Here's the next installment, contributed by Marian J. Todd. I'm anxious myself to see what's coming up, since I haven't read the ending yet.
“That is kind of you, Marguerite but I fear . . .” Griffin’s voice trailed off in the midst of his reflective rejection, suddenly not convinced of his own course of action. Leave they must, but where? He had blocked his own retreat deliberately, resigning his post and selling his properties in Banipur, cutting all ties. He had become a nomad, and his daughter with him. Lord, if ever I needed you to guide my path it is now!
Verity’s slow whisper broke the ensuing silence. “If we must go, I will help Disha to pack our things again.” With her down-turned face obscured by her long hair she padded to the still-open door and disappeared into the darkened corridor, her embroidered satin slippers the only sound pressing against the hard floor with each step. He had bought them specifically for this very day. Poor precious girl. She didn’t deserve the cold glances and acidic comments. How he wanted to un-live the day’s events for them all. He had been terribly wrong to come back, to bring her here, and the consequences, this time, were not only his to bear.
The muscles in his neck and shoulders tightened as the anger rose in him like sap in springtime; rage he thought he had conquered long ago but could now feel in every thrum of his pulse. He held his jaw tight to stop the words escaping, fearful of what he might say in outrage that should be more properly directed elsewhere. As he stood, the creak of a floorboard that had betrayed some of his own childhood exploits and the sounds of a quickly whispered conversation told him Disha had found Verity by the staircase.
“There is more Christian charity in deepest India than exists in this house!”
His fist came down on the rough wooden tabletop with a force that rattled the platters arrayed at the opposite end and caused Marguerite to visibly jerk. Her surprised look brought him back to himself. “Forgive me . . . I haven’t lost my temper like that since . . . well, in a very long time and it was inexcusable.”
“Ill-timed, I grant you.” Marguerite lifted her head, sparks flashing from her eyes. “But inexcusable is too harsh. I’ve witnessed more violence with less reason, and tonight others must answer for the provocation. Now, shall I send word to Father?” Her expression relaxed as she posed the last question.
His rage spent, Griffin’s shoulders and jaw relaxed leaving an uncomfortable ache behind. He met Marguerite’s gaze. “Surely your plans were to spend the holiday here with Alicia and her family, and I have no desire to intrude.” He had meant his statement to be definitive, but his voice betrayed him, turning upward at the last and leaving the question to simmer in the air between them. Perhaps his renewed acquaintance with Marguerite was one of the day’s complications he would not wish to undo.
His indecision seemed to make Marguerite more resolute. “Griffin.” Standing, she briskly shook the gingerbread crumbs from her velvet skirt. “You know that I adore Alicia, adore your entire family, but for reasons I am sure you appreciate”—she glanced toward the drawing room—“Christmas at Willowford Hall has acquired renewed appeal, and as for yourself and Verity . . .”
Of course she would want to leave following Charles’s arrival—the cad. But the thought of arriving uninvited—well, not properly invited, at her father’s house on Christmas Eve was unthinkable. “We cannot simply descend upon your father—”
“And of course Disha,” she interjected.
“Without proper notice at this time of night.” His voice rose in an effort to be heard over her cheerful cadence. “We make a dramatic enough impression in broad daylight, you must admit, but at this hour he might mistake us for gypsies.”
Marguerite’s eyes widened in brief amusement. “Tch—nothing of the sort.” She dismissed his objections with a wave of her gloved hand. “He will relish the thought of a man to share his port with. It has been too long since there were children at Willowford Hall for Christmas, and it will do us all good. You simply cannot subject your daughter to Christmas in a public house or worse yet on a ship.”
Her eyes turned from him, and her voice lost its forced chirpiness as she continued. “Arbonne has become quite crowded this evening I find, and I believe a quieter holiday will suit us both, suit us all far better.”
She began tidying the table at which she and Verity had shared their gingerbread, carefully tucking the ends of the towel underneath the platter and replacing it on the sideboard.
“I will go upstairs, make my apologies to Alicia and your family, and return home directly to inform Father.” She tilted her head to one side and wrinkled her eyes and nose in mock severity, angling a finger toward him. “Mind you—the three of you are expected within the hour for dinner.” With that she beamed at him, and, was that a wink?
She twirled and left. Leaving an impression in the air, it seemed, of a soft calm that stayed with him long afterwards. He stood, dumbstruck, with a slow smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Griff!” The doorway filled with Alicia’s form, swathed in a cloud of iridescent green silk that continued to move after she had brought herself to an abrupt halt upon finding him. “Father was absolutely horrid, and I have told him so,” she blurted, rushing forward to grasp both of Griffin’s hands and leading him to the two chairs that had recently held his daughter and Marguerite.
“You cannot think of leaving now. You must give them time to get used to the idea.”
“Verity is familiar with ill-treatment, Alicia.” He spoke calmly, deliberately. “In India she is called a half-caste rather than a half-breed by the Brahmin and the other Hindus, but the meaning is the same, and the vitriol in the remarks is the same as that behind our father’s.”
“Griff . . .” Her voice broke and she tugged at his hands, forcing him to look up from the table and meet her gaze. “You’ve only just come back to us . . . and it is Christmas. How can you think of leaving so soon?”
“The troublesome thing is,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “as Christians we are really all outcasts to the Hindus, and so we haven’t encountered such remarks within the Christian community. Verity was brought up to believe that God made each one of us, and we are therefore all of equal value to him.” Griffin shook his head in disbelief. “Sadly her grandfather feels differently. How am I to explain this to my daughter when we’ve returned to the country of my birth, a Christian country, to celebrate the birth of our Savior, only to be treated worse than what we encountered at the hand of the Hindus?”
He pulled his hands from Alicia’s now-limp grasp and stood, looking down at his sister. “My family and I have been issued a very gracious invitation to spend Christmas at Willowford Hall even at such short notice, which we shall accept. Please wish Mother a Happy Christmas for me, and also to Terrence and Keyes. The children’s gifts are beneath the tree. By God’s grace my love for you all is unchanged, even Father, and what he now chooses to do, or not do with regard to Verity and me, is a matter between himself and God. You may tell him where I am if he wishes to speak with me. I will remain no longer than a fortnight.”
“Griffin, don’t . . .”
He reached for Alicia’s hands once more as she rose to her feet. “Happy Christmas, sister.” They embraced tightly, Griffin kissed her forehead before turning to stride from the room.
“Disha!” He hissed into the cold darkness of the stairway toward the attic. “Verity!” No response. The trunks were still in their places in their assigned bedrooms and no packing seemed to have taken place as of yet. With Willowford expecting their imminent arrival, they needed to make posthaste. Where were the two of them? Griffin descended the staircase to the front hallway and beckoned the footman. “Please inform my man Stevens to ready the coach. My daughter and I will be leaving presently.”
“Yes sir. Certainly sir.”
“Griffin returned up the stairs and paced the length of the corridor, opening each thick oaken door in turn.
“Disha!” He called down the hallway. “Verity!” Checking each darkened room, he gradually moved toward the warmth and light of the drawing room. He was eager to be away from the possibility of encountering his father and to protect his daughter from further humiliating exchanges.
“Tirach-sahib!” Griffin froze in mid-step as he heard Disha’s voice behind him on the stairs, her tone urgent.
“Disha? Where have you been, and why are the trunks not ready? We must leave—we are expected . . . Where is Verity?”
“Tirach-sahib, Miss Verity is . . .”
“She is . . .”
“Yes?” It was too much for him. Griffin took Disha by the shoulders, leaning toward her and spluttering “Miss Verity is what?”
Disha looked up at Griffin, eyes wide with fear. She shook her head from side to side, and her reply, when it came, was rapid and mournful. “Oh, Tirach-sahib . . . All gone. Miss Verity, Miss Verity’s favorite doll, and the box with Madame Lila’s things, gone, gone. I left her a moment only, and when I come back . . . gone.”