Posted on: 2011-12-25
"Oh, it's already begun to snow, hasn't it?" Elizabeth Bennet's mother clucked, squinting at the window as she stirred a pot of hot chocolate. "And I have clothes on the line. Eilis, go fetch them for me, will you?"
"But Jane could show up here any minute," thirteen year old Elizabeth frowned.
"Then you shall greet your cousin and your Uncle Declan and Aunt Eithne with a smile, but only when you wander back inside with an armful of linens. Now go!"
"Finola," Moira Gardiner questioned her sister. "How much longer do these mince pies need to bake?"
How strange it was to see Aunt Moira in the kitchen! Aunt Moira never cooked. She wore French scarves and jewelry made of Mayan gold, and travelled the world with her husband Declan, a Dublin cloth merchant. Moira and Declan blew into Ballydeirc every Christmas, toting presents from far-away lands and the most outlandish stories. Not one of those tasks involved baking, though. Her one task was to watch the pies, and she looked more than a little lost.
"Five more minutes, Moira. It isn't rocket science. And Eilis, what did I say? Go on," Finola nodded toward the yard. "Hurry up before the snow soaks everything clear through, and we have to hang half the wash near the fireplace. But mind you wear your coat and a hat! And your gloves!"
"Yes, Mum!" Elizabeth called from the mudroom. She was tugging on her woolens just as the door blew open. In tumbled three of her brothers, dusted with snow, and red cheeked from the cold. Killian, Liam, and Magnus, in that order. The family dog, Cuchulain, wiggled in after them.
"I told you," Liam chortled, a puckish grin on his handsome face. As with all the Bennet children, he signed as he spoke. "Didn't I tell you?"
"Tell what?" Elizabeth questioned, shoving wild hair into her knit hat.
"She is a beauty," Killian admitted.
"Who?" Elizabeth repeated.
"And could he look more like a man caught by a siren?" Liam continued. "But he does the Bennet name proud to have her on his arm. Wouldn't she be worth more than a trip to Dublin?"
"Who?" Elizabeth huffed. As with all the members of the household, the children signed what they spoke. But in speech or sign, it seemed no one was listening to her. Ugh. If there was one thing she loathed, it was when they all talked around her. Frustrated, she poked Magnus and signed, "Magnus, who's the beauty?"
"Other than you?" Magnus signed with a grin, before tugging her hat down more securely over her ears. "Seamus brought University Niamh home with him."
University Niamh. That was the little nickname the siblings had alotted to Niamh Doyle, her oldest brother's girlfriend. Seamus had spoken of the odd girl here and there, but he'd never brought one home before. And certainly not for the holidays. Elizabeth felt a stab of childish jealousy. With Seamus studying veterinary medicine all the way up in Dublin, their visits with him were few and far between, limited to holidays and summer months. She wasn't accustomed to sharing him with anyone beyond her brothers.
Besides, the Bennet's stone farmhouse felt crowded enough with the usual Christmas guests under its sloping, slate roof. As it was, apart from their parents' room, there were only four bedrooms for five siblings. As the only girl, Elizabeth was lucky enough to claim her own room. Seamus, the eldest, had one to himself as well. But Aunt Moira and Uncle Ronan would be in Seamus's room. And her father's brother, Declan Bennet and his wife Eithne would take Killian's. Which meant all four brothers would be crammed into a room that Magnus and Liam usually shared. Their cousin Jane Bennet, Declan's daughter, would be sharing Elizabeth's room. How many more people could they cram under the rafters?
"Niamh's to stay here in the farmhouse with us?" the thirteen year old pouted. "All Christmas!?"
"It'd be a long trek, making Seamus's sweetheart walk back to Dublin tonight," Liam teased. "She'll probably be staying in your room, by the way."
"She seems a nice girl, Elizabeth." Killian advised in that sober tone of his. That was Killian, though---serious and frank, even at sixteen. "You shouldn't look so cross."
"I'm not cross," she pouted.
"Eilis, the laundry!" her mother shouted from the kitchen. "Liam---shut the door, you're causing a draft. Killian don't even think about tracking those muddy shoes in this clean house. And tell Magnus to come here, I want him to take out the trash!"
"Trash duty." Elizabeth informed Magnus with a quick sign, scrunching her nose as she did it. "Lucky you."
Laundry beckoned. Elizabeth picked up the laundry basket in the mudroom and then, with a quick, affectionate muss of their dog Cuchulain's fur, she ducked out into the snow. At thirteen, caught between childish impulses and more adult restraint, the impulses were still what won out. Heavy snow along the coastline was rare, especially this early, and she didn't just walk out to the laundry line. She tromped, watching powdery snow scatter in around her ankles. If it kept up like this, it would be ankle deep by midnight.
The Bennet family's stone farmhouse had been built at the crest of a hill, allowing a clear view of the country surrounding them. In summer, she was greeted with emerald green grass, an inky blue sky, and a view of the sea just beyond them. This afternoon, though, the hills were coated with cool, creamy snow. The air always was tinged with the taste and scent of salt, no matter the weather. Today she caught a hint of firewood, too--her father had probably started a fire in the hearth. Elizabeth tugged one crisply cool shirt from the line, and then another, watching snowflakes land on her woolen coat, and then melt from the heat of her body. The last bit of laundry on the line was her father's favorite jumper, a dark blue knit that he'd owned for as long as she could remember. Somehow, she thought it always smelled of sea salt, no matter how many times her mother washed it.
As she tugged it off the line, Seamus came into view. The only one in the family to inherit her mother's startling red hair, tall Seamus's hair shone against the white landscape. He usually took a train from Dublin to Galway, and then hopped on a ferry until it reached the village of Ballydeirc. From the Ballydeirc harbor, it wasn't a long walk to their home. And everyone knew everyone else in this village. He could have begged a ride from one of the villagers. He had chosen to walk instead.
Her oldest brother was a rugby player---and built like one, too. Seamus had a muscular body, great, strong arms, and a brisk walk. Today, though it was slowed. A woman was beside him. A great beauty, Liam had boasted on behalf of his oldest brother. Dublin seemed so far away and sophisticated compared to Ballydeirc's country ways, and Elizabeth had been expecting Seamus to have a cold, fashionable girl by Seamus's side. Certainly Niamh was quite pretty in her own way, with a quiet little smile, and a ponytail of Viking blond hair. She was also bundled in a coat sensible enough for this wintry weather, and looked more than a little bashful. And weren't they absolutely mad for each other? Surely, nothing but love could slow energetic Seamus to such a gentlemanly amble, or put that entranced look in his eyes.
"Seamus!" she called out, waving cheerfully. "Seamus!"
Suddenly her laundry was forgotten, the basket abandoned as quickly and easily as her mother's warning. She raced to him. As for Seamus, his little sister tumbling through the snow was apparently enough to draw his attention as well, and though he didn't quicken his pace for Niamh's sake, he still held out his arms to greet her with a bear hug.
"Seamus," she grinned, her breath coming in crystallized puffs as she flung herself into his arms. "You're here!"
"There's my little lass," he brother squeezed her tight before allowing for a careful release. "Eilis, this is Niamh, from Dublin. Niamh this is my only sister, Elizabeth."
Because she knew it was expected of her, and because she actually felt like saying it, Elizabeth offered a friendly smile and the declaration, "Grand of you to come all this way."
"I wouldn't miss it for anything," Niamh smiled. "Seamus has told me loads about you. You're just what I pictured."
"Out here building snowmen, are you?" her oldest brother questioned.
"Seamus, aren't I too big for snowmen?" the thirteen year old laughed.
"Are you now?" Seamus's summer blue eyes assessed her skeptically. His wide-eyed kitten of a sister didn't look nearer to any growth spurts than she had at his last visit, and that coat she wore still dwarfed her. At thirteen, he thought she could still pass for ten or eleven.
"I'm not too old for them," Niamh spoke up with a shy smile. "I was telling Seamus we should build a snowman tomorrow. I'd like some help, if you feel like giving it?"
The look Seamus gave her at that statement was potent enough that even young, sheltered Elizabeth recognized it for what it was. Love. Her brothers were right. This was no passing fancy. Seamus was in deep, deeper than she'd ever realized.
One cheery smile and Elizabeth gestured inside. "Mum's making hot chocolate on the stove. You should come in and have some."
Niamh's smile in response was so sweet that Elizabeth suddenly knew why all her brothers had assessed her as a great beauty, and approved of them all for declaring her so.
"I'd love to."
Netherfield was the childhood home of one Charles Bingley---Oxford's reigning prince of good times, great friends, and cricket matches started on the fly. Charles's skill wasn't history or maths or economics: it was friendship. Charles formed them so easily that he couldn't stretch his arms in Oxford's winding streets without knocking into a friend. True friends were harder to come by, though. And he had found a real one in Will Darcy.
Charles had spent the first half the Michaelmas term trying to cajole Will into joining the football team with him, and the second half trying to talk Will out of yet another study session. And yet somehow their friendship worked. Amiable Charles had friends aplenty, but few confidantes. Will, he trusted.
And so he'd been more than eager to invite him to Netherfield for Christmas.
Most people had heard of Netherfield Stables, of course. Famous for breeding and training the finest horses in the world, a Netherfield horse had nearly taken the Triple Crown five years back. A jockey racing Netherfield's checkered colors nearly always made a showing at illustrious tracks like Epsom Downs, and the Royal Ascot.
It was quite the place to see in person, even for a young man like Will Darcy. The windows from Will's guest room revealed rolling, snow covered fields that stretched toward a collection of famously elegant stables.
But Will certainly hadn't intended to stay at the Bingley's familial Cotswold estate this Christmas Eve. Earlier in the day he'd been readying for a flight to Virginia---Rosings, more specifically, to visit his three year old sister, and the aunt who ostensibly held guardianship over her. The reality was, it was the Fitzwilliam clan who cared for the child. Whether he was there for Christmas or not, Georgiana would be well looked after. Well loved.
But he missed her. He'd been counting down the days until he could press a kiss to her round cheek, and watch her open her Christmas presents. It seemed nature possessed other plans. A cold front had blanketed half of England and swept clear into Ireland. Both were now suffering through some of the heaviest snowfall they'd seen in years.
Bingley's holiday offer still stood, though. One canceled flight and a trip in Charlie's Lamborghini later, and here Will was: Netherfield Farms.
"Charlie, it was good of your family to let me stay here," declared eighteen-year-old Will as he stepped away from the window.
"Are you kidding?" said Charles, tossing a cricket ball up with his right hand and then catching it with his left. "Will, I wasn't going to leave you stranded at the airport Christmas Eve due to this dreadful weather. Not when Netherfield can host you. I'm glad for the company. Besides, someone has to assure my Dad that I actually sat my end of term exams."
"Art History, Charlie?" Will teased his friend. "Not many pretty models for you to sketch, where there?"
"Yeah, that was a bad call. It was just loads of history." Despite this remark, Charles sounded remarkably relaxed about the whole ordeal. The truth was, with Charles' good looks and that easy manner of his, it never took the inducement of an art class to talk a beautiful girl into giving Charles Bingley some attention. Mostly he'd chosen it because he thought it wouldn't involve much in the way of classrooms.
Charles had gone to university for the pure enjoyment of it: the clubs and the student union, the football and the boating and the May Day balls. One day he would be doing precisely what his father did: studding and training horses and running Netherfield in his father's stead.
"Anyway," Charles continued, "Dad knows if they had an equine major, I'd be aces at it. But he wants me to keep at the university thing, so...I'm thinking of applying to another course before Hilary term."
"Theater," Charles declared decisively. "Should have done it from the first, really. I always liked mucking about on stage as a kid. I even like Shakespeare, you know? I played Demetrius in Midsummer Night's Dream during college."
"Then you should do it," Will encouraged him, unzipping his suitcase. "Audition for the theater program."
"Really?" said Charles, catching the ball he'd tossed upwards. "You think so?"
"If you're serious about it. Life's too short not to," Will shrugged.
"Hey," Charles eyes lit up with a sudden idea, "I'm handing out toys to some of the children in town later tonight. It's a Father Christmas fest. I get to dress up like him and everything. There will be cider and carol singers, and dancing in the town square. It's a good time. Want to come?"
"Sure," Will agreed. "Could we check out the stables first?"
"Definitely. There's a new colt in the stables I've been wanting to spend some time with. The mare is sick and the colt gets scared when he's alone for too long. Want to come with me and help cheer him up?"
"Sure," Will agreed, holding back a grin. Only Charles would be worrying about cheering up a lonely colt on Christmas Eve.
"Will," Charles continued merrily. "I know you weren't planning to be here, but this holiday's going to be brilliant. Trust me. We'll do the whole Christmas thing. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, mincemeat pies, stockings stuffed with chocolate. All of it."
"Thanks, Charles." Will pulled a few items from his suitcase. The doll he'd bought for Georgiana would have to stay in the confines of his travel bag, but with this snow storm he would need something a little warmer than the tee shirt and jeans he'd planned to sport in mild Virginia. Will reached for a sweatshirt.
"There's just one thing I should mention..." Charlie continued. "You know my twin sister?"
"Caroline," Will's dark hair was mussed as he emerged from the neck of his sweatshirt. "Hard to forget her."
"Right." Certain that Will didn't mean that phrase in the way Caroline wanted him to mean it, Charles continued with his warning, "Anyway, you remember her plans for the holiday involved a trip to the Alps?"
"Yeah. I remember it," said Will. She'd only invited him to go with her ten times. "Ready for the stables?"
"Yeah, I'm all set." Charles nodded. "But---"
"Hey, does your family like Marmont chocolate?" the teenager continued. He'd been carting a box for his teenage cousin, Richard. He held the box up, chocolates rattling in the golden papered box. "I thought I could give them to your mum. It's not much of a thank you, but--"
"Are you kidding? She'll love it. And I could eat a pound of them," said Charlie. "Anyway Will, what I was saying...um...you see, your flight wasn't the only one canceled today. And the thing is, while I was picking you up at Heathrow, my other sister Louisa was driving to Gatwick to pick up---"
"Oh my G-d, Charlie," a voice shrieked from down the hallway. "I swear the staff at Gatwick Airport is the most appallingly ill mannered group of---"
In the doorway, Caroline froze. Decked in ski-bunny pink, the blonde haired, blue-eyed girl's eyes glazed over.
"Oh my G-d," Caroline gasped.
"Hey Caro," Will shoved his hands in his pockets. "Good to see you made it back home safe. The roads are pretty bad, yeah?"
"Yeah, they're a bear," agreed Charles. This was what he'd been rambling on about. His twin sister was a bit of a stalker where Will was concerned. All in all, Will was taking her appearance a lot better than anticipated. Which...probably wouldn't put much of a damper on Caro's stalking tendancies. "Hey, Caro, is Louisa down the hall? She has the extra keys to the Lam and I was going to give them to Will while he's here. You know, in case he feels like driving somewhere?"
But his twin sister was in too much of a daze to answer. For Caroline Bingley, it was Christmas come early.
Most households confined themselves to the midday meal on Christmas day itself. At the Bennet household, where everything worth celebrating could be celebrated twice as long, a supper was always served at Christmas Eve to greet their guests. And it was always an affectionate affair, filled with turkey and cranberry sauce, brussell sprouts, mulled wine, a dog who crawled beneath the table searching for scraps, and a very sincere toast given by their father:
"Many thanks for our Elizabeth's good health this year. Thanks be to God for that--" toasted her father Tighe Bennet. "To a good catch in every fishing net, and to our family coming home again. We're happy you all could join us. Happy Christmas. Nollaig Shona Daoibh!"
"Nollaig Shona Daoibh!" cheered the assembled crowd as glasses clinked. Elizabeth, whose wine glass contained apple juice, giggled while clinking glasses with her cousin Jane.
"Before you all get too easy in your seats here," Seamus spoke up, squeezed in a chair between Niamh and Uncle Declan. In the farmhouse's soft warmth, with the crackled light in the fireplace, Seamus's face looked a bit flushed. "I, uh...have something I want to say first..."
"Seamus Bennet," gasped their mother. Ever emotional, her mother began tearing up as her eldest son reached into his pocket. "...are you truly going to do what I think you're doing?"
"Shhh, Finny," Tighe soothed his wife with a fond pat on a hand. His weathered face broke into a grin. "Go on, son. Speak your peace."
"What's he doing?" Elizabeth whispered to Jane, squirming to get a better view of the action at the crowded table.
"I don't know," whispered Jane. Elizabeth glanced quickly to Magnus. Older by only a year, Magnus was somehow a good deal wiser for it. Or perhaps Magnus had just been born wise. Her brother's eye---steady and clear, and trained on Seamus--- didn't hold a single question. He seemed to know exactly what Seamus was on the cusp of declaring.
"I know you're just getting to know my Niamh here," Seamus continued. "But I've had a year now with her by my side and I'm proud to say it's been the best year of my life. I can't wait for you all to see more of her, to know her and love her the way I do. All of you, and this house....it's my past and my present. It's where I come from, and Niamh--" he dug into his pocket, and knelt down beside his girlfriend. "I believe in my heart that you're my future. I brought you here because I wanted to tell you that. And to ask, will you marry me?"
"Oh, Seamus," Niamh whispered, tears trickling down rosy cheeks as she caught sight of the engagement ring sparkling in his hand, "I will."
And just like that, in the span of a question and one very blissful kiss, the Bennet family had gone from a family of seven to a family of eight.
For Will, Christmas Eve at Netherfield meant an afternoon spent in the warm glow of the stables, with the comfort of equine company. Charles Bingley had a light touch with the horses and a heart full of warmth, and this was easily where he felt most at home. His warm, confident hand and easy voice made the foals adore him. Charles Bingley, Foal Whisperer.
There was also a trip into town for a bit of last minute shopping. Charles wanted to buy Louisa's new fiance something. Palmer was his name. Sardonic and surly, Palmer was opposite of Charles Bingley in every way possible save their mutual affection for Louisa. Eighteen year old Charlie didn't have a clue what to get him. After an hour of looking, Will finally suggested a tie.
Supper that evening was a quiet affair. Bingley's parents were free with their affection, warm, and unassuming, and seeming to exhibit every trait their daughter Caroline did not. Mrs. Bingley accepted Will's gift of Marmont chocolates with a warm smile and a hug, and assured him that the family would hang an extra stocking on Christmas morning, just for him.
As for Caroline, two sherry glasses in (and surely it wouldn't have taken such hold if she hadn't been so determined not to 'spoil her figure' by avoiding half the food), she tried to kiss him under the mistletoe.
"You know what they say about mistle-toe, Wiiiilll--"
"Caroline," Will just barely managed to sidestep the assault of glossy, candy colored lips. He took her hand instead and kissed it lightly, offering a slight bow of his head and a polite declaration of, "Happy Christmas, alright?"
"Could you be any more wonderful?" cooed Caroline. The sweet tang of sherry wafted upwards, tickling his nostrils as she leaned in again. "Fitzwonderful Darcy."
"Okay, Caro, time for bed," Charles said, putting an arm around his twin sister as he gently guided her away from Will. Over his shoulder, he called out, "I'm due to head back to town. Want to come, Will?"
"Oh Charles," Louisa laughed, sipping from her own glass. "Don't you get tired of handing out presents to those little rugrat townies? And surely Will would rather stay here..."
"No. I want to go," Will assured her.
He meant it. Handing out a few presents to children would help ease the sting of missing his three year old sister.
The town square was dusted with snow, but a small brass quartet had still managed to assemble. Carolers were beginning to congregate, and one of the local shopkeepers had set up a stand selling apple cider and Christmas biscuits.
"Evening Charlie," one of the players called out to him, gesturing to where they had the scene set up for their Father Christmas. There was a Father Christmas chair, and a Christmas tree, and a single, incongruous horse decked with red and green ribbons. "Look what old Martin brought?"
"Ah, Buffalo. They cart him out here every year," Charlie laughed, seeing the old plough horse. "Gives our Father Christmas scene a bit of realism, you see? Shame we don't have a sleigh to go with it."
A half chewed carrot lingered in Will's pocket from their trip to the stables. Will pulled this out, feeding it to Buffalo.
"This is a nice," Will spoke at last.
"Yeah." Will offered a rare grin as the horse licked his palm. "Peaceful."
"Isn't it?" Charles nodded approvingly. "Thanks for suggestion for Palmer's present, by the way. I don't get that guy, Will. Who doesn't like horses?"
"Hard to say, Charlie," Will said quietly, sliding one now-sticky palm around Buffalo's ear. Quietly compassionate to the creature's plight, he readjusted the horses bit with his own deft horseman's touch. "Maybe he was spooked by them as a child?"
"Maybe," Charlie's mouth drooped to a disappointed frown. "Hard to trust a guy who's so skittish around animals. Still....Louisa likes him."
"Enough to marry him."
Charles mulled this over. "You think he'd be okay with ponies? Because we have some brilliant little grays that I teach children to ride in the summer..."
"Charlie," Will said, trying to visualize upright Palmer the accountant mounting a pony amidst ten year olds. "Maybe he'd just rather go golfing."
"Golf," Charles repeated hopefully, looking for any strand of a bond between himself and his soon to be brother-in-law. "I like golf."
"Don't worry about it," Will continued, shoving cool hands into his pockets. Snow drifted from the clouds above, settling on his jacket like confectioner's sugar. "Palmer will come around to you."
"It's a long way off, but I always thought I'd be the first to get hitched. Not Lou," Charles shrugged, eyeing the scene of young parents and wire-haired grannies and grandpas that had begun to trickle into the square, anticipating the evening's festivities. "One day that's where I see myself. Coming back here and watching my own kids meet Father Christmas. Whenever I meet the right girl, that is..."
"Charles," Will grinned, "you think every pretty girl is the right girl."
"And that's so bad?"
Will shrugged. "Makes it hard to know if you've found what you want."
"I'll know," Charles assured him tugging on a white Father Christmas beard over youthfully smooth cheeks as a Christmas carol struck up behind them. "Believe me. I'll feel it, like a lightning bolt. Besides, I know what I want."
"It's not a long list. A woman who's sweet. Tender hearted. Patient, I think.To to tell you the truth, Will, I have a big weakness for shy girls. Not that you find much of them around here." He settled in Father Christmas's gift-giving chair. "And someone who doesn't mind the sight of horses."
"And beautiful," Will guessed the last item on Charles's list with a chuckle.
"Hey, if she looks like an angel, I won't complain," Charles laughed. "What about you, Will? Given it any thought yourself?"
"Oh, Char-lie!" a girl hollered at him from the cider stand. The redhead blew him a kiss. "Have any Christmas presents for me this year?"
Will winced, suddenly realizing what Bingley meant about shyness. Perhaps Caroline and Louisa weren't such an anomaly in these parts, after all.
And whether Charles was amenable to the notion or not, there wasn't much time for finding a would-be Mrs. Claus tonight. The carol singers were singing, the silver bells were chiming, snow was falling and the horse---well, old Buffalo looked to be about a hundred years old. Buffalo wasn't moving. But he saw more than a few children racing towards them.
"Father Christmas, Father Christmas!"
Charlie dug into his Santa bag, pulling out an extra white and red tuft hat. He held it up for his friend. "Feel like spreading some Christmas cheer?
"Charlie," said Will. "You bet."
"Married," Elizabeth repeated in the darkness. It was after ten now, and the 'children' of the household had long since been sent to bed while the grownups lingered near the Christmas tree and chatted by the fireplace. Eventually when Niamh McKenna retired to bed (if Seamus ever let her go, that was), Niamh would be bunking with Elizabeth and her cousin Jane in Elizabeth's small room. Snow fell soft and silent outside the window, and frost sketched patterns on the glass. The decorations in here were remnants of a happy childhood, with quite a few dolls lingering. She fretted 'University Niamh' as they'd once called her would find it childish, and then instantly doubted she'd notice it at all. After all...
"Seamus is getting married," she whispered to Jane, still wide awake. Even at thirteen, her cousin Jane was everything Elizabeth wished she could be and thought she'd never quite manage to become: gentle, beautiful, and impossibly refined. Accustomed to a household of brothers, it was a delight when she had cousin Jane for company. "Can you imagine? Gosh, that's so... grown up of him..."
"He loves her very much, Lizzie," Jane whispered. "And I've never seen a proposal before. It was very exciting."
"I've never seen one either," Elizabeth admitted. Not that she had anything else to judge by, but she thought her oldest brother had acquitted himself quite admirably at it. "Can you imagine someone proposing to you at supper? With everyone watching?"
"I think it would be romantic," Jane admitted with a shy smile.
"He's a good man. Aunt Moira said any girl would be lucky to have him," mused Elizabeth.
"Seamus is good," Jane agreed. "Lizzie, have you ever thought about it? Being grown up like Niamh, and what sort of man you would choose?"
Elizabeth had been lying on her back; now she rolled onto her stomach, propping her chin up with her palm. Jane could think these thoughts; her cousin was beautiful and healthy. After the last few turbulent years with her health, Elizabeth was just now allowing herself to think she could have a future at all.
"Have you?" Elizabeth questioned instead.
"Oh, sometimes." Jane settled back against her pillow. "It's just a daydream, really."
"And..." Elizabeth prompted her with a teasing smile.
"And," Jane's cheeks heated with a blush. "There are certain things I fancy. Like when a boy has a way with animals, the way Seamus does. My mum says it speaks of kindness in a man, and I think she's right. So maybe a veterinarian, like your brother? I guess that sounds silly, doesn't it?"
"No," Elizabeth assured her. "What else?"
"I'd like if he could speak easily with people, a bit like Liam does. And you know how easily Liam makes people smile? I like that, too," Jane whispered. Liam was easily the most social of her brothers; interesting that her shy cousin would find herself so drawn to that trait. "What about you?"
"I don't know...it's hard to think about the future sometimes." Elizabeth drew her blanket up closer, "...the last few years...I was sick and--they didn't know..."
"If you would live or not," Jane's moon pale eyes grew wide. "But you're so much better now. My mum says you're a miracle, Lizzie..."
"My mum says that too," Elizabeth whispered, focusing squarely on her gnawed fingernails.
"How does it feel?"
Her lupus wasn't gone forever. It lingered in the odd ache here or there, and the occasional dizzy spell. It was a mysterious disease; flare ups could be countered with long periods of very mild symptoms and good health. Perhaps she would be granted that for years. Or it could all go horribly wrong again, even tomorrow.
And yet Elizabeth knew how sick she'd been at age ten. And last year, at age twelve, it had been even worse. She fully realized how close she'd gotten to never seeing another Christmas on this earth. She knew she'd been spared something, granted a second chance. And at the heart of that mystery, lingered the feeling that she'd never quite deserve that reprieve. She believed in miracles, and when people said the word, it felt like the truth. But she didn't know how to explain it, even here in the darkness to her cousin.
"You know that feeling Christmas morning," Elizabeth spoke at last, "when you've just woken up and you're whole family is gathered round? And maybe your mum's making cocoa on the stove, and there's a fire in the fireplace? There are loads of presents under the tree and you haven't opened them, but you know each one is something wonderful. And when you go to church you'll see the loveliest decorations, and sing songs that sound like a choir of angels? It's a beautiful feeling, and you can't reckon out how you're so lucky to have even one day so perfect?"
"Yes," Jane whispered.
Elizabeth smiled. "That's how it feels."
The girls had continued their youthful chatter for as long as excitement, hot cocoa, and freshly baked biscuits would keep them awake. Eventually, though, Jane Bennet's eyes had begun to droop and as the clock neared midnight Elizabeth could hear her cousin's quietly rhythmic exhale. She was sound asleep.
This late in the evening, her parents and aunts and uncle would have finally retired. And her brothers, too, including Seamus. At last, the door swung open. Light pooled in the hallway, illuminating a pair of figures. It was her brother Seamus and his Niamh, saying goodnight with a kiss at the door. Young enough for curiosity when it came to kissing, Elizabeth rolled onto her side, feigning sleep as she covertly watched the scene beneath a slit of dark lashes. She'd never seen any of her brothers in a moment of passion, and she could admit the sight of the pair was as pretty as any picture.
And she might have been young, but not so young that extended observation of this kiss didn't leave her blushing. Propriety now made her squeeze her eyes shut, more than willing to leave them to their moment unobserved.
Elizabeth tried to imagine a man feeling so breathlessly ardent over her, and showing it with such a passionate kiss. In the hallway, no less! And with the whole of the Bennet clan under the rafters!
At last the couple parted, Seamus presumably retreating to suffer through bunking with his little brothers, while Niamh was stuck here, with two thirteen year olds.
If Niamh minded, though, she gave no hint of it. Elizabeth kept her eyes shut, but she could hear Niamh rustling in the room, quietly changing into a nightgown and silently slipping beneath the quilt of the already crowded bed. Perhaps it was the wine, or her brother's kiss, or the excitement of the day, but soon enough it sounded like Niamh, too, was asleep.
Quietly, Elizabeth slipped from the bed. Seamus and Niamh's engagement, talk of Christmas and miracles and the future, all of it had stirred her imagination. Finally certain that the rest of the household was sound asleep, Elizabeth quietly slipped from her small corner of the bed, making her escape.
Apparently Father Christmas and the carol fest was something of a town tradition. The snow certainly hadn't proved enough to deter a single townsman or shopkeeper, mother or child from venturing into the square to drink mulled cider, sing Christmas carols and watch the Bingley boy 'ho, ho, ho' his way through gift giving.
Eventually the balls and bears, trains and dolls came to an end, though. Santa's gift bag was empty. When the gift giving had concluded, the children had departed, and the white beard was tugged off, quite a few of the older teenage girls present wandered up to the young actor to see how far some luck and a smile would get them. 'Father Christmas' was only eighteen and quite handsome, after all. And Charles---being young, very fond of a friendly smile, and still lacking any shy angels to distract him---couldn't help but smile back.
More than a few of those girls in the eighteen-to-twenty set had thought the reticent, dark eyed stranger by his side even more compelling than the Bingley boy. But that dark eyed stranger would'nt smile back, not for any of them. Will needed more than 'pretty and eager' to hold his attention. Especially tonight,he thought as he drifted through the crowd, wandering to the edge of the square. The cider brewer was reaching the end of his stock and packing up to go home.
Home. For some, that as an easy journey. Not for Will though, not anymore. Charlie was a good friend and in the midst of this winter storm, he'd had done everything he could to make this Christmas in the Cotswolds feel like a homecoming for Will. But no amount of snow or merriment could blot out the memory of Will's real home. His parents. His family.
Will ducked into a small street, an aimless quest that was more about letting his mind wander free than reaching any destination. He wanted to stretch his legs. Still, memories dogged his steps, shadowing every lane he turned into.
What had it felt like to have a Christmas free from this dull, aching loss? It hadn't been that many years ago. He'd had more Christmases with his parents than without---how had that feeling of belonging grown so distant? But it wasn't the span of three years he was crossing, it was the bridge between childhood and adulthood. He'd been fifteen when they died. He was eighteen now. There were times he felt like the world's youngest old man.
These thoughts still sliced into him in cold, solitary moments. His parents were laid to rest, their touch, their presence, their love--at times it felt achingly distant. Grief, on the other hand, was like a cloak he could never fully shake off.
Shivering, he dug cool fingers into deep pockets, shoes crunching over fresh snowfall. He'd told Charles that he liked it here, and he'd meant that. Will liked the earthy peace of Netherfield stables, and the simplicity of this little town. He'd found solace tonight in the simple joy of gift giving. Kids were almost always in the present; they never asked questions he didn't feel like answering, never demanded things he didn't feel like giving. They asked for love. That was certainly what his sister wanted, more than any doll he could pack into his suitcase.
He missed her. She was too young to see the span between Christmas and New Year's Day as a time fraught with memory and loss, but he knew from speaking to the Fitzwilliam family that she was afraid of being alone, terrified of any sign of abandonment. If he didn't show up, she would worry. That made him restless, no matter what his inducements to stay here at Netherfield. And snowstorms couldn't last forever. The snow would melt, and he would go to her.
And where had his footsteps taken him? To the steps of a church, empty and lit from within after an evening service. The last of the churchgoers were leaving; a bell tower clanged. A herald's call.
Drawn by it, he began a slow ascent up the steps and pulled back the door.
The pleasant smell of evergreens perfumed the church. And perhaps it was the blank canvas of snow outside that made the poinsettias in here seem more vibrant than usual, a joyful, passionate red. How did the song go? Joyful, joyful, Will thought as he walked up to the nativity scene. We adore thee...
And what was joy? It wasn't momentary pleasure. The word felt like something bigger than that. Happiness could be torn down in an instant, and so joy had to be something unshakeable. Everlasting. Maybe it was the thought that even the barest spot on earth was never abandoned by God. That he had a Father who would never abandon him. That the Lord could make anywhere his home. Even a manger in Jerusalem. Or in the heart of a young man who felt like his own home had been torn from him.
Charles had spoken of his own plans and asked him of his own hopes for the future. Will had left the question unanswered. He had deliberately reduced his life to a small circle of friends and family. His sister. His cousins. A handful of friends he truly trusted. Apart from that it was hard to imagine anyone could set him aflame so thoroughly that he'd rid himself of these walls around his heart.
It was hard to make himself believe that he could have what he truly wanted: that Pemberley could become his home again. That he would one day find a woman who made him feel truly young and alive again, made him forget to mark his life in terms of 'before the accident,' and 'after'. And yet he couldn't shake the hope for that, even now. Someone passionate and alive, someone spirited and true, someone who challenged him. Someone he could love.
Grief caused an ache, but it couldn't freeze him. His heart still burned with passion, and that had to find its match. Somewhere. Whoever she was, maybe she needed some hope tonight, just like he did.
Will shut his eyes, allowing himself a quiet exhale. He had lived through that accident; he had survived. And as much as the ache of his loss stung, he knew his parents wouldn't want him spending his life walking through shadows. They would want him to remember that he had survived. They would want him to remember what it was like to feel truly alive, right down to the center of his bones. They would want him to believe in love, and to look for it.
Will opened his eyes and whispered for his parents, for the Lord whose birth they celebrated, and for an unknown love, "Happy Christmas."
A silent slip of a figure in a winter nightgown, Elizabeth padded silently down the stairs until she reached the living room. The sweet scent of pine from the Christmas tree lingered in the air. Embers crackled in the dying fireplace. The rest of the house slumbered. Cuchulain, would be her only company here.
Her mother's knit shawl had been tossed along the edge of the couch. She grabbed this, wrapping it around her shoulders as she settled by the fireplace. Thoughts of her conversation with Jane lingered in her mind.
What did she want? It was meant to be a hopeful inquiry, but to Elizabeth it somehow felt like such a remarkably lonely question, a glimpse of a life she thought she'd never have.
Jane wasn't the only one who daydreamed. Elizabeth held an image in her mind, indistinct though it was. And as with her cousin, it helped to draw on the men in her life when creating a picture of what she did and didn't want. She imagined a man with a focus and sincerity that could rival Killian's. Wit that could match Liam's. A man with a levelheaded nature, like Seamus, and held a measure of wisdom, like Magnus. A man with a mixture of those traits, and yet was different from all of her brothers, unique, with his own spirit and passion. She didn't know quite what he would look like, but in the secret part of her heart she hoped she would know it when she saw it.
The world was a broad place, and she believed a boy who possessed those traits she was looking for must exist out in the world. Somewhere. Wherever he was in the world right now, she hadn't met him in Ballydeirc. It definitely wasn't Brogan Connelly.
Maybe---if she ever achieved her goal of being a ballerina on the Dublin stage--- she would meet this mystery boy in Dublin. Possibly he would be in the arts, like herself. But he didn't have to be anything grand, certainly Elizabeth couldn't imagine herself drawing the eye of some wealthy Dubliner. No, he would certainly live a modest life, whatever he did. It amused her to think she'd go all the way to Dublin and fall in love with a fisherman, like her father.
And whoever he was, he would be Irish, surely.
But daydreaming of a boy was one thing. The reality would be something different. Something impossible. Whoever he was, she would be a burden to him. Who would want to love someone who could grow so sick, so quickly? It was hard enough to watch her family suffer for her, she certainly didn't know how she would agree to put anyone else through it. She couldn't allow that. She wouldn't.
And yet Christmas was a time for hope. Miracles in the form of a child who'd been given another chance to build a life. Or in the form of an infant child, the Lord born in a manger. The most remarkable gift of all. She truly believed she'd been gifted her own miracle from the Lord; what else could explain it? She truly felt it in her heart and in her spirit, as those she loved slept quietly around her.
Hope kindled as the embers in the fireplace faded. Somewhere there was a love meant for her, like Niamh was meant for Seamus. Whoever he was, he was out there somewhere in the world tonight, on the cusp of Christmas, just like she was. And maybe he was staring into a fireplace, or looking up at the sky, thinking it was just as miraculous.
"Happy Christmas," she whispered.