolded. He’d photographed her phantasms in Liverpool, and he admired her very real abilities. Continue reading

Day 3: ‘Twas Daybreak on Christmas

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  Today we’re continuing with another story, based on the rules from the first year of our annual “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — featuring a short story of no more than 500 words including ‘Derbyshire’ and at least three of the following:  Darcy, Rhinoceros, Woolly, Admire, Love, Mine, Villain, VolcanoGhost.  Extra kudos for including more than three, and kudos with sparkles for Christmas references.

So here, courtesy of 8L Kay, is today’s story — a fun mash-up of Pride and Prejudice and The Night Before Xmas.

‘Twas Daybreak on Christmas

Sleigh-Silhouette’Twas daybreak on Christmas, and all through the hall
All the servants were stirring, for tonight was the ball.
The Yule log was laid and the mistletoe hung,
In hopes that Sir Darcy’s fling would be flung.

Miss Lizzie still nestled all snug in her bed,
While nightmares of family danced in her head.
But Mary and Kitty, and Lydia, too,
Argued at breakfast about whom Darcy would woo.

Then out in the parlor there rose such a clatter
Jane sprang from the table to see to the matter.
Maids had dropped glasses, which smashed on the floor
The butler was livid and gave them what-for. Continue reading

Day 2: “The Christmas Wager”

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  Today we’re continuing with another story, based on the rules from the first year of our annual “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints — featuring a short story of no more than 500 words including ‘Derbyshire’ and at least three of the following:  Darcy, Rhinoceros, Woolly, Admire, Love, Mine, Villain, Volcano, Ghost.  Extra kudos for including more than three, and kudos with sparkles for Christmas references.

So here, courtesy of 8L Elizabeth, is today’s story.

The Christmas Wager

“Oh, Papa, what have you done now?” Charlotte asked her father as he sat at the table calmly eating his Christmas pudding.

He raised his head and peered at her over the top of his spectacles with a frown. “What have I done?”

Charlotte pointed to the man standing in the doorway. “Lord Bickershaw has your note of hand for this house. He claims he won it from you.”

“Oh. That.” Lord Atherton sighed. “Meant to tell you about that, my dear.   I was testing my new mathematical theory–“

“By gambling?” she interrupted.

He rubbed his forehead as if trying to erase a bad memory. “I don’t know where I went wrong. Things were going splendidly all evening, then all of the sudden they took turn for the worse.”

“About the time Lord Bickershaw joined your table, was it?” she asked, with a glare toward the doorway. “Everyone knows he cheats.”

“How dare besmirch my honor,” Lord Bickershaw interrupted. “If you were a man I would call you out.”

“Don’t let my sex dissuade you. I must warn you however, I’m equally skilled with both pistol and rapier.”

“A little spitfire, aren’t you.” Lord Bickershaw looked her up and down. “Perhaps you’d care to make a wager of your own.” Continue reading

Day 1: “Runaway Match”

Welcome to the 8LW 25 Days of Stories.  In the early days of this blog, we kicked of our annual “Christmas Week Short Story Challenge” — a holiday version of our Friday Writing Sprints.  The resulting stories, which all started with a common prompt and set of random words, were as different as those of us who wrote them.

As this year rapidly approaches its end, I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the stories.  Today’s entry is the story that started the whole Short Story Challenge off.  The rules were simple–write a short story of no more than 500 words including ‘Derbyshire’ and at least three of the following: Darcy, Rhinoceros, Woolly, Admire, Love, Mine, Villain, Volcano, Ghost. Extra kudos for including more than three, and kudos with sparkles for Christmas references.

So here, courtesy of 8L Jilly, is today’s story.

Runaway Match

Runaway Match“Goddamn it, Darcy, this is no time to behave like a gentleman!” Rhett Favre snarled. Barely a handful of grains left in the game timer, one score behind, and still his best friend hesitated.

“I admire your ingenuity, Rhett.” Darcy Moncrieff looked over to the far corner of snow-covered Chatsworth Field, where Lady Elizabeth stood, desperately waving her woolly white pom-poms. “I love her more than my honor.” He stood tall and squared his broad shoulders. “Very well. Let us do it.”

What the hell had the Duke of Derbyshire been smoking when he decided to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to the winning captain of the Christmas football game? He’d surely never expected that villain, the Sheriff of Nottingham, to bring his team of ruffians north to spoil the party.

Rhett drew his ramshackle army into a huddle. He looked into every man’s eyes, shook every man’s hand, and called the play. “Rhinoceros.Continue reading

Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprint

Happy final Friday of November or “43,333 Words Day” for those who are participating in NaNoWriMo.  If you have been able to consistently get words on the page each day this month and are on track to hit 50,00 words–that’s great!  Frankly, if you got any words on the page this month, that’s great too. The NaNoWriMo is a sprint, but being a writer is more of a marathon.

For those not busily writing today it’s also “Black Friday”–the day when some feel compelled to rush out to stores offering “bargains” and begin their holiday shopping.  I’m not in that camp, but fortunately it’s also “Buy Nothing Day”, so I can celebrate that instead.

Buy Nothing Day is observed annually on the day after Thanksgiving. This day is part of a movement against consumerism, urging the world to change their purchasing habits, to consume and produce less. Instead of shopping, stay home and relax or clean out your closet and donate the results to a local charity shop.

Whatever you are doing today, I hope it is something enjoyable.  I began transitioning the holiday decorations in the house from autumn to Christmas yesterday, so I’ll be finishing that up today.  It looks beautiful outside this morning, so a nice walk may be in the offing too.  Whatever else I decide to do (or not do), I’ll definitely set aside some time to give today’s writing prompt and random words a try.

Care to join me? Continue reading

Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprint

Happy Friday, or “Day 19” for those who are participating in NaNoWriMo.  Hard to believe that November is almost 2/3 over already.  If you are right on target with 31,666 words on the page–Congratulations!  This is the part of NaNoWriMo where 50,000 words starts to seem like a very definite possibility, right?

Occasionally it may also be the time when you may start to wonder why you thought writing 50,000 words was a good idea.

For those who need a break or who just don’t feel like writing, it is “National Play Monopoly Day”.  I’m not sure how Monopoly got it’s own day; I always preferred Life, though it was a pain getting those little family member pegs to stay in the car as you moved around the board.

“Known as one of the most popular board games in the world, Monopoly was originally based on a board game designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1902. Since then, the game has been played by an estimated 500 million people since 1935.”

Whatever board game you prefer, it sounds like a fun way to spend an evening.   Unless you’re the ultra-competitive type.  In which case, maybe NaNoWriMo is a better option.

I’ll be busy today with Ye Olde Day Job–where there are more and more things that need to get done as the year-end continues its rapid approach.  I may not have enough time for board games, but I’ll definitely set aside some time to give today’s writing prompt and random words a try.

Care to join me? Continue reading