Christmas Day 1812
Why was he looking at her like that?
Beatrice looked up from her soup in a way that she hoped was secretive in order to confirm or deny her suspicions. Since being seated with her family for dinner, a disturbing, constant presence from across the table had been focused on her. Two green eyes persistently peered at her. The eyes watching her would not have been so bad had they not been accompanied by a mischievous smirk. Indeed, it would have escaped her notice completely if the eyes in question did not belong to Jonathon Foster.
Her family was not alone at dinner. They were joined this Christmas Eve by the Fosters; their long-term companions over Christmastide whenever they came to their countryseat at Whistendale Manor. Jonathon was their elder son and he had been staring at her since the first course had been produced.
Overwhelming unease came over her and she felt her mood sour. It made her soup taste too salty, its temperature suddenly lukewarm instead of hot, and its flavor middling instead of perfectly pleasant. Peering over once more, she saw him again. His green eyes were sparkling with mischief and his mouth was set in a smirk instead of focusing on the dish in front of himself, watching her instead of eating.
For goodness sake. What was it now? What on earth did he want?
His gaze made her feel uncomfortable. She attempted to distract herself by listening in on the conversation that was being held across the table between her father and Mr. Franklin Foster.
“My lord, I cannot imagine how you might have gotten that idea in your head,” Mr. Foster was saying.
“It is only a mere supposition, my good man. Your reaction however leads me to believe that I’m very much mistaken,” her father replied. Following their back-and-forth conversation, she gathered that they were speaking about the economics of running a bakery in Whistendale village, particularly during the Christmas season.
Her father was of the opinion that the Christmas season was of particular importance to bakers seeing as many people wanted to commemorate the season with a special, elaborate cake. These cakes were of course priced higher than the other cakes at other times of the year. They must have minted the bakery quite a good amount of money. However, Mr. Foster was informing him that actually, the consistent purchase of very standard, much cheaper baked goods throughout the year was much more sustainable for the bakery’s continued and sustained profits.
While she had no great interest in baking, bakeries, or what particular times of year were the most profitable, the conversation was mildly interesting. It did a good a job of holding her attention, but not well enough to distract her from Jonathon’s continued gaze in her direction.
She thought that she could feel it again. Going to look up from her food, there it was. The older boy’s green eyes were sat on her as if she had a text on her forehead and he was trying to read it. She averted her face so the slight flush of her cheeks remained unnoticed. Perhaps she was too optimistic thinking that he would not see. His interest was so embarrassing. Had she not known better, she would have mistaken his interest for something earnest. A genuine affection or perish the thought, a humorous joke shared between friends.
The delicate duck meat she was eating felt tough in her mouth. She and Jonathon Foster were not friends. While she had had the displeasure of knowing him for many years, no fondness between the two had ever occured. Their continued association was due to the fact that their fathers were friends.
“Have you been curious all this time about the mechanics it would require to run a bakery, my lord?” Jonathon’s father inquired of her father. Her father shrugged his shoulders.
“You will forgive me, but I imagine it would be very much the same as running any other enterprise. Running a shop perhaps or any other business,” he said.
“It is a wonder that this conversation has never taken place in the many years of your friendship,” Beatrice’s mother said. Where her father had struck a strong, years-long friendship with Jonathon’s father, so strong that they had passed many Christmastides in each other’s presence, his mother had not been able to make a similar acquaintance with Beatrice’s mother.
Jonathon and his younger sister Juliet were without a mother. A few years had passed now but she still had vague memories of the woman. There was no scandal. The woman had simply succumbed to illness and after her passing, Mr. Foster had neglected to remarry. It would’ve been very much at his discretion to do so, but unless things had changed, he was still unmarried.
“As a friend of a baker, tell me, should I use the association to learn about the industry or to fill my stomach with delicious baked goods?” her father asked. There was a laugh around the table.
“I am glad you did so, many take pleasure in my wares. I should be thanking you. I do imagine if history had not gone the way it had, neither the bakery nor I would currently be operational,” Mr. Foster said.
Beatrice felt her attention harden and fall away in bits. Christmastide with Jonathon’s family had become a predictable affair every year, yet it had become no less easy to withstand. As a girl of fourteen, hearing the discussions held by her father and his contemporaries was utterly boring. Jonathon was a poor partner as he was given to mischief and frequently made her his target. His younger sister was younger than she was by a year or so but her crippling shyness that didn’t seem to ease as the years went by had not ingratiated them with each other. Her sister Sylvia was older, already come out, and closer to marriage than to Beatrice’s own station. This left her curiously isolated despite being in a house full of people.
Truly, the last thing she wanted to do was hear the story of how Mr. Foster and her father’s friendship came to be so strong, but it seemed she was going to be forced to once again.
“Jonathon, if you ever have the good fortune of coming across a man as charitable and humble as Lord Whistendale, I counsel you to find your way into his good graces and remain there,” Mr. Foster said to his son.
“Shall I also put myself in the way of a particularly deep lake so that one such man might save me from drowning?” Jonathon asked. He drew laughs around the table mentioning the famous story that had been repeated many times to the gathered party but seemingly bore stating once more.
The men had grown up together in Whistendale and had a passing knowledge of each other. In their adulthood, Bladwin Whiston, the Earl of Whistendale was visiting Whistendale Manor, his family’s countryseat. Mr. Foster had been in a drowning incident and the earl, sole witness to the accident had rescued him, kicking off the reunion and now close friendship of the two men. Quick thought and impulsive action had meant Mr. Foster was able to sit with them and bake his fabulous cakes today. It’s also meant that Beatrice, year after year had been subjected to the man’s son.
Her encounters with Jonathon Foster would not be so grim if he did not continuously assail her with his childish pranks whenever they were together. Because of this, seeing him immediately set her teeth on edge and made her suspicious of every look that he threw her way. He made no bones of maintaining innocence, his mischievous smile a fixture on his face for anybody who wanted to see it. Her appetite had waned through the dinner courses and now she only picked out the food on her plate. How desperately she wished for an end to the meal and finally to the Foster family’s visit.
“Perhaps you needn’t endanger yourself in order to secure a strong, lifelong friendship. However, if ever you are in such a predicament, friendship may be an unexpected yet desired outcome,” said Mr. Foster. He reported whenever he told the story that he felt indebted to Beatrice’s father for his rescue that day. The sentimentality of it all was lost on Beatrice who despite believing the baker to be a fine man, thought his son was intolerable.
After the meal, Beatrice was able to relax her tensed shoulders as the men and women separated for the rest of the evening. By the time it was time to go to bed, she found herself restless. She thought herself a little bit too old to be as dazzled by Christmas morning as she was when still a much younger child, but she found herself grinning at the prospect of unearthing the treasures in her stocking. She did her best to sleep through the night, but it proved difficult. She awoke frequently and at the last, abandoned the enterprise completely, sitting awake as the sun came up. She went to the window to see whether any snow had come but it had not. She was joined shortly by Hannah, her lady’s maid.
“I say, Hannah, I was wrong again this year,” she said. Hannah looked at her wide-eyed.
“Wrong about what, milady?” she asked. Beatrice looked back wistfully out of the window.
“I was absolutely certain that there would be snow this year.” Hannah advanced into the room. She had been her sister’s lady’s maid before becoming hers.
“That is no matter, milady. And the snow will come. Perhaps it is better that it failed to fall on a day as auspicious as this.” Beatrice appreciated her lady’s maid attempting to assuage her dissatisfaction but she still hoped that she would be able to see snow before heading back to London.
“Hannah, I want to walk over the grounds this morning,” she announced impulsively. The air early in the morning was going to be crisp and refreshing. She was full of restless energy and what better way to extend it than taking in the beauty of the countryside early in the morning? Hannah dressed her and the two young women were on their way.
Beatrice’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Whistendale spent the majority of their time in London but a good few months of the year they spent here in the countryside. While it was pleasant and the beauty unmistakable, Beatrice had not yet come out so she was yet to experience the true activity and excitement of a London social season. Perhaps once she had, their long sojourns in the countryside, it would not make her feel like she was missing out on anything.
Outside the house, they made their way around to the back garden. The brisk morning wind made Beatrice pull her coat closer around her shoulders. Breathing in deeply through her nose, it was clarifying and refreshing, just as she had wished. However, the temperature astounded her. As it was much colder than she expected, their walk would not last very long. Making their way to the edge of the garden, she spotted somebody making their way toward her. At first, she dismissed it as perhaps the ostler. As the figure came closer, a man’s figure, she realized it was not the ostler at all.
Dressed simply in his trousers, boots, and shirt, rudely open at the collar with no cravat, Beatrice was horrified to see that it was Jonathon. He greeted the women first.
“My lady, you are awake. I heard it is not common of noble folk to wake so early in the morning,” he said, his mouth set in its usual smirk. Beatrice coughed noisily through her nose.
“If one must insist on early morning activity, is it not prudent to at the very least dress appropriately for the weather?” she said. She tried her hardest not to allow her attention to go down to his collar where his shirt was open over his chest.
“Do you worry for my health, my lady? Have none. I live in Whistendale, we see far colder mornings than this during our winters.”
Tired of him, she hurried away, prompting Hannah to follow her. Rather than continue their walk, she proceeded back to the house. She did not know where he was going, only that she wanted to put distance between the two of them. Maybe a walk this morning was not the best idea. Back in the house, she changed and warmed up beside a fire before heading down to the drawing room with the rest of her family.
The convivial scene of her family on Christmas morning filled her with a child-like wonder, despite her feeling that she was now beyond such childish delights. Her mother welcomed her to take her stocking.
“It’s so heavy,” she said, a frisson of excitement running through her. Sitting down and peering inside, she screamed. She dropped the stocking on the ground. Stones fell out of her stocking onto the floor instead of the biscuits she was expecting. Her eyes lighted on Jonathon, full of accusation. This was why he was so smug the night before. It was him. It was always him!
“You, you did this!” she said.
“My lady, is such an interruption really appropriate on Christmas morning?” he said, affecting innocence. His pretence made her even angrier.
“My dear, do calm down,” her mother said. She searched the room for somebody to defend her but none of the party present volunteered. Indeed, this has been tradition. Beatrice year after year at the whim of Jonathon’s sense of humour as she was forced to believe it was. She gathered her pride and left the room. It would be far too soon when Christmas came again and she was subjected to him once more.
Jonathon’s eyes opened, years of early rising making him attuned to his tedious schedule. He had been working in the bakery alongside his father at this point for longer than he hadn’t. Arising before the sun had come up felt natural to him. He would even go as far as to say that he enjoyed it.
After washing and dressing quickly, he made his way to the bakery. Venturing outside, he felt the bite of the cold weather against his cheeks. He drove his hands deeper into his pockets, needing to adjust to the cold. He had no complaints, though needing to tuck his chin into his scarf. Unlike most people, Jonathon very much favoured the colder season.
The colder months coincided with Christmastide which tended to be a successful time for the bakery, however, aside from that, the time of year had also been his mother’s favourite, making it nostalgic for him.
She was no longer with him. Seven years prior, she had passed. It was sudden. Troublingly, she had awoken one morning slightly later than usual, complaining of persistent discomfort in her chest. Due to the nature of the season, this was not an unusual complaint and it was thought that she might have simply caught a cold and several days of rest would have her repaired.
She had been dead in three days. The shock had been terrible to all of them. In another curious twist of fate, the end of the year was also his sister’s birthday. In fact, it was today. It has been seven years since his mother had died. Inside the bakery, still cold as the heat from the baking had not yet warmed the room, Jonathon examined the dough that had been left to rise overnight. In his contemplative mood he realized that soon, he would pass more years in her absence than he had had in her presence.
Jonathon tried to keep himself from being overly sentimental. Being sober, and in control of his emotions was something his father had exemplified and something he tried to do as well. Nothing was effectively done without a cool head. Still, he missed his mother and the latter part of the year brought about a curious mix of emotions for him. Today, Juliet had her birthday and there was a cake to be made.
He began quickly preparing the batter for the cake whilst doing the same for the bread that filled most of their early morning orders. A few early morning visitors to the bakery proved to be deliveries of butter, eggs, flour, and sugar before his father made his appearance.
“Is that for Juliet?” he asked. Jonathon confirmed that it was.
“I see that your hand becomes more generous every year,” his father remarked, examining his progress on the cake batter. Jonathon chuckled, throwing a glance at his father. A year ago, they were the same height but since that time, Jonathon had shot up past him. He was not stooped with age, however, Jonathon noticed that despite being strong and in good health, obvious lines had appeared on his face from the stress of his work.
Jonathon always imagined that he held a strong resemblance to his father, but nobody else, not even his father seemed to share that opinion. Frequently, he was informed that his green eyes far more favored his mother’s, even though his father too had eyes of the same color. It was insisted that he shared her bearing and her inescapable presence whenever he walked into a room as well. It was heartening to him to learn these things. That she was very much alive in himself and his sister thought she was gone from them physically.
“I am sure that if you asked Juliet, she would believe that any time, effort, or cake spent on her is very much deserved,” Jonathon said. “And does it not stand to reason that as she ages another year, the cake must also gain in weight, height, and also taste?”
His father smiled, friendly lines creasing over his cheeks.
“After being so well taken care of by her father and brother, the men who attempt to court your sister will have an impossibly high standard to match,” he said. Jonathon poured the cake into the cast, feeling like that was a perfectly joyous misfortune to have. Imagine being so well loved that the attentions of suitors did not measure up?
He finished the preparation of the cake while his father carried on the morning preparations for the bakery. Many of the village residents came to the bakery daily, sparing them from having to make too many deliveries, however, they did have a few deliveries that needed to be made every day. Whilst the village was not big, they always remained busy.
The cake was ready as the first customers began to appear to buy their bread and other bakes. Jonathon allowed Juliet’s cake to sit for the majority of the day, beginning its adornment close to closing. In respect for her birthday which Juliet took quite seriously, she had been spared from coming to the bakery to work that day. Instead, she was spending a languid afternoon at a friend’s house for tea. By the time both of the men had returned to their home, she was still not present. Barely minutes before their evening meal, Juliet made her reappearance at home.
“It is truly admirable,” their father said as she came into the house. She looked curious.
“What is truly admirable?” she asked.
“How effectively you are able to utilize your leisure time,” their father said teasingly. She flushed, pushing away his comment.
“If you do not want me to wander on my day off, then do not give me one,” she said.
“Perhaps our father is jealous, feeling the stress of the year coming upon him as it comes to an end,” Jonathon said philosophically.
“Will you punish me for having my birthday at the end of the year?” Juliet asked. “Might I remind you that I played no part in the circumstances of my birth.” Her comment drew howls of laughter from their father. After so many years passing as the sole woman in the house, she had become very immune to their playful jabs. They sat for dinner together, relying on Juliet to tell them how her day had passed since their own days had passed very regularly at the bakery. The friends she had passed her time with were Elizabeth and Claire Montgomery. They had been friends for a long time being all around the same age. Jonathon imagined that she liked to retreat to the Montgomery house to get away from himself and her father. As much as he felt that he doted on her, he realized that he could not possibly be a suitable replacement for the female companionship that she missed out on while living with two gruff men.
“Is it gossip you are hoping to hear from me?” she asked.
“That depends,” Jonathon said, “have you heard any interesting gossip?”
Juliet pursed her lips in thought, looking down at her plate. She had claimed that she was not hungry during the meal and had not eaten much.
“Well, Christmastide fills the village with London residents hoping to decamp to the countryside for the rest of the year,” she began. Jonathon listened politely even though he was not terribly bothered with the movements of the people who kept their primary residence in London. He had lived in the village all his life and even though there was the seasonal movement of people to and from London to their country homes, he still failed to view them as his neighbors, thinking of them only as visitors.
“Anybody unexpected that we should hope to see this year?” her father asked. No matter who was making their arrival, the entire village would sooner or later be informed.
“Oh!” Juliet said as if realizing something she had forgotten. “It nearly slipped my mind. The earl and countess will be coming to Whistendale this Christmastide.”
“Will they? I have not yet heard the news,” their father said. Jonathon felt a curious hollowing of his stomach.
“Juliet, you must not simply believe any whispers going on around the village,” he found himself saying hastily. There was a feeling that his thoughts had suddenly scattered. The urge that he must move, stand up, maybe walk around, surprised him. He was no great friend of the Earl and Countess of Whistendale. It was his father that had a friendship with the earl, though the earl’s family had not been to Whistendale for years. His concern was not the earl at all, it was his daughter.
Beatrice, or rather, Lady Beatrice to him. He felt a curious shiver thinking about her.
“Are these simply rumours, Juliet?” their father asked.
“Of course, I cannot confirm that we will be seeing them as it has been a number of years since they made their last appearance. I am simply reporting what I have been told.”
Juliet and their father discussed the last time the earl and countess had been to Whistendale. Jonathon wanted to join, but he found himself hesitating. The words caught in his throat unwilling to come out. His memory was drawn into the past, remembering the last time Lady Beatrice and her family came to their home at Whistendale Estate. He used to love to prank her with various tricks. They were admittedly juvenile, but he took immense pleasure in them regardless. It was his habit to take advantage of her because she seemed so guileless. Perhaps he had simply been cheekier and more eager to cause trouble in the past as a rule, but he had victimized her specifically.
A smile pulled across his face as the memory of his most recent successful prank returned. It was Christmas morning four years prior. During Christmas Eve dinner, Lady Beatrice had been irritable, casting annoyed looks his way. Reflecting on it now, she must’ve known already. She had to have been aware that he had something planned for her.
Well, she had been right. That night, he had snuck into the parlor once everybody was gone and tampered with Lady Beatrice’s Christmas stocking. His father’s gingerbread biscuits had filled the stocking previously, but he had disposed of them, replacing them with stones. He was careful to make it feel and appear as if the biscuits were still inside. She had had a terrible shock when she finally looked inside. The look on her face had made it all worth it. She was wonderfully expressive, and dramatic with stomping feet and angry screaming. Truly, it was cruel to play tricks, but she had been such a fantastic target that he could not help himself. Of course, he always denied any involvement, even though she knew it was him. It was his great joy to vex her.
Now that she and her family would be back again, they could reasonably expect an invitation to Whistendale estate, could they not?
He found himself unreasonably excited at the possibility. After dinner, their father unveiled the cake that they had worked on that morning for Juliet. She squealed, clapping her hands when she saw it even though this had been the pattern for every birthday for the last several years. Regardless, it filled Jonathon with great joy to see his sister so happy.
Two Days Later
Had it only been four years? Beatrice felt that it must have been much longer than that. Though the rolling countryside outside of the carriage window as they approached Whistendale Manor was unchanging as ever, she felt that she was not the same young girl who used to come here in the past.
She had since turned eighteen and several things had indeed changed in her if not with the manor. She was a woman now. Very soon she would be coming out to society and marrying. Those thoughts had seemed so foreign four years ago, however that was no longer the case, especially after seeing her sister’s happy union and the birth of her niece and nephew.
The reason why they had not been to Whistendale for the past four years was that her sister Sylvia, after marrying, had gone on to have two children. It being unwise for her to travel, the family had travelled to her in Bath. Beatrice’s grandmother also lived in Bath and the family had been gathered at her house when she suddenly suggested coming to Whistendale.
“Would it not be a pleasure to return?” she had asked. “How long has it been since you all have been back?”
Beatrice had found herself quite lukewarm on the experience. Maybe once she recovered from the trip which had taken four days, perhaps she might feel better about being back in Whistendale. All she looked forward to at this point was rest and a hot bath.
She focused her eyes outside and watched the village materialize in front of her. It was different from both Bath and London though she wasn’t sure which one took her fancy the most.
She could not stir her anticipation even when the manor came into view and their carriage began to approach the imposing home. It was magnificent with its stone façade. In previous years, she had thought the bright green vines growing up its sides to be quite lovely. Having not seen it for several years, it was familiar, however, her memories there had become blurry with time.
On the property was an elaborate and very well-kept garden in which her father liked to take walks. Further out in the property was a sizable man-made lake. Beatrice had no greater love of riding but a person who did would have a fantastic time doing so on the grounds of Whistendale Manor with its woods, greens, and good hunting. The weather, though bitingly cold had not yet given way to snow. Their servants had come ahead of them in order to prepare for their visit.
Their party comprised of her sister, her husband, and their two children. In addition, was her grandmother and of course her two parents. Since her sister had married, she had very much become isolated, having no other siblings or close acquaintances her age with whom to pass the time, save for Hannah, her lady’s maid. As she dragged her feet to her chamber, it was Hannah that greeted her.
“Are you quite well after your travels, milady?” Hannah asked. Beatrice barely had the energy to say that she had not enjoyed the trip, but thankfully she had survived it. After traveling for four days, the sight of her comfortable bed and the prospect of a hot bath were extremely appealing to her.
“Hannah, if I take to my bed will you promise to wake me in time for dinner?” she asked.
“Of course, milady. You must be exhausted after your trip. I suggest you have a hot bath before you retire.” Beatrice did as instructed, relying almost wholly on the other young woman to ensure that she was bathed and dressed. Once she made contact with the bed, sleep came upon her immediately. She slept a heavy and dreamless rest until Hannah’s soft voice came in her ears, rousing her to awaken.
“Milady, you must wake up. It is nearly time for dinner.” Fighting the remnants of the exhaustion that was still in her eyes, she forced herself to her feet.
“Would it be too much of a bother to have my meal brought to me where I lay?” she mused out loud. She longed to remain on her bed for the next three days. That amount of time seemed like it might be adequate to rest her sufficiently. Hannah however, had already begun dressing her.
“You need not attend the meal if you are too tired, milady,” the other woman said. She knew that she would be allowed the indulgence if she requested it but shook her head. Spending the first family meal in her bed instead of with the rest of her family would not be appropriate. She braved her weariness as Hannah dressed her, putting her in a simply colored yet smart dress and tidying her hair. She joined the rest of her family in the dining room, taking her place next to her grandmother with her brother-in-law, Clayton, on the other side.
“Is it not gratifying to be back at Whistendale Estate?” her father remarked, seemingly at the peak of his vitality despite the grueling hours they had spent traveling.
“Was any great barrier holding you back from visiting?” her mother asked him. Her father laughed good-naturedly.
“I have very much enjoyed our time in Bath, however, Whistendale does have its charms. I was taking a turn through the garden earlier and had forgotten how peaceful the estate is during this time of year. I would say it is pleasant even through the bite of the cold.”
Beatrice tried her soup wondering if she felt the same way.
“I would say the quality of the estate is affected by the quality of the company,” Althea, Beatrice’s grandmother opined.
“That reminds me, the Duke and Duchess of Shirwood will be joining us this Christmastide,” her father informed the table. Beatrice’s spoon knocked noisily against the side of her soup bowl but nobody seemed to notice.
The Duke and Duchess of Shirwood were the parents of a fine young man by the name of Adam Stewart. He was the Marquess of Trimbleford and at Beatrice’s last notice, the most handsome man that she had ever met.
It had been a few weeks now since they had made each other’s acquaintance. It had been at Bath when both their families were visiting the Pump Room. Besides a cursory introduction, they had not been able to make much conversation or spend time with one another. It was no matter however because the short time that they did spend together was enough to make a profound impact on Beatrice.
“Will they? It was quite a pleasure meeting them in Bath,” the countess said.
“They will be making their arrival tomorrow.”
“I am sure you can barely contain your anticipation,” the countess said to her husband. “Here in Whistendale, there is nobody for you to recount your old days at Eaton with.”
The earl laughed heartily.
“Well, this Christmastide it seems you will be spared from hearing those tales.”
“Whether or not the duke and duchess would be visiting, I’m sure we would hear them regardless,” Beatrice’s sister Sylvia said cheekily. Her husband, Clayton laughed, looking at her as if nobody in the history of the world had ever made a funnier joke.
Beatrice finished her soup quietly, feeling suddenly crestfallen. It seemed that her sister might be the luckiest woman alive. Her husband Clayton was a young baron she had met during her first London season. She had made a lucky love match and quickly gotten married. He looked at her as if she made the sun rise every day. Beatrice hoped that she could have the same. Her selection of course would be the marquess, Adam Stewart. She would be seeing him just tomorrow. Perhaps, with a fantastic stroke of luck, she might be betrothed to get married in the new year.