Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Finale!

Here is the long-awaited ending of our story, Home by Christmas. The credit for the idea to write a serial Christmas story belongs to Laurie Alice Eakes, award-winning author of published novel, Family Guardian. Laurie Alice wraps us up today. I hope you enjoyed our story.

Griffin heard someone shout behind him, a strained, female voice begging him to wait. His mother. No one else in the household sounded that weak, that frail.

Mother—Mama—fading away like Lila, but without the sweetness of love on his lips. Lila begged him to take care of Verity, keep her safe. Mother had pleaded with him to stay all those years ago, or at the least, keep himself safe. He had succeeded with the latter.

He failed with the former when he brought Verity home for Christmas.

"Verity." His daughter's name tore from his lips, crystallizing in the frigid air and melding with the snow.

Ahead of him, the carriage slowed, stopped. Marguerite's face showed in the window, her fine eyes wide, her mouth forming an O of surprise.

Lungs searing, Griffin sprinted the last yards to the vehicle and grasped the door handle. "Is Verity in there? Marguerite, please tell me she is."

Marguerite let down the window. "No, I haven't seen her since she said she would tell Disha about packing. Why--?"

"She's gone. No sign of her in the house." Griffin released the door and stepped back. "They scared her off. My family, in all their Christmas cheer and kindness, made her feel unwelcome." He heard the sarcasm, the bitterness in his voice, and didn't like it, yet felt powerless to stop it. All his energies must go to finding Verity, his daughter.

The one precious thing left in his life.

"Griff—" Marguerite compressed her lips for a moment, then took a deep breath. "I'll continue in my carriage and search along the road. You—ah, yes, here comes Emory and some of the other men. They can search the grounds."

"I'll get my horse and search the road, too." Griffin stepped back from the carriage. "Thank you."

"You should stay here."

Griffin stared at her. "Stay? Are you mad? I have to find Verity."

"Someone needs to be here when we do find her." Marguerite reached a gloved hand out to him. "Someone who loves her."

"Of course." Hands fisted at his sides, he started to turn toward the house. "Please, go hunt for her."

"I will. And Griff?"

He glanced over his shoulder to see her fingers curled around the window frame, her face tense. "Forgiveness starts with you."

She was right. He wished she were not. The picture of himself her words conjured was not pleasant, was not the image of the loving follower of Christ he wished to present to the world.

But forgive when his daughter was missing because these people had been cruel to her?

He couldn't return to the house and face them all. He wanted to race across country, leap fences and hedgerows, seek his daughter in all the hiding places a country estate could afford. He didn't want to sit beside his family, the family who had rejected him eleven years ago for not wanting to go into the army or church, and now rejected his daughter for being different, too.

But he could have changed. Verity could not. She needed someone who loved her in the house to welcome her back, assure her she was wanted wherever he happened to be. And others, too. His sister. Verity's cousins. Marguerite.

Griffin watched the retreating carriage and thanked God for the lovely lady inside. She understood how Verity felt. Others—no, he and others—had rejected her for being chubby and frumpy, relatively poor and without a mother to teach her social graces.

She had forgiven him for his unkindness. Though still hurting, she had forgiven Charles for abandoning their engagement. The least he could do was forgive his family for their discomfiture with Verity. If he had prepared them, if he had written, if he had not simply shown up on their doorstep and expected eleven years of silence to simply melt away because it was Christmas, matters would likely be different. Verity would not be missing.

As he trudged through new-fallen snow toward the group of servants preparing to set out and hunt, Griffin felt the anger rise in him again. It was Christmas. He had counted on the spirit of love and generosity that pervaded the season to make things right with his family.

But no, he needed to make things right with his family, needed to ask their forgiveness. Love and generosity took all parties involved to make it a family.

He reached the men, started to speak, and realized that Terry already sat astride a horse in their midst, gesticulating as he gave directions.

"Thank you," was all Griffin needed to say.

Terry leaned down and rested his hand on Griffin's shoulder. "It's the least we can do. We don't want anything to happen to that precious child, and we don't you to leave again." That said, he touched his heels to his mount's sides and trotted toward the parkland, where trees and glades created too many hiding places for a small girl.

"You go on inside, sir," Stevens said. "We'll find the young lady."

On horseback and on foot, a dozen servants set out in as many directions, leaving Griffin growing cold in the falling snow, a score of feet from the light and warmth of the house.

Slowly, forcing his feet to move forward rather than chasing after the searchers, away from those he must confront with his own failings as a son and brother, Griffin climbed the front steps and tugged open the massive door. Warmth from fires in all the downstairs rooms brought him the scents of pine logs, ginger, and cinnamon. Children's high, pure voices rang out pure and sweet with "Hark the herald angels sing".

His daughter should be there. His daughter... His daughter...

Feeling anger surge inside him again, he closed his eyes and prayed for the strength to forgive. Jesus had become vulnerable as a baby in order to give the world forgiveness. In Him, Griffin could find the strength to put the past behind.

He opened his eyes, and his mother stood before him, her hands, as delicate as bird bones, stretched out to him, her faded blue eyes bright with tears. "My dear son, can you ever forgive us?"

"I have already." With those words, part of the burden on his heart lifted. "But I'm truly the one who needs forgiven."

"What kind of mother would I be if I didn't forgive you for being headstrong and willful and stubborn?" She smiled, restoring much of her youthful beauty, as the pain lines around her mouth seemed to smooth out. "You're so much like your father."

"I am—" Griffin broke off the protest and laughed. "So I am."

He wanted to say he was much more generous and kind, yet he didn't know if that was true. His father wasn't mean. His employees did not suffer for want, and the warmth and sparkling decorations of the house demonstrated an open purse for this most precious celebration. And what had Griffin contributed but tension and confusion?

"I should have warned you all I was coming," he said.

"It might have helped." Mother clutched his hand and turned toward the drawing room. "Come talk to your father. He's distressed about the---our granddaughter being out in this storm. He loves children you know."

Griffin didn't know, yet half a dozen offspring clustered around the pianoforte, and Father sat by the fire gazing at them with a look of joy on his face such as Griffin never recalled.

Time changed everyone. Some became harder, embittered. Others grew softer, kinder. Griffin presumed his father has the former, holding his past against him, while wanting his father to accept him as a new man.

If he was a new man, he must move past his father's rejection of Verity, of Father's rejection of his own son's desire to travel and create his own future, and forgive. Griffin closed the distance between Father and himself. Nearness to the fire blazed away the last of his chill, and he crouched before his sire. "Sir, I... Father, I should have said this as soon as I walked in the door, but I didn't, so please accept my words now."

The children began singing "The Holly and the Ivy", and Father lowered his gaze to Griffin's face. "You were always quick to speak your mind, so why the hesitation now?"

"Because I need a forgiveness you may find difficult to give." Griffin rested his hand on the arm of Father's chair a mere inch from the older man's hand. "But if you can, I'd like to stay home for Christmas. I exhausted everyone traveling in time to get here for the holiday... I know matters are difficult with Verity... I should have warned you."

"I should have expected nothing less than the flouting of convention from you." Father's voice rasped with a harsh edge, but Griffin thought he caught a gleam in his eyes, a spark of humor.

"My granddaughter isn't going to have an easy road. Did you think about that?"

"Not when I fell in love with her mother."

"You never did think before you acted."

"No, sir." Griffin hesitated, then took the plunge. "But even if you can't forgive me for not being an exemplary son, will you try to accept her? With your influence in the county, you can smooth her path. But if you cannot, I'll find someplace where she can be happy and loved. Maybe the American west or—"

"Not again." Father closed his hand over Griffin's. "Don't you dare go running off again. You face a little conflict, and you go running off. And now you've instilled that habit into your daughter and look what's happened."

Griffin winced and refrained from reminding Father why Verity ran off.

"It's my fault she went, I know." Father spoke as though he read Griffin's mind. "And if anything happens to her—" His voice broke. "If I have my son back, then I will accept his daughter, too."

"Thank you." Griffin bowed his head in humble prayer that he still had a daughter.

Behind him, the children stopped singing and feet pounded toward the dining room on a chorus of "It's time to stir the pudding."

Silence followed in their wake, and in the stillness, Griffin caught the crunch of carriage wheels.
"Marguerite." He sprang to his feet and raced for the front door, flung it open just as the carriage drew up before the steps. "Verity?" He leaped to the ground and yanked open the door.
"Papa." Verity tumbled into his arms, cold and wet, but so alive.

"Oh, my angel, don't ever run off again, no matter what happens." He looked past her to Marguerite. "Where was she?"

"Trudging along the road." Marguerite drew her brows together. "She didn't want to come back."

"I understand, but sometimes we have to face things that may be unpleasant to find the true joy beyond." Griffin held out one hand to Marguerite. "Will you join our family?"

She smiled. "For as long as you like."

Together, the three of them entered the warmth and light of the house to join the family that had all weathered the storms of years and hearts to make it home by Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 12

There is only one more installment after today--the finale. Today's episode was written by Jennifer Hudson Taylor.

Griffin ran a hand through his hair, trying to push away the searing memory of his daughter’s hurt expression when his father had called her a half-breed and his mother had rejected her. One thing was certain, he would find her and he wasn’t leaving until he did.

“Check with the children to see if any of them have seen her.” He started to walk away when another thought occurred to him. “And the dog, find out where that dog is that she’s so fond of.”

Without waiting for a reply, Griffin stormed to the drawing room, his boots pounding against the floor. His countenance must have borne rage, as all eyes turned to him in a mixture of startled surprise and alarm. Conversations and movement halted.

Griffin scanned the room, but no sign of Verity existed. His gaze drifted to his sister. “Verity is missing, as well as her favorite doll and a box that contained the only things left from her mother.” His gruff voice carried through the room like a lingering echo. “I was hoping you’d help me find her.”

Alicia’s hand covered her mouth in obvious distress. “Of course, I knew she was upset, but I hadn’t realized . . . I mean, I thought Marguerite had managed to cheer her spirits somewhat.”

Terrence exchanged glances with Charles, and a light-hearted smile curled his lips. “Come now, she could not have gone far. Let’s not make assumptions. She must be around here somewhere.”

Griffin strode toward his brother, giving him a glare of warning. “She had better be. She is all I have left in this world worth holding onto. With the exception of Alicia, this family has given Verity no decent welcome to accommodate a mere acquaintance, much less a granddaughter and niece whose blood is the same as your own.”

He had the satisfaction of watching his brother’s eyes lower in shame. “Brother, I meant you no offense, only to calm your increasing fear for her.” Terrence glanced over at the children by the door where Disha appeared. “While I do not pretend to hide my dislike of her mother’s heritage, I am not completely immune to the child’s innocence.”

Alicia laid a hand on the arm of each man. “Precious time is wasting. Come, we must find Verity.”

They split up in small groups searching various areas of the main house. Others were assigned to search the stables and the outdoor grounds. Griffin checked with Stevens to see if he had seen her, as well as inside the coach. Someone found the dog, but Verity was still missing.

Griffin returned to the house, pacing back and forth in the foyer. He pressed his fist against his open palm trying to think of where she would have gone. This house and these grounds were unfamiliar to her. He understood perfectly well why she would want to flee his family. He had done so as a grown man, but why would she flee from him, her own father? The thought sent a pain of regret shooting through his worried heart.

“I daresay, what is all this chaos about?” His father’s voice boomed loudly as he stepped into the foyer.

Griffin paused with his back to his father and rolled his eyes. Lord, help me to show honor to my father. He rubbed a hand over his weary eyes. Slowly, he turned and faced the one man whom he could never please. “Verity is missing.”

His father narrowed his eyes and gestured around them. “Well, send someone to find her. Is it really necessary to turn my house upside down?”

Taking a deep breath, Griffin sought the right words, but only angry retorts came to mind. He marched to his father and paused before him. “If you and mother had one ounce of compassion in your souls, my child might not have gone missing. As it is, you refused to bridle your tongue in front of her, and now she’s run away.” Griffin swallowed the rising lump of fear threatening to choke him. “Father, she’s all I’ve got in this world and if I have to turn your house upside down and this entire country with it, I’ll do so until I find her.” His voice rose to a near shout and his rapid breath came in quick paces.

A feminine moan came from the staircase. Both men looked up to see Griffin’s mother grasp the railing and wipe a stray tear with the trembling fingers.

Griffin looked at his father. “I thought she felt too poorly to be up and about?”

“She asked me to send Verity to her. She wanted to apologize to the child and spend some time getting to know her.”

This bit of news staggered Griffin’s mind, but he had no time to ponder it. Terrence burst through the front door. He strode to his brother. “Did you find her?”

He shook his dark head. “No, but I thought you might like to know that a carriage approaches.”

Griffin gave him a puzzled look. “And why would that be of any interest to me? I’ve more important matters to consider, namely, finding my daughter.” He struggled to maintain his patience and started to walk away, when his brother’s next words gave him reason to pause.

“I believe it is Lady Marguerite.”

Too little time had passed for her to have made it home and return so quickly. Besides, she had made it clear that she expected them and would not be returning. Griffin thought back to Verity and Marguerite giggling together on their way to have gingerbread treats. Verity seemed so comfortable in her presence, enough so that she had asked Lady Marguerite questions.

Griffin hurried, throwing the front door wide and bounding down the stone front steps. The biting cold brushed against his cheeks once again, but he paid no heed as his legs broke into a run toward the carriage ambling down the long drive. “Verity!” Cold air clipped his tongue and froze his lungs as he pumped his arms harder. Light flakes of snow fell, and on he pressed. “Verity!”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 11

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.

“Griffin?”

“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 . . .”

“Yes?”

“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.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 10

Well, I was really curious about what Pamela James, aka Pammer, would do with this story. She was next up, after me, to add a segment to the story. And I have to say, I'm so impressed. It's perfect. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Marguerite’s heart thumped painfully. She gave the beautiful child a small smile as they sat to enjoy the treat.

Away from the family, away from the yelling, away from the festivities that now seemed like a fraud. How could a grown man hurl such obscene words in front of an innocent child? No matter her heritage, she hadn’t asked to be born. Her parentage wasn’t her choice. To scorn a precious little one was more than she could bear.

It brought back too many memories of her own grandfather’s displeasure of her. Not because she was of mixed birth, but simply because she had the audacity to be born a girl rather than the hoped for heir.

Her eyes met the azure blue of Verity’s gaze. In that moment a bond was made and sealed. Please, Lord, give me the words to help ease her hurt.

“What does half-breed mean?” Verity’s white teeth showed for an instant before they sank into the fragrant gingerbread.

Marguerite winced. “It’s something grandfathers say when they’ve been mad for a very long time.”

“Who’s he mad at?”

A good question, that. “I’m not sure he remembers anymore.”

Verity nodded sagely as she swung her legs under the table. As if remembering her manners, she straightened her posture. “I don’t think he likes me at all.”

“I pray he’s given a chance to get to know you before he makes that decision. Now that I’ve gotten to spend some time with you, I like you very much.”

The door flung open causing Marguerite to jump up in alarm. Her hand fluttered to her chest. “Griffin.”

“Thank you for your kindness to my daughter. Verity, prepare yourself. We’re leaving at once.”

“Yes, Father.” Sadness hovered in those eyes so like Griffin’s.

“Please, Griffin. Can this not be worked out?”

Griffin shook his head. “Not until my father wills it. He’s still the same, reminding me of all the reasons I left in the first place. Maybe I shouldn’t have returned.”

Marguerite laid a pale hand on his arm. “I pray that God will work on his heart. Do you insist on leaving tonight?”

“I have little choice.” Griffin glanced at Verity then back at her.

“My father would consider me most rude if I did not offer you the hospitality of Willowford Hall.”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 9--This is Mine!

Here's my contribution to the story. Hope you like it!

Griffin’s eyes locked on little Verity. Her bottom lip quivered, her expression filled with confusion and pain. Torn between wanting to unleash a righteous torrent on his father and his desire to go to his precious daughter, scoop her in his arms, and get far away from his former home, he stood mute, inwardly condemning his own indecision.

Alicia knelt beside their mother.

Marguerite pressed the smelling salts into her hand and stood. With purpose in her movements, she strode toward Verity and leaned down. Her voice was so cheerful it seemed to jar the silent tension in the room. “I do believe I smell gingerbread! My favorite treat. Will you come to the kitchen with me and sneak some? Hmm?” She took Verity’s hand and they hurried away. But before they rounded the corner, Griffin could hear them both giggling.

His breath rushed out of his chest in gratitude. Yes, he’d give several years of his life right now to take back every unkind thing he’d ever said and done to Lady Marguerite.

The guests stared. His father glared. Alicia looked up at him, tears streaming down her cheeks.

He faced his father and clenched his hands into fists. Though he would have preferred not to do it publicly, it was time to address his father’s cruel words.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Father.” He thanked God he was able to force a cool tone of voice. “Because Verity is the dearest person in this world to me now. She may not remember her mother, but I do, and I will thank you not to disparage her—ever again.”

“Is this the way you treat your family? To stay away all these years, then show up unannounced and bring this—this—trouble upon us? This embarrassing—” The older man clamped his teeth together, halting his tirade. A tiny muscle in his jaw convulsed, and he abruptly turned and stalked out of the room.

He stared after his father, a strange mix of emotions ached his heart, until a faint moan called his attention back to his mother. Her eyes fluttered open.

“Griffin. My boy.”

Dropping to his knees beside her, he helped her into a sitting position.

With doleful gray eyes, she whispered, “She is truly your child?”

“Yes, Mother. Forgive me for staying away so long, for not telling you . . . anything. But please. Verity is an innocent child. Her mother was a Christian woman. You mustn’t say such things, speak ill of her for being—”

“Move back,” his father ordered, as he strode back into the room, the maid in his shadow. He gently lifted the frail woman, cradling her in his arms. He carried her to the staircase and disappeared with her upstairs. Alicia held up her skirt as she followed after them.
Griffin glanced around at the guests, but each one quickly averted his or her gaze, glancing at the floor, at the ceiling, or at each other. They fidgeted with their punch glasses and shuffled their feet.

His eyes alighted on the perfectly formed fir tree in the center of the bay windows, bedecked with bright candles, glass balls, and dainty doll ornaments, all hung with gaily colored ribbons. A large silver star at the tip-top winked, mocking him. Mocking his family’s hypocrisy. Mocking his hope of a warm welcome.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 8

Here's the next episode of our Christmas story. This one was written by Marjorie Vawter
. Marjorie also is a professional editor. Contact her for freelance editing and writing services at http://www.shevetwritingservices.com. And now, enjoy the story.

Griffin watched Marguerite disappear with his daughter, then turned to Alicia. “Charles did this to her?”

She merely nodded, keeping her eyes focused outdoors.

“Then I welcome his visit. I shall talk sense into the man.”

“Too late.” Alicia turned from the window and slipped her hand through Griffin’s. “He married less than a month after declaring Marguerite unfit to be his bride.”

The door to the drawing room opened and the butler announced, “The Duke and Duchess of Fennley.”

So Charles now held the title. Griffin wasn’t too surprised by that. The old duke had never been well, at least in his memory. But he was surprised at the plain, rail-thin woman who entered the room at his friend’s side. If he chose her over Marguerite, the man was a fool.

“Griffin!” Charles strode across the room to grasp Griffin’s hand. “I saw your father when he was riding this afternoon. He told me you’d come home.”

Griffin spared a quick glance at his father, wondering at the hint of welcome suggested by his spreading the news of his return. He returned the handclasp with enthusiasm. They had been too close as boys to shun him over his choice of a bride.

“Welcome, Charles. Alicia and—” He couldn’t bring Marguerite into the conversation. She’d been so distressed to see Charles drive up. “Well, I’ve just heard of your recent marriage.”

Charles frowned slightly, then looked over his shoulder at his bride standing quietly by the door. “Ah, yes. You must meet Belinda.” He motioned her closer, then smiled. “My dear, this is my long-lost friend, Griffin Tirach.”

Before Griffin could speak, he felt Alicia’s hand tighten on his arm. The room went silent as the door from the hallway opened once again and an older woman, leaning heavily on a maid’s arm, entered.

Mama? Despite Emory’s warning, Griffin wasn’t prepared for the emaciated, gray-skinned woman before him. A mere shadow of the strong, vibrant woman he remembered.

Her gaze slowly, almost vacantly, scanned the silent room until it landed on Griffin. Her eyes widened in recognition. “Griffin?”

She swayed, and Griffin strode quickly to her side to aid the maid in supporting her. “Yes, Mama.”

“No one told me.” With an effort his mother straightened. “It’s been so long.”

“I’m sorry.” Words were inadequate. It had been too long. “I’m here now. Come, you must sit. There’s an empty chair by the fire, next to Father.”

She leaned on his arm and dismissed the maid before allowing him to guide her across the room. The others cleared the way and conversation started up again.

“Papa!” Verity popped into the room. “I saw the little dog again. Come, you must—”

Griffin shushed her. “Verity, come meet your grandmother, sweetheart.”

Disha moved behind Verity, placing a hand on her shoulder, as the girl came to stand by her father.

Griffin felt his mother stiffen. “You married? A foreigner?” She removed her hand from his arm. “Oh, Griffin, how could you?”

Griffin watched the joy drain away from his daughter as bewilderment clouded her eyes. He’d hoped his mother of all people would understand.

“Mama, I can explain.” How many times had that phrase come out of his mouth over the years?

But with a sigh his mother crumpled to the floor, leaving him grasping at air.

“Now look what you’ve done!” his father roared as he came out of his chair and faced Griffin over his mother’s limp form. “I should have booted you out as soon as you came into the house with a half-breed brat.”

Before Griffin could respond, a woman’s sharp gasp echoed around the room. “Stop it!”

A flash of blue, and then Marguerite knelt at his mother’s side, waving a small vial of smelling salts beneath her nostrils and glaring up at the two men.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 7

Our story continues today with a section written by Roseanna M. White, who has a published novel, A Stray Drop of Blood. Check it out on her website.

The noise was somehow comforting. The four children ran about the room, laughing and shouting, while the adults trimmed the tree and sipped at mulled cider. Marguerite noticed that Verity had no trouble fitting in with her three cousins—a talent she envied the girl. For her part, Marguerite was content to stand by the window and let the familiar cacophony of a happy family swell over her.

A mostly happy family, anyway. There was still tension there, but it had been covered by the cheerful music Terrence’s wife played on the piano, by the laughter, and by sheer force of will. Griffin looked stiff, but he laughed with Alicia’s husband, Keyes, and Terrence. The patriarch of the family held court in his favorite wingback chair and seemed to be trying to forcibly to keep his eyes off his newly returned son. The peace may have been makeshift, but it was peace nonetheless.

Marguerite looked out into the gathering twilight. Clouds had gathered and were just starting to let loose a few lonely flakes of snow. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come here tonight. She had thought it would help to be distracted, to be surrounded by friends, but instead she felt a few crucial steps removed from it all.

Alicia moved into her periphery and gave a happy sigh beside her. “It’s going to be a beautiful holiday. And look—snow!”
Marguerite managed a semblance of a smile. “You always did like snow for Christmas.”

But Alicia was never fooled by falsity. She put a gentle hand on Marguerite’s shoulder and squeezed. “The worst will be over after this. It’ll be time to move on.” A mischievous grin possessed her lips. “My brother certainly seems incapable of taking his eyes off you.”

Marguerite very nearly snorted. “Start your matchmaking schemes again, Alicia, and I shall march myself home this instant. Especially if you’ve no better prospect than Griffin.”

Alicia remained silent for a moment, and Marguerite knew a pang of guilt. Her friend had gone many long years without seeing her brother—she surely didn’t want to hear any insults against him just now. And certainly he had changed from the arrogant boy that had tormented her.

Alicia’s smile released her from her conscience. “Darling Maggie, I do believe you are still put out with men at large.”

This time a small snort escaped before she could stop it. And the bitter cynicism she had carefully kept bottled for the last three months followed it out. “And why would that be, I wonder? It could have nothing at all to do with the fact that my sainted father gambled away my dowry, could it? Or the fact that my betrothed, who supposedly adored me, broke off the engagement when he realized it? Certainly my angst has nothing at all to do with the fact that today should have been my wedding day.”

The deep voice that reverberated from behind her nearly sent Marguerite into palpitations. “It seems to me, my lady, that you’re better off without the fool who would make such a mistake.”

She spun around to look up into Griffin’s warm gaze. If she had seen pity there, she would have fled. If she had seen mockery, she would have snarled. But when she saw a soft light of humor in those deep blue depths, colored with a simple and fierce belief in his words, she felt herself smile. Not widely or for long, but it was still the first genuine cheer she had indulged in all day.

She acknowledged his statement with a nod. “That’s what your sister has been telling me for months.” She would have said more, but a noise from outside drew her attention to the window again.

Alicia chuckled. “And I’m right. Better she have a broken engagement than learn after the marriage her groom was less than he seemed.”

“Indeed. This fellow was obviously a fool.”

Marguerite’s fingers tightened on the windowsill as the shadows outside stepped into the light. “That fool was once your dearest friend, Griffin. And it seems he heard about your arrival and decided to welcome you home.”

She paid no heed to any response Griffin might have had. Instead, she spun around and examined the room for some means of escape. Perhaps Fennley didn’t realize she had planned to spend the holiday at Arbonne. Perhaps he simply wanted to greet his long-absent friend. Or perhaps he knew she was here and wanted to seize the opportunity to wave his new wife, even now on his arm, under her nose.

She had no intention of standing there to find out. She was halfway across the room when the perfect excuse presented itself.

“I need the necessary,” Verity whispered to her nurse just as Marguerite was passing by.

She smiled and took the child’s hand before the nurse could reply. “I’ll take you, darling. I’m heading that way myself.”

She had whisked them both out into the back hallway a mere second before she heard the front doors swing open. Now she just had to figure out how to keep herself away until Charles Fennley went right back out them again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 6

Today's installment was written by Lacy J. Williams.

Delightful surprise, indeed.

Marguerite stood stiffly in the front hall, feigning a smile. If she’d known Griffin was going to be here, she would never have accepted Alicia’s invitation to engage in holiday festivities with the family.

His grasp on her hand was firm, and warmth tingled along her skin. “How good to see you, Lady Marguerite.”

“And you. I trust that you had a pleasant journey.”

“Indeed.”

For a moment, she entertained thoughts of slipping out the door and escaping what was sure to be a horrid evening. She certainly had no desire to be scorned on this, the day that should have been the happiest of her life. And scorning her had been Griffin’s favorite childhood occupation, most often when he thought she did not hear.

“Is your father well?”

Was he toying with her? Pretending to be friendly while planning a way to humiliate her?

“Yes. He sends his regrets that he could not attend this evening.” Marguerite purposely kept her reply cool.

Perhaps Griffin did not yet know of her shameful situation. She examined his face for clues, but found only that his blue eyes sparkled and the corner of his mouth quirked just a bit, as if a smile hid close behind.

Unnerved by his intent gaze, Marguerite looked down and caught sight of their still-joined hands. She nearly squirmed at the inappropriateness of such a greeting, but dared not look up into Griffin’s face again to see if he’d noticed.

“Papa!”

A cry rang out in the hallway and Griffin released his hold on Marguerite’s hand, to her relief. He half-turned and swept a pretty, dark-haired girl to his side. Both of her arms came about his waist.

Papa?

“Did you have your chocolate?” The warmth in Griffin’s tone confirmed the relationship.

“Yes, and I saw a little dog. He was red and white and had a little flat face.” She sighed. “He was simply charming.”

Marguerite watched, fascinated, as Griffin’s expression morphed from a mere hint to a full-blown smile. His teeth flashed white against the dark shadow of whiskers along his jaw. He, too, was simply charming.

Alarmed at the direction her thoughts were taking, Marguerite intended to slip away and find Alicia, who seemed to have disappeared while she and Griffin had greeted each other. Too late, she realized that her movement had alerted Griffin.

He straightened and placed his hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Forgive me. Lady Marguerite, allow me to introduce my daughter, Verity.”

The girl curtsied, a shy smile lighting her face.

“I daresay I have never met such a lovely young woman.” Marguerite forced a smile to her trembling lips. She had never imagined that Griffin would return home a married man. “And her mother?”

A cloud passed over Griffin’s face. Gone was the jovial smile from a moment ago, replaced by a mask that showed no emotion. A muscle jumped in his jaw. He opened his mouth, but no words came.

“My mama went to heaven.” Verity spoke clearly, her gaze flicking first to Marguerite, then to her father. “Papa told me so.”

The girl’s earnest statement brought a lump to Marguerite’s throat. She clasped her hands at her waist to stop them from shaking. “My mother is in heaven, too.”

Perhaps, had her mother still been alive, her father would not have made the mistake that now threatened to ruin her.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 5

Today's edition in our serial story is contributed by Andee S. Davis. Enjoy!

Griffin had thoroughly prepared himself to be rejected by those he loved, but spending more than a decade in the far reaches of the British Empire left him forgetful of local prejudices he’d conquered long ago.

Terrance swore under his breath. “You’re a complete fool, brother, bringing an Indian wife to our home.” He walked up to the servant and looked her over like a mare at market. Then he spun on his heels to inspect Verity, but his frowns failed to frighten her.

Griffin quickly covered the ground between himself and his daughter. A prayer forming in his mind, he held back angry words.

“This,” he intoned smoothly, indicating Disha, “is Verity’s maid. Disha has been with us since she served Verity’s mother as midwife. It may interest you to know, Terrence, that I chose her from among several candidates of baptized women selected by my vicar.”

He was rewarded with the sight of his brother’s foolish expression as Disha curtsied elegantly.

“I say, uh, well! At least he didn’t marry a foreigner.” Terrence chuckled weakly at Alicia. Turning back to Griffin, he stiffened at the expression on his face.

Griffin bent at once to his daughter. “Verity, Disha will take you up for a pot of chocolate.” Griffin’s voice was gentle, but there was an unmistakable edge to its timbre. “We will commence the tree-trimming when Grandfather returns from his ride.”

At their exit, Terrence turned his back and disappeared through another doorway.

Alicia touched Griffin’s sleeve in a timid way that reminded him of her as a child. Summoning a smile he didn’t feel, he allowed a small hug.

“Don’t worry about Terrence, Griff. You know how he is. One little upset in his routine can take days to overcome. We’re all glad to see you. The other thing,” and her voice trembled a little, “well, it’s Christmas. Let us simply be glad for all God’s blessings.”

Griffin led her to an upholstered settee flanked by graceful palms.

“Her name was Lila, the daughter of an English colonel and an Indian heiress. We lost her six years back, of a fever. Verity has her olive skin and black hair, though she has my eyes exactly.”

Alicia’s voice quivered. “I am so sorry for your loss, Griff. I wish we could have met.”

Griffin swallowed, but remained silent.

“She’s a beautiful child. I love her already. Have our parents been introduced?”

Griffin relaxed as a sarcastic smile stretched his lips. “Only Father. And fortunately for us, Father didn’t detect the foreign features. He was more interested in going for his ride. Mama hasn’t come down yet.”

“Oh! Mama will . . . Speaking of introductions, you will never guess who will be joining us here . . . no, never in a million years.” Alicia’s face broke into a grin as she wriggled a little in anticipation.

“Your family?”

“Of course, you will meet them. But no. Don’t you remember our childhood, how the two of us spent many hours roaming the estate, creating little fantasies and turning up late for tea, dirty as street urchins?”

Griffin laughed easily. “You and I and that chubby little Willowford girl, with the pretentious French name.”

“Indeed, it was Marguerite.”

Griffin roared with mirth. “That’s right, little fat Marguerite Hortense. Though what induced her to leave her sweetmeats and puddings to follow us around, I could never fathom.”

Alicia frowned her disapproval. “Now, Griff, that is not a charitable attitude . . .”

“I should say I’m sorry, but it was true. How she would whimper that she couldn’t keep up . . .” He stopped, suddenly wary, and groaned. “Not her! She is visiting, so soon after we arrive? Please, Alicia, you’ll keep her busy, won’t you?”

“None of us knew of your arrival, dear brother, so how could she? Besides, she has changed so much, you’d never recognize her.”

“Ah, the plump little pigeon has become a graceful swan. Thinned out a little, has she? I beg forgiveness, Alicia, of course she’d have . . . improved.”

“Now that’s better, Griff, and much more gentlemanlike. It’s true, she will never have a twenty-inch waist, but not every woman has a willowy stature.”

“Despite her surname, you mean?”

He knew he well deserved the little punch Alicia aimed at his shoulder.

“She is expected at any moment, and I expect you . . .”

The interruption came from Jones, who was closing the hall doors against the wintry wind. “The Lady Marguerite Hortense, of Willowford Hall.”

Griffin stood for the proper introductions, taking a steadying breath and promising his heavenly Father he would be kind.

Alicia’s glad cries were muffled by her friend’s woolen wraps. Barely able to distinguish the guest from his sister, he waited until they parted from a hearty embrace.

“Maggie, allow me to present my brother, Griffin. He has only just arrived home as well, and our hearts are gladdened at his presence.”

A maid removed Lady Marguerite’s cloak, and Griffin stood as one petrified.

She was, indeed, the little friend from childhood, he could see it in her eyes. But in every other way she bore little resemblance to the frumpy child he’d practically ignored growing up.

Before him stood a lady of stately posture and graceful carriage. His eyes swept unbidden, from her round face on a lithe neck to the fullness of her bosom and generous hips tastefully adorned by blue velvet. Her laugh was gentle and demure, and with a silky, low voice she greeted him.

“Of course, Griffin! Never could I forget my dear neighbor from childhood. What a delightful surprise.”

Her arms were round and creamy, the hand she offered him soft and round, as well. He stared again at the rosy cheeks and snapping black eyes, and a tiny dimple at the corner of her red mouth, and found that not a single word would escape from his lips.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Pray for Kristy Dykes

The next section of our story will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, I want to ask you to pray for Christian author, Kristy Dykes. She will begin radiation treatment for her brain tumor on Monday at 3:30 Central time. Her husband, Milton, has asked that we pray for her healing at that time. He is believing and trusting God for her miraculous healing.

So please join me in praying for Kristy. She is a sweet, bubbly, Godly woman, but this cancer has taken away her writing, even her clarity of thinking, her memory, and her ability to speak at times. Let us lift her up to God in prayer. We know our God is all-powerful. He loves us with an unfailing love. He wants us to keep on praying and not give up. (Luke 18:1) He doesn't want us to doubt when we pray, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 4

This next section of our story is contributed by Rachel Wilder

After they’d been shown to their rooms and the luggage brought in, Griffin and Verity returned to the drawing room while Disha unpacked their clothes.

The main door of the mansion opened with a bang, and the large home filled with the sounds of laughter and talking. Griffin felt Verity press a little closer to him, and he squeezed her just a bit to reassure her that everything was indeed all right.

That was when he noticed the boxes and trunks that filled the room. Christmas decorations were contained in each one, many of them holding fond memories of the special time that was Christmas at Arbonne.

A grandfather clock in another room began tolling the hour, and he realized that it was time to decorate the tree. That’s who all those voices belonged to—Terrence and his family, and possibly Alicia and her family.

The sounds of children’s laughter grew louder as the party approached the drawing room. A magnificent fir tree, cut from the manor’s property, was always placed in front of the large bay windows. So Verity would get to meet her cousins after all.

What would Terrence and Alicia say? He especially worried about Terrence. Though close, Terrence had very much disapproved of his younger brother’s rash actions and sudden departure from their ancestral home.

Please, Lord. Restore my family. For Verity’s sake.

And then they were in the room. The talking ceased in an instant. Alicia ran into Terrence’s back when he stopped in mid-step.

“Terrence! Your feet really can’t be frozen. It isn’t that cold.”

Alicia’s voice, so like that of their mother’s, did much to calm Griffin’s soul. Then she stepped around their frozen brother and when her eyes set on Griffin, she squealed and propelled herself into his arms. “I’m so glad you’re home!”

It took every ounce of strength Griffin possessed to keep them both from toppling over from her forcefulness. “As am I, Alicia.” He pulled back a bit and cupped her dear face in his hands. “Let me look at you.”

She obliged, stepping back and performing a twirl so he could see her dress. Then she turned to Terrence and put her hands on her hips. “Where are your manners? Are they frozen too?”

Griffin laughed. A deep laugh, a laugh that hadn’t erupted from him since before Lila’s illness had taken hold. Terrence thawed out and strode over to his brother. Griffin expected a firm handshake, for that was Terrence’s way. He was greatly surprised with a large hug that nearly lifted him from his feet.

“Welcome home, Griffin.” Terrence’s deep voice set him at ease. At least two people were glad to see him.

With one arm slung around Griffin’s shoulder, Terrence pointed to Verity. “I’m not the only one in this room with frozen manners. Who is this beautiful young lady?”

Verity smiled and Griffin knew she was pleased at the compliment. “Alicia, Terrence, this is your niece. Verity.”

Verity curtseyed. “I’m so pleased to finally meet you both. Father has talked much of growing up here.”

“And a proper lady too. Unlike someone else in this room.”

Griffin snickered as Alicia adopted a pompous look and glared at Terrence.

It was at that very moment that Disha stepped from the shadows. She had shed her coat while unpacking, and Griffin saw the bright colors of her sari dancing from the light of the fire. The gold threads gleamed and sparkled like precious gems.

The warmth that had enveloped the room vanished like an ice cube in an Indian summer. A chill worked its way around the room, leaving Griffin with a knot in the pit of his stomach.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Home by Christmas, Part 3

Today's episode is contributed by D'Ann Mateer. To read more about D'Ann, please go to her website.

Candles lit each window of Arbonne, shouting their welcome of winter-weary travelers in this season of goodwill. Griffin clung to their ancient meaning of hospitality as he made his way toward the front door with Verity beside him, Disha following close behind.

Emory entered first, then quickly called them inside, out of the cold. An unfamiliar butler took their wraps, obviously perturbed at Emory’s “take-charge” attitude.

“Put them in the drawing room and stoke up the fire, Jones. I’ll see the master.”

With a smirk of disdain, Jones did as he was told.

Memories assaulted Griffin at his first step into the drawing room. Here he had cut all ties with his family. From here he had stormed into the world beyond Arbonne, determined never to return.

But he’d been a different man then. A boy, really. The years in India had changed him. Love had changed him. Now he stood in the place of his greatest shame and wondered if it would all come right again.

Verity inched toward the blazing fire. Griffin slid a chair close, then pulled her into his lap. She snuggled into him, her head resting on his chest, beneath his chin.

“Don’t be afraid, Verity,” he said. “God is with us. Remember that.” He felt her nod.

Silent moments passed. Footsteps sounded in the hall. Verity raised her head. The footsteps faded. Verity looked into Griffin’s face, her small hand, now warm, cupped his cheek.

“I’m not afraid, Father. You’re here with me, too.” She smiled, slow and sweet.

Griffin’s chest tightened and the familiar ache crawled up his throat. He missed Lila, even after more than five years, especially as Verity’s face grew more like her mother’s every day.

Footsteps echoed through the hall once more. Faster, this time. His heart thudded against his chest. Was this the moment? The door burst open. His father filled the doorway. Griffin set Verity on her feet as he stood.

“So you’ve returned.” The deep voice betrayed little hint of emotion.

Griffin stepped forward, shielding Verity with his body as he noticed Disha retreat into the shadowed corner of the room. “I’m home, Father. I pray I am still welcome here.”

With a grunt, his father moved toward him. Griffin backed away, toward the chair he had occupied earlier, leaving Verity suddenly exposed. His father stopped.

“Who is that?”

Griffin slipped an arm around Verity’s trembling shoulders and pulled her close. He lifted his chin. He would not be ashamed. “This is my daughter. Verity.” Griffin stared straight into his father’s eyes, daring him to criticize in front of the child.

Their eyes held, locked together in the same battle of wills that had marked their tumultuous relationship. Until his father’s gaze skittered away, toward the fire. He picked up the poker and stabbed at the crumbling log. Griffin relaxed a tiny bit. At least Father wouldn’t make a scene—for the moment.

But how long the words would remain at bay, Griffin couldn’t be sure.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Home by Christmas Part 2

This section was written by Deborah Kinnard. Deb is the author of three published novels, POWERLINE and OAKWOOD (Treble Heart Books) and ANGEL WITH A RAY GUN (ByGrace Publishing). Click here for Deb's website.

Enough! Griffin shook his head at his foolishness. After so long an absence, the household would surely welcome him and his party. They must . . .

They must, for he’d worried the alternative in his mind like a hound gnaws a bone. He couldn’t leave it alone. Arbonne’s call had become too strong to endure; he couldn’t tolerate his old life in Banipur a moment longer.

Home.

He touched his heels to the gelding’s side and surged forward. Leather harness creaked behind him as the coachman slapped the reins against the team’s flanks. Griffin lifted his head to draw deep into his lungs the cool, bracing air of the northland. It smelled of low-growing pine, of autumn-browned heather, of all homely things. He stifled the uncertainty. Could home still smell of acceptance?

The path to the manor house crested the hilltop, then down through the valley of the clear-running beck. The stables straggled out to the right of the great house. It was from them that the first welcome issued. Several of his father’s great gray hounds bounded out as Griffin approached, barking and snarling a challenge.

“Wella! Max! Get on away from that, you great dumdollies.” From the shadowed stables emerged Emory, his father’s horse master and general caretaker of the “part outside.” His windburned face looked years more weathered but not appreciably older. At the sight of Griffin trying to curb his alarmed and overtired mount, Emory’s grip loosened on the crop in his hand, dropping it into the frozen mud of the yard. “Great heavens alive!”

“Yes,” said Griffin. His heart bounded in response. “The prodigal son returns.”

Emory approached and Griffin dismounted, handing off the reins into the older man’s willing glove. “It does m’heart good to see you, sir, that it does. My lord’ll be just . . .” Words failed, and instead of searching for them, he ran his gaze up and down Griffin’s travel-stained clothing.

“Surprised? Angered? Speak plain if you will, for I’m travel-worn. If there’s no welcome for me here, we’ll have to seek it elsewhere.”

“‘Twill be a surprise for certain, young sir,” said Emory. “Is that your equipage?”

Griffin rubbed his gloved hands together, trying with friction to warm them. Already the northern chill had settled into his bones, his sinews objecting most strenuously to English weather. “No, a hired rig. Emory . . . shall I announce myself? My party needs warmth and food and a roof to sleep under tonight.”

“No, sir. Let me but stable your horse, and I shall go break the news to them within.”

He is home. After all this journey, I feared he would have gone to Carlisle or to the outlying farms. “My mother is at home?”

“Aye. You’ll find her much changed.”

His heart contracted painfully and he turned to the carriage. Mama, altered? It cannot be. “Disha, Verity, come. No, child, do not hang back. This is Emory Pfeifer, of whom I have told you. The one who raised me—this man you must not fear, ladies.”

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Home by Christmas

Here is the first installment of our serial Christmas story. This section was written by author extraordinaire Louise Gouge. You may go to her website, for more information about Louise's books. Check back here every day for more installments. Without further ado, here is our Victorian Christmas story, Home by Christmas.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Griffin Tirach spurred his mount to a gallop. The Northumbrian wind bit through the woolen scarf he had thrown across his face against the cold. But he must gain the top of the hill before his heart leapt from his chest. Within a scant five minutes, he reached his destination and stared down into the valley below.

There, just as he had left it eleven years before, stood Arbonne. Vast. Stately. Austere. Foreboding. Home.

Joy welled up in his chest and battled with his anguished doubts, leaving him almost breathless. Would the inhabitants welcome home the prodigal after all this time? Would Mama weep, as she had when he left? Would Father even grant him entrance? Perhaps Terrence would be home for Christmas with his family. Perhaps little Alicia, grown up and married and now with her own children.

He glanced behind him at the heavy-laden coach that lumbered up the road, taking a quarter hour to reach him and carrying all his hard-earned wealth. In this sparsely populated part of the country, highwaymen might have stolen it all. Yet they had only passed a single coach yesterday and none at all today. God was watching over them.

“Whoa.” The coachman pulled the horses to a stop and set the brake. “Quite a sight, ain’t it, gov’ner?” The whiskered old fellow grinned with the familiarity of a close and trusted servant.

“That it is, Stevens. That it is.” Now that he had seen the place, now that they were safely within the borders of Arbonne, tendrils of warmth spread through his chest, shoving his doubts to a dark corner.

He peered through the carriage’s isinglass window and grinned. “Warm enough?”

Bundled in her furs, Verity nodded. Her blue eyes sparkled, and her olive cheeks bore the blush of excitement. Wisps of black hair curled across her forehead, enhancing her look of innocence. Sweet child. She had no idea that his family might send them all packing. Only nine years old, yet she had borne the wild and wintry voyage from India without complaint, unlike many more mature passengers on the Night Hawk.

Griffin glanced at Disha. The Hindu woman gave him a curt nod. Slavishly devoted to the child, she, too, had endured the voyage, refusing to become seasick. Somehow her presence gave him a sense of assurance that all would be well.

Dear God, please grant us grace in Father’s eyes. Grave and parsimonious for eleven months of the year, yet at this season, the old man had always become sentimental and benevolent. May he still be that way. Please, God.
If not, they would find out soon enough.