A Visit from Sir Nicholas

 

CHAPTER ONE

Christmas Past, December 1843

 

Affectionately Yours, Lizzie.

Lady Elizabeth Effington stared at the words she’d just written and grimaced. No. Affectionately was entirely too personal and Lizzie too informal. He’d never called her Lizzie and she doubted he’d start now. Indeed, with one significant exception, he’d never been anything other than completely proper with her. It was most annoying. She crossed out the line just as she had the previous three attempts.

“That was truly wonderful.” Behind her, her younger sister, Juliana, sighed with heartfelt satisfaction.

“I knew you would like it,” Lizzie said absently and stared at the sheet of white velum lying on the desk in front of her in the sitting room she shared with Jules.

“It was so . . . so . . .” Jules thought for a moment. “Wonderful.”

“Quite,” Lizzie murmured and wrote With Sincere Best Wishes, Lady Elizabeth Effington .

“No, more than wonderful. I daresay it’s the best story about Christmas—no—the best story about anything I have ever read.”

That wasn’t right either. With Sincere Best Wishes had an obligatory ring as if one were writing to an elderly relative one didn’t particularly like but was required to be pleasant to nonetheless. Besides, while Lizzie might be too personal Lady Elizabeth Effington was far and away too formal for her purposes. She slashed a pen stroke through the bothersome phrase.

“In point of fact,” Jules continued in a tone that sounded far more like a literary critic than a mere girl of sixteen years. “I think it’s quite the best story Mr. Dickens has written. Of those I’ve read, of course, but I do think I’ve read most of his stories as he is possibly my favorite author. It’s not as amusing as Nicholas Nickleby but a far better ending to my mind than The Old Curiosity Shop, although I do so love stories about girls having adventures.” Jules paused. “Even if Little Nell’s were rather dreadful.”

“Yes, well, dying at the end of one’s story does tend to make one’s adventures a bit less than cheery,” Lizzie said under her breath. With eternal friendship, Elizabeth. “I dislike books that don’t end well. Mother’s books always end well. This one does too, in a fashion, although it is something of a pity Scrooge did not discover the error of his ways until he was old. He would have had a rather wonderful life if he had married Belle. Don’t you think so?”

“Um hmm.”

Friendship was good. Not the least bit improper. And Elizabeth had the right tone. Perhaps . . . Lizzie sighed and crossed out her latest effort. Why on earth was this so blasted difficult? All she was trying to do was come up with an appropriate inscription for a book to give as a gift. Still, her words were as important as the book itself. Even more so.

“I think my very favorite part though,” Jules said slowly, “was at the end when Tiny Tim sprouted wings and flew off with Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes. Of course. I . . .” Lizzie jerked her head up, swiveled in her chair and stared at her sister. “What did you say?”

“I suspected as much.” Jules narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You weren’t listening to a word I said, were you?”

“I most certainly was. You said . . .” Lizzie searched her mind. She did so hate to admit that her sister was right, at least in part. “You said you liked A Christmas Carol better than any of Mr. Dickens’ other works.”

Jules snorted in a most unladylike manner. “That was the very least of what I said.” She sat upright on the chaise and craned her neck to see around her sister. “Whatever are you doing anyway?”

Lizzie shifted to shield the paper on the desk and adopted a casual tone. “Nothing of importance really. Just trying to find the right words.”

Jules raised a brow. “For what?”

“For none of your concern that’s what,” Lizzie said firmly.

“Is it something for Charles?” Jules fluttered her lashes in an exaggerated manner.

Lizzie laughed. “No, it’s not. And even if it was, I wouldn’t tell you.”

“Why not?” Indignation sounded in the younger girl’s voice. “I’d tell you what I was giving the gentleman who was about to ask for my hand in marriage.”

“Nonsense,” Lizzie said quickly. “Charles is not about to ask for my hand.”

Jules smirked. “Would you care to wager on that?”

Lizzie stared at her sister, unease settling in the pit of her stomach. “Do you know something I should know?”

“Perhaps.” Jules settled back on the chaise and smiled at her sister in that irritating way younger girls refine for the express purpose of torturing their older sisters. “I might know that Charles spoke to father privately this morning. And I might further know, when Charles came out of Father’s library he had a look of relief and excitement on his face.”

Lizzie waved off her sister’s comments. “That could mean anything.”

“Oh, come now, Lizzie. You can’t be the least bit surprised by this.” Jules studied her sister curiously. “For as long as I can remember, everyone in both our families has expected a match between you. I rather thought you expected to marry him as well.”

“Charles is a good man and an excellent match and any woman would be honored to be his wife. Indeed, it seems to me there are any number of young women wishing to do just that.” Lizzie smiled in a noncommittal manner and hoped her comments would satisfy her sister.

“I know I would. Charles is wonderful.” Jules heaved a heartfelt sigh. “He’s so handsome with the brightest blue eyes and the merriest smile and the most charming manner. Indeed, I fear I have a penchant for men with blond, wavy hair. One is hard pressed to keep from running one’s fingers through it.”

Lizzie bit back a grin. “You shall have to resist that in the future.”

“In the future I shall have a merry, blond haired, blue eyed man of my own to wed.” Jules cast her sister a wicked grin. “Then I should be able to run my fingers through his hair all I wish.”

“I daresay one shouldn’t choose a husband on the basis of his hair,” Lizzie said wryly.

“I don’t see why a man’s appearance shouldn’t be considered as well as the rest of his attributes. I should much rather marry a handsome man than a homely one.” Jules drew her brows together. “Doesn’t Charles remind you of Fred?”

Lizzie shook her head. “Fred?”

“Fred. Scrooge’s nephew. He was terribly happy and jolly and handsome as well although he hadn’t much money.”

“Charles has a great deal of money.”

“So much the better. I think it’s far easier to be happy and merry if one has money than if one doesn’t.” Jules thought for a moment. “Although the Cratchits had no money and they seemed happy enough. Except for Tiny Tim, of course. But then he didn’t die after all thanks to Scrooge. Or at least that’s what Mr. Dickens implies.” Her brow furrowed. “Do you think Mr. Dickens was trying to tell us that if you have enough money you can change your fate so that you won’t die young and horribly?”

“Don’t be absurd. He didn’t mean anything of the sort.” Lizzie scoffed. “He was obviously saying that charity and generosity of spirit can make a huge difference in the lives of those who have little. Indeed, I think the moral to the story is that we should all do what we can to help the less fortunate and not just at Christmastime but the whole year through.”

“Probably, although I do wish you hadn’t said that.” The younger girl wrinkled her nose. “I quite liked the story just as it was without concern as to morals or lessons.”

“Morals and lessons are good for your character.”

“My character has had quite enough, thank you. Between Mother and Grandmother and all the aunts, someone is always trying to tell me something that is good for my character. Or my mind for that matter.”

“Perhaps that’s an indication that your character and your mind need improvement,” Lizzie said primly.

“I would scarcely comment about the need to improve one’s character or one’s mind if I were you.”

“Juliana Effington, how can you say such a thing?” Lizzie gasped in mock dismay and clasped her hand to her throat. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with my character or my mind. I am intelligent and well-read, honest and forthright and my moral standards are beyond reproach.”

Jules eyed her sister wryly. “Then it must be exceedingly difficult to fool the entire world as you, among all the varied and assorted Effington and Shelton cousins, are considered perhaps the merriest and the most frivolous.”

“Indeed it is. I work very hard at it.” Lizzie nodded solemnly then met her sister’s gaze and both girls burst into laughter. Lizzie sobered and sighed. “In truth, Jules, I learned long ago that in this world a woman, as opposed to a man, is judged far more on her appearance than her intelligence and men quite prefer a frivolous nature to a serious one. Someday, when I am old and long married, I fully intend to allow my mind free rein and explore all sorts of fascinating interests.”

“I do hope I live long enough to see that.” Jules thought for a moment. “Still, I doubt that Charles would object. I daresay you could do almost anything and Charles wouldn’t mind in the least.”

“He is a wonderful man,” Lizzie murmured.

“Indeed he is. Aside from the dozens of blonde haired, blue eyed children you shall have—”

“Dozens?” Lizzie raised a brow.

“Well, perhaps not dozens but several.” Jules shrugged. “You and he are well suited. Everyone has always said so. Why, I believe you and Charles are fated to marry.”

“Everyone has always said so.” Lizzie echoed her sister’s words.

She too had always assumed she would marry Charles. Had, in fact, loved him in a fashion since childhood.

Charles Langley was heir to a sizable fortune and respectable title. His family had long been friends with her own. Indeed, Charles was one of her older brother Jonathon’s closest friends. He would make an excellent husband and father and no girl could ask for more. Why, he was quite simply wonderful.

But his eyes weren’t dark and smoldering. And his demeanor wasn’t overly serious and somber. And when he stole a kiss in the shadows at a party, it was quite nice but it didn’t curl her toes and snatch her breath from her lungs and make something deep inside her melt with a heretofore unknown yearning.

“Do you know who reminds me of Scrooge?” Jules said thoughtfully. “Nicholas Collingsworth.”

“Nicholas?” Lizzie drew her brows together in a forbidding manner and ignored the way her heart skipped a beat at the mere mention of his name. “What a terrible thing to say! He’s not the least bit like Scrooge. He’s kind and generous and—”

“He’s stiff and proper and far too serious and somber and not at all fun,” Jules said firmly. “Why his only redeeming quality is that he is so devilishly handsome.”

“Jules!”

Jules continued without pause. “And I don’t care what you think, he reminds me very much of Scrooge in his younger days. I don’t know why Jonathon and Charles consider him such a good friend. They haven’t the least bit in common.”

“They have been friends for years and it is lucky for him that he has friends who are not so critical as you,” Lizzie snapped. “You must not forget, his life has not been as pleasant as ours.”

“Yes, yes, I know, he’s an orphan and all that,” Jules muttered, sinking deeper into the chaise. “Obviously my character needs more work. Still, if the man would simply smile now and again . . .”

“He does smile now and again,” Lizzie said more to herself than to her sister. And it was a smile made all the more wonderful for its rarity.

Nicholas Collingsworth had entered their circle of acquaintances more than a decade or so ago after the death of his parents. The orphaned boy came to live with his bachelor uncle, the Earl of Thornecroft, who, in turn was a long time friend of Lizzie’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Roxborough. Jonathon and Charles had accepted the young man as one of their own immediately and the trio had been inseparable in their youth, attending the same schools together and spending holidays variously at one of their respective families’ estates or another. Nicholas was somewhat more reserved than the other boys and Lizzie had paid this friend of her brother’s, as she’d paid all her brother’s friends, scant attention. He, like Charles, was simply always present and, unlike Charles, of no real significance.

Three years ago, Nicholas and his uncle had gone off on a Grand Tour, not simply of Europe but of the world. They’d returned a scant four months ago. The earl was unchanged by their travels, as friendly and jolly as ever if a shade older in appearance, but Nicholas was not at all as she’d remembered.

The boy she’d paid no heed to had become a man she could not put out of her thoughts.

He was strong and handsome and even mysterious, with a jaw chiseled by determination and a look in his dark eyes of purpose and resolve. He seemed to stand apart from the rest of them, truth from the rest of life really, as if he were an observer rather than a participant and was indeed as somber and serious as Jules had claimed. But it was a sobriety born of desire and ambition. She had never known anyone with the ambition of Nicholas Collingsworth.

He was the only heir to his uncle’s wealth and title and had no need for more yet he was set on making his own fortune. Jonathon had told her it was a point of honor and pride. Nicholas wanted to atone for the failures of his father who had also sought to make his own fortune but had been trusting and naïve and unsuccessful in every venture he’d attempted.

From the very moment Lizzie had laid eyes upon Nicholas again she was intrigued and curious. Soon after his return to London, she had made it a point to come upon him alone on the terrace at some event or other. For the first time in their years of acquaintanceship they spoke of matters not relating to friends or the weather or other polite utterances. Her well practiced flirtatious banter had faded under the assault of his steady, assessing gaze and she found herself asking about his travels and confessing her envy at what he as a man could do and would do and she could not.

He’d talked of lands as yet unexplored and endless possibilities and his own awe at the carefree nature of her family and their obvious affection for one another. She spoke of wishes and desires and the curiosities life might hold. He responded in kind with his own hopes and dreams and his determination to make his mark on the world beyond what he would achieve by virtue of who he was rather than what he was.

He spoke to her as he might have to her brother or his friends. As if she were not pretty and frivolous and lighthearted but rather intelligent and competent and of an interest beyond her blonde hair and green eyes and dowry. No man had ever spoken to her like that before.

But then she had never known a man like Nicholas Collingsworth before.

It was the beginning of these odd feelings for him that churned within her and the start of a friendship that was odder yet. More and more she’d found herself seeking him out, and fancied he’d sought her out as well, for a continuation of their private discussions about their lives and their futures, their opinions and reflections. And more, they spoke of art and music and even politics and the state of the world. And the wonders it might hold.

Their conversations in the presence of others remained of little significance. They would dance together, on occasion, no more or less often than she would dance with any other young man. And if he held her during a waltz a shade tighter than the others or murmured polite, proper phrases with an underlying meaning only she could understand no one knew it save Lizzie and Nicholas.

Nothing improper or personal or untoward at all passed between them in public. Nothing anyone could raise an eyebrow at, nothing even the most ardent gossip could speak about in hushed, smug tones. But her gaze would meet his across a room and her heart would leap in her throat and she knew, with a certainty that came from somewhere deep inside, that what she was feeling was shared.

Until finally, inevitably perhaps, they had met privately at some gathering or another and their voices had faltered. For the first time they were awkward and ill at ease as if what had been silently growing between them had sprung now full blown. There were a hundred things, a thousand things she’d wanted to say. A thousand things she’d wanted to hear in return yet the words would not come for her or for him. She’d turned to leave and brushed against him and his gaze had met and meshed with hers in an endless instant of recognition and desire and even perhaps love.

Then she was in his arms and his lips crushed hers in a kiss that stole her breath and her heart. A kiss she had never imagined possible save in her dreams. A kiss that lingered in her soul.

It lasted forever and no time at all. When they’d parted he’d looked as shocked as she and as moved. He’d muttered a polite apology. She’d waved it off with an awkward laugh. And they’d pretended it hadn’t happened and went on as before save they did not meet privately again. But she could not forget his kiss or the look in his eyes or the tremulous feelings he aroused within her.

“He’s leaving London, you know,” Jules said with a casual shrug as if Nicholas Collingsworth’s leaving was of no importance whatsoever.

“So I have heard.” Lizzie’s tone was as casual as her sister’s, belying the urgency that Nicholas’ plans triggered within her. “Jonathon said he’s sailing tomorrow. For America, I believe.”

“Well, I for one shan’t miss him although I daresay he’ll be here tonight. I can’t imagine anyone missing the Effington Christmas Ball.”

“It would be most impolite of him.” And disastrous to Lizzie’s plans. She had to know if what she felt about him was real or imagined. Simply a momentary lapse in judgment and nothing at all serious or lasting or important. And if her feelings were real did he feel the same?

“I can’t wait for tonight.” Excitement sparkled in Jules’ eyes. “This will be the very first Effington Christmas ball that I won’t have to watch in secret.” For as long as Lizzie could remember, the younger Effington children and their cousins had watched the Christmas ball festivities from a hiding place in an unused balcony overlooking the ballroom. Although to say they watched in secret was not entirely accurate since every year, promptly when the clock struck ten, whatever governess was in residence at the time would fetch them and send them off to bed.

“I still can’t believe Mother is allowing you to attend. She did not allow me to attend until I had come out in society and you won’t do that until spring.”

“But I am nearly seventeen and Mother is not tied down by antiquated conventions. She is a modern woman,” Jules said loftily then grinned. “In truth though, I think I simply wore her down.”

“I know the rest of us have certainly been worn down,” Lizzie said wryly.

Jules’s campaign to be allowed to attend the grand party had begun in earnest two years ago when Lizzie, at age seventeen, had been allowed to attend her first Christmas Ball. Jules unending assault on her Mother was a subject of great amusement in the household if a bit trying.

“Besides, Lizzie.” Jules leapt to her feet and twirled about the room. “It’s Christmas and anything is possible at Christmas. Anything at all.”

“I do hope so,” Lizzie murmured.

Jules stopped abruptly and stared. “Whatever is the matter with you? You’ve been exceeding quiet and even thoughtful in recent days. Not at all like your usual self. One would think you had a world of troubles on your mind.”

“Not at all,” Lizzie said firmly. “Why, what on earth could possibly trouble the frivolous Lizzie Effington?” She forced her brightest smile. “And you’re right, it is Christmas time and anything is indeed possible at Christmas. Now, shouldn’t you be getting ready for tonight?”

“I most certainly should.” Jules nodded and headed toward the door to her room. “I have a scant six hours and as this is my first Christmas ball, my first ball ever, I want to look my best. Better than my best. I want to look,” she tossed her head and cast her sister a wicked look over her shoulder that was far more adult than was seemly for a girl her age, “better than you.”

Lizzie raised a brow and bit back a grin. “Oh?”

“You may well be the Effington everyone considers the most fun, but I fully intend to be the one most sought after.” Jules grinned then sobered. “This will be a night I shall remember always, Lizzie. I’m certain of it.” She nodded, turned and swept from the room.

Lizzie laughed. When Jules set her mind on something there was no stopping her. If she were indeed determined to become the belle of London she would succeed. Lizzie had no doubt that Jules would do whatever she wished to do in this life.

As for Lizzie’s own life, she had never once doubted where she was headed and what would become of her. She couldn’t remember ever being confused or uncertain.

Until Nicholas.

Now, she wasn’t certain she knew either her own mind or her heart. She loved Charles. She always had. There wasn’t a question at all about that. But did she love Nicholas as well? Was it even possible to love two men at the same time? One who warmed you with the comfort of his presence and the other who made you tremble at the mere sound of his voice.

She had to find out and tonight would be her only chance. Before Charles asked for her hand. Before Nicholas left London, left her life, possibly forever.

Lizzie turned to the paper on the desk, thought for a moment then penned a few lines. She sat back and studied them. Personal, but not too personal. Affectionate but not overly so. One could read her words in any number of ways depending on the readers’ own feelings. Yes, it would do.

She pulled open a drawer and drew out the book she had purchased. She was lucky to find one still available. The bookseller had said they could well be sold out entirely before Christmas. She opened the small volume, drew a deep breath then carefully wrote the decided upon lines on the flyleaf and waited for the ink to dry.

It was the perfect Christmas gift for a man she might or might not love. A man who might or might not love her. The perfect gift for an old family friend about to embark on endless travels or for someone who might well be very much more than a friend.

She closed the book gently and studied the red cloth cover with the words A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens emblazoned in gilt and encircled by a gold wreath.

Jules was right.

One way or another, this would most certainly be a night to remember.

 

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