I’m thrilled to introduce my new Christmas-themed short story, (copyright Eleanor Keane) set in the Victorian era, and featuring the Naughton family of vampires from The Breathing Ghosts Series, and some of your other favourite characters! Featuring plenty of humour and descriptions of a true Victorian Christmas, (and a few surprises) I really hope you’ll like it. Also, the image below is from Google- I tried to search for Creative Commons images, but my software wouldn’t let me, so sorry for the lack of credit! (Grr.) I will try to rectify this as soon as possible.
But without further do, here is the story! I hope you all enjoy it, and have a very merry Christmas! (Please have fun, relax, stay safe and drink responsibly!) 😀
Nerissa Naughton’s Christmas
Copyright Eleanor Keane, December 2015. All Rights reserved.
December 24th, England, c. late 1800s
“So,” Nathaniel Naughton began tentatively, “It’s Christmas Eve. Aren’t you even excited?”
His cousin, Nerissa, scowled, and rubbed at her eyes. The ornate silver ring on her knuckle flashed in the guttering light of the candelabra on the table. “No,” she said sulkily; leaning back in her chair and propping her legs on the dining-table, causing her mound of purple wool skirts and petticoats to rise alarmingly over her bony ankles. She wore flat faded black kidskin boots trimmed with braided purple ribbon. They led to the plethora of skirts, which she now angrily brushed out of the way, and to a matching dark purple bodice tightly fastened over navy sleeves. On her elbow was a dried speck of red blood.
“Why should I be?” she said huffily, breathing out with difficulty as her corset chafed against her ribs. “It’s not like vampires even believe in God or Christ- why do we celebrate it?”
Nathaniel shrugged carelessly. “Oh, many reasons. I suppose it helps to blend in with the mortals a much as possible, and Christmas does have considerable perks in itself, you know- food, family, presents, the possibility of snow…” He glanced at the mullioned windows of Naughton Manor’s imposing Great Hall, already glazed with frost. “I do love snow,” he said, his voice tinged with unusual whimsey. As if on cue, a faint snow began to dust the windowpanes like sugar.
“Snow that Lucian and Sebastian will no doubt try to pelt me with, or slip down the back of my neck, or kick into my face, or pile on top of my favourite jacket. They’re a nightmare,” Nerissa muttered, referring to the most wayward of her four brothers. Her fangs peeked out over her thin, often humourless mouth. “Besides, our family will likely spend the whole day bickering and squabbling. You know what we’re like. Last year, Julian caused a blazing row between him and Nico, arguing that goose was better than turkey. Mama eventually had to restrain Nico by holding him down and threatening to use the thumbscrews on him.”
Nathaniel sighed, and plucked absent-mindedly at the necktie around his cravat, loosening it. “Aunt Virginie does love those thumbscrews- but it might be a bit much to use them on actual members of her own family. Besides, nothing is better than turkey,” he added firmly. “Julian is only saying that because he loves to fret. He’s just as much of a troublemaker as Lucian or Sebastian, he just hides it with his fancy manners and his long words. He thinks he has to be so sophisticated and clever because he’s the second-eldest after Nico, but he just comes across as though he has a poker stuck up his–”
“Arctic regions?” Nerissa suggested playfully, gesturing to the chill wind gusting outside. Nathaniel smiled thinly, flashing his fangs over lips already chapped with the cold. Nerissa clicked her fingers, and a flicker of black light danced across her fingertips. Fire immediately sprang up in the stone grate behind the grand dining-table, filling the hall with much-needed warmth. Nathaniel gave a grateful sigh.
“Look, you’re just upset because Angelica is well…you know…” he began tentatively.
“Mad? Deranged? Out of her wits? Oh, and currently incarcerated in Bedlam?” Bedlam was the nickname for the most well-known asylum in England. After a spate of increasingly bizarre and dangerous incidents- culminating in some particularly gruesome murders- Nerissa’s long-time lover, the vampire Angelica Blackthorne, had been placed there so as not to endanger others.
“I visited her there yesterday,” Nerissa said sullenly. “It was not…” she struggled to find the right words.”Not a pleasant experience,” she said finally. “Angelica is still very…fragile at the moment. It’s best that she stays…where she is. This will be our first Christmas apart, though.”
Nathaniel fell silent for a moment. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” he said eventually, but with sincerity. “But surely…I mean, what about Dolly’s sister, Gwendoline?” Dolly was Nathaniel’s current lover- a vampire renowned for her china doll beauty, her love of anything pink and feminine, her wicked chain smoking habit and her penchant for swearing like a sailor. Needless to say, Nathaniel was completely enamoured. Virginie also like Dolly- which was unusual in itself- but then again, Dolly was always good for a gossip, and wasn’t averse to sharing her style tips, either. In return, Virginie was fond of lending Dolly her hats.
“I’m collecting Dolly later, she’s spending Christmas with us,” Nathaniel added. “Perhaps Gwendoline could come along, and take your mind off…unfortunate events?”
Nerissa didn’t say anything.
“Look, you and Gwendoline were very close not so long ago…”
“It was a fling…”
“She made you laugh,” Nathaniel said solemnly. “She was good to have around. You miss her- you know you do.”
“I miss Angelica. But she’s in the asylum, and I can’t even talk to her properly. I can’t even touch her.”
“I’m sorry about Angelica, but…”
“I don’t want to talk about her,” Nerissa snapped. “And as for Gwendoline, it was just a fling, and now she’s busy redecorating her new home, Fairlawn Grange. She is apparently caught up with builders and contracts and suppliers from overseas, and won’t be available until the Spring.” She bit her lip.
“It’s not as though I don’t care about you,” Nathaniel pointed out. “I’m not saying all of this to upset you or to be condescending- I want you to be happy. You’ve been through such a trying time. You must be lonely, I understand…”
“I’m not lonely, and Angie can’t help being mad!” Nerissa growled. “She’ll be well again soon, she just needs…time.”
“You deserve better than her, though” Nathaniel said softly. “She may be mad, but she still treated you cruelly.”
“I’m not discussing it,” Nerissa said sullenly. Nathaniel glanced at the murderous look on his cousin’s face, and wisely fell silent.
At that point, two tall, slim vampires with an identical shock of black hair strode into the hall. They were so similar they could only be twins- Lucian and Sebastian, the youngest boys of the Naughton family. One of them had hoisted a gigantic fir tree over his shoulder as easily as if it was made of foam. The heady scent of pine followed in his wake. The other carried a bushel of tree ornaments, some made out of marbled Venetian glass, some from cut crystal. Most were delicately painted ceramic reindeer, stars, flowers and birds, but some were also skulls and panthers, the Naughton family symbol.
A brightly-coloured robin fell out of one of Lucian’s hands, and veered towards the flagstone floor, but with a lazy wave of Nathaniel’s hand it froze, mid-descent, and zoomed back upwards, floating in the air as if it were real. With a swishing movement, Nathaniel made the rest of the ornaments float from the vampire’s arms and dangle in the air, forming a paper-chain of glittering, glinting objects.
“Christmas tree time!” Lucian boomed, loud enough to make the great hall echo. His dark eyes glittered with mischief. “Come on, Nerissa, don’t look so bloody mournful- are you going to help me decorate it?”
Nerissa rolled her eyes, and pulled out the pins from her glossy black hair, removing a hair piece that had been twisted to look like curls. She glared at it and tossed it into the fire, shaking out her hair, which was naturally as straight as a ruler. The fake hair piece sizzled in indignation as it caught alight, emitting a cloud of putrid black smoke.
“That feels better,” she sighed, combing through the knots in her hair, which hung to her waist. “I don’t know why Mama insists I wear such horrid things. Fake hair itches dreadfully.”
“You must wear it because apparently it’s the very height of decorum,” Lucian drawled, “to have your hair resemble a wedding cake.”
Nerissa watched with narrowed eyes as he deposited the fir tree in the corner of the hall, setting it down with ease. With a click of his fingers, glowing spheres of blue and purple light flickered within the tree’s branches.
“That looks pretty, Lucian,” Nathaniel called out. Lucian grinned openly, patting down the creases in his red velvet blazer. It only made his icy-white skin seem even paler. “Sebastian, it’s your turn,” he said airily. The other twin, Sebastian, rolled up the sleeves of his own jacket and waved his hands as though performing a magic trick.
Christmas ornaments zoomed from the air to the tree, looping themselves within the folds of the branches, from top to bottom. Navy and violet ribbons snaked from his wrists and coiled themselves around each twig. Nerissa watched, seemingly unimpressed, as Nathaniel conjured up handfuls of crystallized ginger, fruit cake and even miniature mince pies, that immediately lined up like tin soldiers and nestled themselves within the cradling branches of the tree. Each one hung from its own hook of ribbon, encrusted with sugar and currants. He turned, obviously pleased with himself, towards Nerissa. “Are you sure you don’t want to help- even a tiny bit?”
He reached up and snapped off a piece of marzipan.
A smile tugged at the corners of Nerissa’s mouth. Without speaking, she opened up her palm towards the tree, the lines on her pale palm as dark as cartography lines. Black light wavered in and around her fingers, and her rings- the beloved silver rings she always wore- slipped off her fingers and hung like jewels from the tree: a cat, a sword, a skull with a rose in it’s mouth, a lily, a fox with emerald flecks for eyes, a snake, a withered tree, and a plaited band studded with tiny crescent moons and stars. The only one still on her hand was the one inherited from her mother- an antique, priceless sapphire the size of a gobstopper, which her mother had apparently received from Henry the VIII. The ring glowed with an almost prescient light, and suddenly the tree was alight with thousands of tiny replica sapphires, winking like vivid sea-blue eyes. She grinned as a mince pie fell from its ribbon hook and into her open hand. Her eyes rested on Nathaniel, as if daring him to challenge her, and she took a massive bite out of it, spilling crumbs over her bodice.
“The best I’ve done yet,” Nathaniel said proudly. “I improved the recipe from last year.”
“Not bad,” she said, her mouth full of pie. “Would be better with more sugar,” she added, but she still smiled.
Sebastian whistled at the tree. “You’ve really outdone yourself this year, sister.”
“That tree looks positively outrageous,” Lucian chimed in, eager not to be left out.
“Good,” Nerissa said to them, “I like being outrageous.” She brushed away crumbs from her mouth with the back of her hand.
The twins giggled at her reply. They still retained a puppy-like charm, even despite their mischief-making. Nerissa couldn’t help but like them, even when they were being a nightmare.
The wide oak doors of the hall flung open, and in strode the tall, imposing figure of Nerissa’s mother, flanked by her two elder sons and her husband. Virginie Naughton, known throughout London and beyond as a famous beauty, had dressed both for the occasion and the cold weather; in a mink-lined cape, cobalt velvet skirts that brushed the floor and a fur muff that completely encased her almost doll-like hands. Her darker than dark hair was bundled into a sophisticated mass of curls- without the need for any fake hair pieces- and looked, much to Nerissa’s envy, nothing like a wedding cake. It was topped with a tiny bonnet trimmed with glossy dyed-blue feathers, and a lace veil that skimmed her chin but did nothing to conceal the intensity of her eyes, which were unforgivingly black. They scanned the room, taking in every detail with almost clinical attention, and fell eventually on Nerissa, with her hair unbound and trailing past her shoulders. She gave a theatrical sigh. Sensing the challenge, Nerissa’s eyes narrowed, and lingered on her mother’s hat.
“Mama, you look splendid, as usual- but please tell why you are wearing a hat indoors? It is not quite the done thing, you know. You have told me so yourself often enough.” The cut-glass words sounded strange in her naturally husky voice- polite but insincere, like the Big Bad Wolf taunting Red Riding Hood. Her mother did not look amused.
“I am wearing a hat because I have just come from outside. I was helping your father clear snow from the path. He says it is man’s work, I say women do ‘men’s work’ twice as fast and with less complaining. We almost disagreed, before he realized I was right.”
“Invariably right, my love,” her husband, Nicholas, said, kissing her on the cheek. “Learn from me, boys- women are always right. That is the secret to a happy marriage.”
Virginie slid the muff off her fingers and clicked them, hard enough to send the sound reverberating through the hall. A spark of black light flared from her fingertips, so bright and quick it felt like a slap to Nerissa, who involuntarily stepped back. Nathaniel shielded his eyes with his hand, and when he looked again, Virginie’s hat had disappeared, replaced by a cluster of blue flowers pinned into her hair.
Virginie’s elder sons strode in beside her. They shared the same haughty features and black wiry hair as their parents, except that their father was taller than any of them, broader and more muscular. Nicholas Naughton was many things- warrior, orator, diplomat, and fighter, and yet above all he was the centuries-old patriarch of the Naughton family, and power seemed to seep from his every pore. With his muscular arms and lean frame, he looked as though he would be better suited to carrying a broadsword or an axe, and yet he marched behind his wife carrying what an armful of trailing ivy. His eldest son, Nico, looked uncannily like his father and namesake, except that his mouth was thinner and his ears more elfin, half-hidden behind a mass of black curls. His brother, Julian, on the other hand, looked more hawk-like, with knife-sharp cheekbones, long, thin hands and lips that were seemingly always on the verge of sneering.
Virginie eyed the tree, newly decorated by Lucian, Sebastian, Nerissa and Nathaniel, with distaste. “That tree looks awful,” she said in her slow French-tinged accent.
“It looks superb,” Lucian said wistfully. “Nerissa’s best effort by far. And Nathaniel’s mince pies are good, too- help yourself.”
“No, thank you,” said Julian, the second eldest, dressed in a neat, austere black suit and green tie. “I’d rather not spoil my appetite before the goose.”
“Turkey,” the other brother, Nico, said automatically. “Turkey is better.”
“Oh, do stop, both you of you,” Virginie snapped, in a tone that brooked no argument. “We’re having goose this year, and that is final.”
Nico looked crestfallen. “But why?”
“Because we’re understaffed in the kitchen this year, and the cook, Mrs. Philips, wants to stick to more traditional fare. She thinks it may be easier, and I am inclined to agree with her.”
“But I like turkey,” Nico said sulkily. “I’ll have a word with Dulcie…”
“That’s Mrs. Philips to you!” Virginie snapped, her eyes ablaze once more with sudden fury. She gave him a look that would have made mortal men wet themselves and run away whimpering. Instead, Nico bravely met her gaze.
“I’ve always called her Dulcie. She likes it.”
At this, Lucian and Sebastian immediately collapsed into a fit of giggles. Even Nathaniel smirked, albeit behind his hand. It was well known in the Naughton household that Nico had a penchant for seducing and breaking the hearts of the servant girls, Mrs. Dulcie Philips being no exception. Now she was a portly, red-cheeked wife and grandmother in her fifties and no temptation for him; but when she was a young kitchen girl she had caught his eye with her tumbling red curls and wide, open laugh, and ever since then she had a soft spot for him. Nico would often sneak down into the kitchens at night and charm Mrs. Philips into giving him an extra slice of cake or two. It drove his mother mad.
“Why are we so understaffed?” the elder Nicholas Naughton said, clearly keen to change the subject before his wife exploded.
“Mrs. Philips has had to let go of one of the serving girls. She was caught drinking some of the kitchen brandy that was reserved for our Christmas pudding,” Virginie said, her tone cutting.
Lucian and Sebastian both sniggered at the same time. Virginie threw them another one of her infamous evil looks, and then wiped her hands on her dress, tutting.
“So,” she said abruptly, as Sebastian’s sniggers faded away, “that concludes that subject. I’ll talk no more about it. Nico, you are not going to speak to Mrs. Philips about this under any circumstances- the poor woman has enough to deal with tonight.”
Nico scowled, and muttered something that sounded very much like ‘itch.’
Clearly choosing to ignore this, Virginie looked expectantly at her husband, one hand placed haughtily on her hip. Nicholas Naughton whispered a few words and the ivy in his arms floated upwards and draped itself over the dark wood beams that criss-crossed the vaulted ceiling. His lips moved again, and golden firefly-like lights glowed within their slick, scalloped leaves. Virginie flicked her fingers, and a soft flurry of snow drifted down from the eaves, onto the upturned faces of her children.
“There,” she said, “that’s better.” She looked softly at her husband, and for a moment she looked no longer formidable, but merely beautiful.
Lucian gave a little gasp of delight, his eyes as large and round as an owl’s. He held up his palms to catch some of the drifting snow, and immediately flung it down his twin brother’s collar. Sebastian screeched, and launched himself at Lucian, ruffling his hair with the heel of his palm.
“Get off, get off!” Lucian cried, wincing as his hair became freckled with more and more snow. Nathaniel laughed, his eyes dancing with mirth, and even their father couldn’t suppress a smile. Only Nerissa seemed despondent- she kicked her heel against the flagstones and looked bored, even as the magical snow fell silently onto the back of her hand, clutched within her lap. Virginie caught her look, and Nerissa promptly turned her gaze to the floor, biting her lip.
“Nico, I challenge you,” Nerissa said quickly, a little too quickly.
“Challenge me to what?” her eldest brother said, his tone aloof. He kept his eyes on Lucian and Sebastian, who were now chasing each other around the hall, skidding and sliding on the snow-wet flagstones.
“The annual Naughton Christmas poker game,” she said.
Julian looked aghast. “Mama!” he said, his normally low voice now barely above a whine, “you cannot condone your children gambling like this! It’s irresponsible!”
Virginie waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, let them do what they want, they’ll do it anyway, even with your censoriousness.”
“That’s another way of Mama saying, ‘you’re being a buffoon’,” Lucian said under his breath, digging Julian in the ribs.
“Or a muttonhead,” Sebastian chimed in.
“Or a bore…”
“Boys,” Virginie snapped, “I will not have you insult your brother like that. Apologize, please.” Lucian and Sebastian flushed, and looked down at their feet. “Sorry, Julian,” they intoned dully.
Julian ignored them, turning instead to face his mother. His face was a mask of outrage. “Mama, I do not care for Lucian and Sebastian’s antics,” he said haughtily, “they can insult me all they like, it makes no difference to me. But every year Nico and Nerissa play this silly frivolous poker game, and end up drunk, incapacitated, and debauched.”
“Sounds like fun to me,” Nerissa muttered.
“And they fritter away half of our fortune,” Julian added.
“Hardly,” Nicholas interrupted, “considering all the money we do have. We’re the richest vampire family in Britain, Julian, and have been for centuries.” He smiled smugly. “Besides, you spend so little that a little overspending on their behalf is hardly going to bankrupt us. Perhaps you could take a leaf out of their book and indulge in a little leisure time yourself. It is Christmas after all.”
Julian looked incensed-this was clearly not the reaction he’d been hoping for. He made a growling sound in the back of his throat, and started to pace along the floor. Lucian looked at him thoughtfully, his head cocked to one side. “I was just wondering- what is it that you most enjoy about Christmas, Julian? There must be something that you approve of. It sounds like you don’t enjoy it at all. It sounds as though you hate it.”
Julian looked at him with round, surprised eyes. He stopped pacing. Even Nerissa looked taken back. After a long, tense moment, Julian eventually said: “Not at all. I just enjoy different things. Every year I look forward to sitting down in my favourite chair by the fire with a nice glass of fresh blood, a mince pie, and my copy of Mr. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.”
“A Christmas Carol? Isn’t that the little penny chapbook that mortals love so much?”
Julian shrugged. “I like the way Mr. Dickens writes his characters, and the way he writes about London. It’s almost as though London is a character itself. My edition has seen better days, though. I need to get a new copy for next year.”
“Hardly antics to wake the dead, though. Anything else?” Lucian pressed.
Julian thought again, chewing on his lip with a fang, and then spoke. “I occasionally like to listen to carol-singers.”
Lucian raised an eyebrow. “But we don’t believe in God, or Christ, or any of the things they sing about.”
“Of course not- but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the sound of their voices.” Julian sighed wearily. “Look, this is all highly irrelevant to my point- what I was trying to say is, Mama is clearly condoning wastefulness and profligate spending. Do not tell me I’m being too extreme in my views, either. You know I have a fair point- last year Nico and Nerissa ended up buying a circus monkey who was trained to deal cards. How can you possibly approve of that?” He began to pace again, his hands in his pockets.
“We miss Felipe,” Sebastian said glumly. “I managed to teach him how to light my pipe for me and fetch my tobacco. He made such funny chirping noises. Lucian liked to give him baths, and comb his fur.” Lucian nodded beside him. Their mother looked at them both with unusual softness.
“I know you miss the monkey, dears,” she sighed, “but we had to get rid of Felipe- he was riddled with fleas.”
“And a wild rabid animal!” Julian all but shouted.
“You’re only being horrible about Felipe because he tried to get amorous with your shoe!” Sebastian shot at his brother.
“He also had an unfortunate habit of um…having little accidents on the hems of my dresses and capes too,” Virginie muttered.
“That is quite beside the point,” Julian said archly, “the point is, every year Nico and Nerissa play poker, and every year it ends in chaos, with debauchery, licentiousness and those ridiculous forfeits.” He made another scoffing noise, and Lucian looked very much as if he longed to throttle him. Even Nicholas rolled his eyes.
“And, for the record, I would like to point out that that monkey of yours quite ruined my shoe,” he added huffily, “and I won’t even mention what he did to my favourite scarf.”
“You’re just being mean-spirited because Nico and Nerissa never include you,” Lucian spat.
“I simply cannot think of a reason why,” Nico muttered. “Julian is so delightful.” He turned to Nerissa. “Let’s ignore Julian, and go ahead with it anyway. It’s what we always do- besides, perhaps we could get a new monkey for the twins.”
Lucian clapped his hands, beaming like a child. “We could call him Felipo!”
“No,” Nerissa said, as the twin’s faces simultaneously fell. “Let’s do something different this year.” She thought for a moment, studying Julian’s face and his downcast eyes, and then smiled. “If you win- as you usually bloody do- my forfeit is this- we go to London and I buy something really hideous from store. Something I’d never otherwise want to even touch. You know, like one of those simpering portraits of a kitten eating a cake or something.”
“Fine. And if I miraculously somehow lose?”
Nerissa smiled thinly. “Then you have to spend the rest of Christmas Eve with Julian. You know- together. The whole night. Just you and him.”
Nico’s jaw dropped. He looked aghast. In fact, he continued to look aghast for several more moments until Lucian prodded him sharply in the side. “Deal,” he said eventually, through gritted teeth. “But you know that I always win, Nerissa. This time will be no exception.”
Nerissa rolled her eyes. With a flash of black light, a deck of playing cards appeared in her hand. “Oh, I don’t think so,” Nerissa said with a sly smile. “Lucian and Sebastian have been instructing me as to your various poker ‘tells’, and now I’m sure I can read you like a book. This time, you’re going to lose, Nico. I can guarantee it. Poker is now my game.”
Just a few hours later, Nerissa stood ankle-deep in the snow of London, scowling.
Nico stood beside her, decked out in a top hat, navy coat, navy scarf and holding a cane topped with the bone china head of a snarling panther. He was currently using it to carve out rude shapes in the snow around his boots.
“I still can’t believe you lost to me so quickly,” he sniggered, as his cane scraped the icy cobblestones. Nerissa glared at him, her eyes boiling over with a fury hot enough to scorch the snow. Nico winced.
“Sore loser, are we?”
“Shut up. Let’s just go to the nearest store so I can buy something that the twins can embarrass me about.”
Nico let out a howl of laughter. “Nerissa, you’re the worst poker player I know.”
Nerissa turned her back on him sharply, feeling her cheeks burn with sudden, unusual embarrassment. Determined to hide it from Nico, she lifted her head, squared her shoulders and marched off down the Strand. Her voluminous skirts scraped through the slush, and she could feel hairpins digging into her scalp from where her hair tugged to be free.
All around her, jostled throngs of people, their faces masked by an array of thick dark beards, upturned collars, fur stoles, and long ringleted hair carefully curled under their own velveteen bonnets. They smelt sweet but musty, the hollows of their collarbones damp with stale perfume, cologne and lavender water. Their eyes watered as a freezing gust of wind buffeted their clothes, their hands trembling inside their warm fur muffs and calfskin gloves; but their cheeks were rouged against the chill, and their arms were full of neatly-wrapped presents. Their soft, slightly pallid skin and fragile bones showed that they had never done a day’s honest work in their lives- the women could barely move underneath their vice-like corsets and hooped skirts. These were the well-to-do, wealthy and prosperous mortals her Mama plucked like defenceless chicks off the street, feeding from their blue-blooded throats and pearl-braceleted wrists. Their voices were as sharp as glass and nasal, their movements as clipped as automatons. They walked in orderly straight lines, carefully avoiding the carriages that trundled past like beetles, the horses sending puffs of steaming breath into the air. Occasionally the newspapers reported the disappearance of some lord or lady, some trophy wife or errant husband found with slashes in their neck and arms, their legs and sometimes even their feet, where veins ran between their toes like ink. But Virginie and her family were always careful-so careful- to deposit their bodies by the cool grey sludge of the Thames, where drunks, tramps and madmen usually slept; or in brothels, opium dens, or alleyways riddled with petty violence and crime. There would be an investigation, of course- prompted by some poor, abandoned window crying kittenish tears into a scented handkerchief- but it would ultimately be written off as a cautionary tale: a husband who had visited the wrong brothel and got tangled up in something he shouldn’t; a wife who stayed down the wrong alleyway while shopping. In a city like London, people went missing all the time, and not all the disappearances were due to a vampire’s thirst. The city just swallowed mortals up, in its gaping maw of smog and slime and noise and wealth and poverty, and they were never seen again.
Nerissa turned left, off the busy Strand and away from the neat stores and shops with their colourful, expensive displays, and down a narrow road flanked with pubs, squalid curio shops and a furrier selling squirrel skins for scarves. They were hung up outside the shop on a long chain like hunks of meat, swaying in the wind. Already they were flecked with snow and ice crystals. Nerissa walked steadily ahead, trying to ignore the smell. Here, just a little way off the Strand, the air smelt like sweat, blood and dirt, and was filled with a chorus of chattering, coughing, sneezing, cursing, and spluttering. A nearby factory oozed pitch smoke into an already-black night sky, completely obliterating any hope of stars. Raucous laughter from a nearby pub nearly made Nico jump as he followed behind her. Swarthy-faced men with dirt-streaked hands and clothes stood outside, their faces glowing as they cupped their fingers around lit pipes. One of them muttered something in Nerissa’s direction, and gave a laugh like a bark. His friends joined in, laughing so hard they sent ribbons of beer flying into the chill night air. Nico glared at him, and he immediately gave a yelp, dropped his pipe and clutched his hand.
“Gawd!” he yelled, wincing. “I bleedin’ burnt meself!”
“Thanks,” Nerissa said to Nico in an undertone.
“Not at all.”
“But I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Oh, I know- you were fascinated by those instructions that Mama wrote on ‘Disembowelment in Eight Easy Steps.'”
Nerissa nodded. “I found her hand-drawn illustrations particularly helpful. But it’s a far too elegant mode of death for someone like him. I’d prefer to use my hands.” She jerked her thumb towards the man, who immediately stumbled back as though he’d been punched in the face. Nerissa smiled.
“Why are you taking us to this old slum?” Nico said, a touch of dryness in his voice. Nerissa looked shifty. “There’s an excellent taxidermy store just over here…they have just acquired the most fascinating specimen of a three-eyed owl…”
“No,” Nico said firmly, “the forfeit was to force you to buy something you wouldn’t usually buy. And you love taxidermy. You’d fill the Manor from floor to rafters with it all if you could.”
“Not that much,” Nerissa said, struggling to keep the whine out of her voice. “I only like it because Mama hates it.”
Nico looked gravely at her. “You know that’s not true- I saw that stuffed kitten you bought last month.”
“Oh, fine, fine,” she growled, pouting in frustration. “Hair ribbons and pretty pink dresses it is, then. Spoilsport.”
“Good. If we just turn back here, we’ll reach the Strand again…” He took her arm and wheeled her around, dragging her backwards. Then Nico saw something that made him stop. He pointed, still clutching Nerissa’s arm with his free hand.
“Look over there- I think I’ve seen the very thing.”
Nerissa peered closer to where he pointed. “What- a tramp sitting in a gutter?”
“No, look closer!”
“The prostitute with the mole on her lip?” Nerissa grinned wickedly. “Oh, Nico, you are kind, but she’s not really my sort, you know?”
Nico dragged her forwards and jerked to a halt outside a squat building that seemed half-shop, half-hovel. A swinging sign gloved in grease and grime showed a purse overflowing with pennies. Once upon a time they had been gilt, but since then they had been dyed black by the fog and factory smoke. The prostitute with the mole on her lip lolled on the far wall, playing with her skirts. She gave Nerissa wink.
Nerissa eyed the shop sign. “A pawnbroker’s?”
Nico nodded. “Look in the window, and you’ll see it.”
Nerissa edged closer, and glanced inside. The window was thick with greyish-green muck through which vagrants had scored obscene drawings and swear words. Someone had rubbed away at patch, revealing a miserable assortment of items: a worn and faded bonnet, a patched jacket, a string of pearls that looked almost grey in the gloom; and a single china doll. It had a thatch of long, real golden hair, meticulously curled, and wore a short pink and white smock down to its jointed knees. Its eyes were as round, blue and blank as marbles, its mouth painted in a perfectly puckered Cupid’s bow. It had a long white scratch on its face, forked like a tree root on its red-spotted cheek, and one of its leather shoes was missing a buckle.
Nerissa glared at Nico. “The doll? Very amusing.”
“I’m serious,” Nico shot back. “It’s not something you would usually buy, is it?”
“Because it’s horrid.”
“A child would love it. Look at its pretty dress.” Nico was clearly enjoying this. Nerissa started to hate him.
“It’s still horrid.”
The two vampires heard a polite little cough behind them, and a snigger. They wheeled around, to see three very familiar faces behind them. Nerissa was irate.
“Julian! Lucian! Sebastian! Hell! What are you three doing here?”
The twins immediately burst into a fit of hysterics, jostling each other. “We couldn’t let you have all the fun!” Lucian said eventually, after their laughter died down.
“This is the best part of town!” Sebastian chimed in. “Who knows what trouble we could cause here?”
“And what are you doing here?” Nico asked Julian, looking at him in horror. Julian glanced about him, looking wary. “I came to keep an eye on the twins,” he said cagily. “Mama and Papa don’t know we’re all here. Someone had to make sure they don’t end up killing themselves. Or even worse- ruining my Christmas Eve.” He puffed out his chest proudly.
“He came to ruin our fun,” Sebastian said sulkily. As he spoke, the snow began to fall harder.
“Where’s Nathaniel?” Nerissa asked.
“He’s gone to Fairlawn Grange, to pick up Dolly,” Sebastian said. Lucian made squelching kisses noises behind his back, and the two burst into giggles once again.
Nerissa sighed. “Look, I’m just going to go into this shop, and then we’re going straight home…”
“No you’re not,” Julian said, his hands on his hips and a look of utter disdain on his face. “You told Nico earlier that you were planning to go to that public house where all the loose women gather, and then to that disreputable theatre where all the women divest themselves of their scanties and dance around…”
“Nico, hold me back before I throttle him,” Nerissa interrupted. The twins looked elated, and started to dance around in a circle. Nerissa sighed, and hurried inside the store, pulling Nico with her. A moment later she came back out, holding the doll upside down by the corner of her dress.
“I can’t believe I’ve just bought this bloody thing,” she muttered. “As soon as we get home, I’m throwing it in the fire.”
As she spoke, she thought she heard someone give a gasp, and then a choked sob. Turning around, she saw a young girl sitting on kerb, with a pile of damp-looking matches in the soiled lap of her smock, which was far too small for her skinny legs. She wore an old wool bonnet over stringy brown hair, and there was a smudge of mud on her cheek. Nerissa realized she was looking at the doll and crying. With all her usual tact and diplomacy, she stalked over to the girl, crouched down as far as her much-hated corset would allow, and asked: “Why are you crying?”
The girl sniffed, and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. “Because I’m sad, aren’t I?” she snivelled. “’Ardly clever, are you, lady?”
As she spoke, Nerissa saw that she was missing one of her teeth, and there was a sore at the corner of her mouth.
“Why are you sad?”
The girl shrugged, bit her lip, and then stared straight up at Nerissa. “Because you’ll be puttin’ that doll in the fire, won’t you? That’s what you jus’ said.”
Nerissa shrugged back. “What of it?”
“Well, she’ll be burning, won’t she? It’ll be a waste. No-one will be playing with her, or caring for her. Each day I sell these here matches, and each day I’ve been lookin’ in that shop and thinkin’ of the day I could save up enough money to buy some food, and maybe a new bonnet, and maybe that doll. If I could ‘ave that doll, I’d be rich indeed.” The girl sniffed, and looked at Nerissa with a mixture of anger, sadness and disdain. Her eyes- which were very blue- took in Nerissa’s warm cape, thick skirts and winter boots.
“Look lady, you is clearly rich, so why don’t you just go back to your nice rich warm house and take the doll and forget all about the likes of me? I’ve seen you lot, and how you wander around ‘ere, looking at all of us, laughing at us, saying ‘orrible things. You rich folk are all the same. You don’t need no matches. You ain’t nice. You think it’s all just a bit of fun. But for me, I’m here each bloody day, sellin’ matches, and I am dog-tired and ‘ungry and cold to the bone. I don’t need no rich lady’s pity, all I wanted was that bleedin’ doll. And maybe something to keep me warm. Now all of that is gone.”
The girl looked at her again, and Nerissa realized how thin her smock was, and saw how she shook with the cold. Her lips had a blue sheen to them, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She looked exhausted and near dead from the cold.
Something stirred within Nerissa’s heart. Her brothers sauntered up to her.
“Scrawny little thing, isn’t she?” Nico said, his voice not unkind.
“Piss off,” the girl shot back, but already some of the anger was ebbing from her eyes, replaced with sullen resignation. She shivered, and lit a match by striking it on the pavement. As Nerissa watched, the girl held it close to her face, trying to absorb as much of its warmth as possible. Tear tracks shimmered on her cheeks.
“Maybe we’re not as bad as what you think,” Julian said unexpectedly.
To Nerissa’s surprise, Julian crouched down, and held out a hand to the girl. She glared at him, biting her lip again to keep from shivering.
“If…if you’re one of those men…” she tried to growl, her voice breaking down as her teeth chattered.
“Take it,” Julian said softly, still holding out his hand. “I promise, I’m not going to hurt you. None of us are. We’re a family, you see- these are my brothers, Nico, Lucian and Sebastian, and this is my sister, Nerissa. Also known as Noelle, because she was born on Christmas Day.”
They each nodded at the girl in turn.
“We won’t harm you- we want to help you.”
The girl gasped as an icy gust of wind ruffled her hair. The light dimmed in her eyes, and her face turned an ashen grey colour.
“Please,” Julian said, with an urgency Nerissa hadn’t heard before. “Please just take it.”
Finally relenting, the girl took his hand, stretching out her bony arm with the last ounce of energy she had left. Julian squeezed it. Her hand seemed tiny and almost doll-like in his, her fingers coated with cuts and scratches and scabs. Her nails were bitten down to the quick. He squeezed her hand again, and pulled her gently to her feet. The matches in her lap scattered on the ground- the girl was so weak from the cold she hardly noticed. Nerissa thought for a moment she heard the sound of fingers clicking, and caught a glimpse of a black spark of light. Immediately, her teeth stopped chattering and her cheeks flushed with colour. Her knees stopped shaking, and a lustre returned to her eyes, which Nerissa could now see were a startling shade of blue.
“I feel…I feel warm,” the girl gasped, stroking at her arms and legs. “I don’t feel so cold…what have you done to me? Is this some form of magic?”
Julian put his hands safely back in his trouser pockets. “Surely it’s better to be warm than freezing to death?” he said simply.
The girl looked at him, wide-eyed and wonder-struck. “I don’t understand…I feel as though there’s a nice warm fire in front of me…I don’t feel so sleepy any more. Thank you,” she said suddenly, fixing her gaze on Julian. “I don’t know for the life of me how you did this, but it feels so much better.”
“Tell me, what is your name?” Julian asked. Nerissa threw him a warning look, but he ignored her.
The girl raised her hand to her face, stroking her own cheek, now rosy instead of hollow. A faint smile passed over her mouth.
“I don’t have no name,” she murmured, still smiling. She did a joyful little spin on the icy pavement, the warmth from her bare feet causing the snow around her to melt.
Nico looked aghast. “What? Surely you must have a name, child?”
The girl shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. What’s a name to the likes of me? What have I ever wanted a name for?”
“Well, what do your mother and father call you?”
The girl shrugged again. “My dad got sent to the work’ouse and left me and my ma with nothing. He were never around much anyway to begin with. My ma used to sell matches before me, but the typhoid got ‘er last year.” The girl’s voice broke for a moment, and she gave a sniff. Wiping at her nose, she continued. “Before…before that she just called me ‘girl’, or sometimes ‘pet.’ The folks ’round ‘ere tend to call me ‘match girl,’ or ‘little match girl’, probably on account of me being so skinny.” A thought suddenly occurred to her, and her features screwed up in panic. She squatted down and began picking up the matches that had now fallen, damp and useless, into the wet snow.
“Oh, Gawd,” she muttered under her breath, “to throw these all away without thinking…who’ll want them now? Who’ll buy them now? I’ll have nothing, I’ll bleedin’ starve…”
Tears splattered onto the snow. Without hesitation, Julian took her arm and guided her to her feet once more.
“Stop that,” he said, and the girl stopped snivelling. “Leave them,” he said, and she duly dropped the sodden matches to the floor once more. Nerissa nudged him in the ribs. “Julian, what are you doing?” she hissed.
“I’m not leaving her like this!” he hissed back.
“She’s a mortal! Mortals die all the time!”
“I don’t care! I’m not leaving her here on the street like some abandoned dog! She’s a person, Nerissa!”
A look of panic came into Nerissa’s eyes. “Oh, no…no…Julian, we can help her with food and clothes, and find her a place to stay, but whatever you’re thinking of doing, don’t…Mama will kill you…”
“Mama doesn’t like waste,” Julian snapped back. “And to let her die here and now, on Christmas Eve, would be a waste. She’s coming with us, and that’s final.”
To Nerissa’s horror, he stepped in front of her, and asked the girl directly if she would like to return home with them. The girl’s mouth dropped open.
“What…” she mumbled, “like charity? Are you folks from some kind of missionary?”
Julian shook his head. “No…J just-I mean, we just want to help you. We live in a large manor house with a lot of servants, but we’re short staffed at the moment. Once we get you fed up and cared for properly, would you like to join our serving staff? You might make a good kitchen girl. Our cook, Mrs. Philips, is very nice.”
The girl was speechless. Nerissa and Nico looked dumbfounded. Lucian eventually cried, “But Julian! You’re the most self-absorbed, rigid, boring brother we know! You can’t suddenly turn into an all-round sensible, loving hero!” He rubbed at his face. “The world’s gone mad!”
A thought occurred to Nerissa. “Maybe,” she said tentatively, “what Julian really wants for Christmas is an ally- a friend- to talk to, without having to deal with you lot sniping at him all the time. Is that right, Julian?”
Julian flushed, and didn’t say anything.
“I thought so.” Nerissa turned to the girl. “Look, Julian may be a bit of a fusspot, but underneath all of that he’s hardworking and clever and–”
“And loyal, steadfast and sincere,” Sebastian interrupted. Nerissa looked at him, agog.
“What?” he said defensively. “You made Lucian and I feel bad. I was just trying to make him feel better.” He turned to Julian, who looked uncharacteristically sheepish. “Look, Julian, Lucian and I are sorry for the way we pick on you. You know we love you really. Nerissa does have a point- it’s unfair of us to always make fun of you and single you out. You deserve our respect as much as anyone else in our family.”
Julian gnawed at his bottom lip. “Well, I know I can be a bit of an irritant…and maybe I do go on about your spending and gambling too much…but maybe I was just jealous, and felt lonely. You are all so close, and I’m…well, I always feel as though I’m on the outside, looking in.” His words hung on the chill wind. Lucian blushed with shame. Even the match girl looked down at her feet, unsure of what to say. Eventually, Nico spoke up.
“Well, all that that stops tonight. Next time Nerissa and I go out, you’re very welcome to join us, and we swear we’ll all pick on you less. Naughtons are always stronger together, after all, and nothing is more important than family.” A glimmer of amusement sparked in his dark eyes. “I’ll even speak to Dulcie and Mama about this girl, if you like. I am Mama’s firstborn- she’s hardly going to disown me- and Dulcie never could resist me.” He batted his eyelashes coyly. Julian laughed suddenly, and it was a surprisingly bold cackle of a laugh. Some of the tension flooded from his face, and he looked instantly younger.
“You mean it?” the girl said, her eyes so round with hope they were almost owlish. “You’ll let me stay with you?” Nerissa looked at Julian, and then at the girl, long and hard. The girl was withered and frail from the harsh winds of winter, but there was still spirit in her eyes. She stood tall and unbroken, cutting a dignified figure, even in her ragged smock. Nerissa felt something inside lean towards her in sympathy, and perhaps in recognition. Finally, she nodded.
“Yes,” she said, as Julian smiled, “though only if our mother allows it. I warn you- she can be something of a battleaxe.”
The girl looked around. “I’m not sure…it might not be safe…you might all just be takin’ me for a fool…”
“Well, it’s got to be better than staying here, and turning into a block of ice?”
The girl thought for a moment. Eventually she nodded again. “Fine,” she said, almost defiantly. “I’ll give it a go. But I’ll not have no-one say it was because they took pity on me. If I’m coming with you, I’m working in your kitchen and payin’ me own way.” She tilted her chin proudly.
“This is the best Christmas ever!” Lucian crowed suddenly, punching his gloved fist in the air. Nerissa glanced at him warily. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, last year you nearly gave Mama a heart attack when you brought home Felipe…this year you’re bringing back a homeless girl! She’s going to be livid!” He grinned, showing very white, very pointed fangs. Luckily the girl didn’t notice. “She’ll never forgive us- it’ll be superb!”
Nerissa sighed. “You really need to find out what ‘superb’ means, Lucian.”
They all turned to leave, but Julian stopped in his tracks. “There’s just one thing to do first,” he said. He looked down at the girl, who just about reached his shoulders. “We need to give you a name. A proper name- not just ‘match girl.'”
The girl shook her head. “There’s no need…”
“Nonsense,” Julian said abruptly. “It’s Christmas, so it should be something festive. We’ve already got one Noelle, so that’s out of the question, but how about…” his brow creased in thought, and then his face lit up in realization. “I’ve got it! How about we call you Holly? Like that carol- the ‘Holly and the Ivy’?”
The girl fell silent for a moment, mulling it over. “Holly,” she said softly. “You know what? I like it.”
“Holly Hearth,” Julian said suddenly, “we’ll call you Holly Hearth, if you like. That way you’ll never be cold either, because you’ll always have a hearth with you.”
The girl gave Julian such a wide, open, honest grin, Nerissa felt some of the ice in her heart melt just from looking at it. “I like that even better,” she said.
“I cannot believe you have done this without consulting me first,” Virginie said stonily. Her arms were folded across her lovely dress, creasing the fabric. Her fingers dug into the sides of her waist. Her face was a stone mask of sheer fury.
“Nicholas!” she called, “Get the thumbscrews!”
“But, Mama…” Nico began, flailing a little under her gaze.
“We cannot just rescue any waif or stray we see, Nico! London is full to the brim with them- where would we stop? I’ll not have our home turn into a charity for fleabitten, homeless mortals!”
She started to pace the flagstone floor of the great hall, muttering to herself. Virginie and Nicholas Naughton had clearly continued decorating for Christmas whilst their children had been in London- the hall gleamed with the glow from a hundred white and red wax candles, stuck into the rafters, propped on the table and on the giant fir tree, which was now resplendent with even more ribbons and jewels. The floor underneath was littered with beautifully-wrapped presents, and ivy trailed along the mantelpiece, hung over the doorway and over the windows. Pinned to the mantelpiece were eight black velvet Christmas stockings, trimmed with white fur. Each had a different name stitched meticulously on it in silver thread. From the top of Nerissa’s, there peeked a small, carefully stuffed, three-eyed owl.
Tiny golden bells and star-shapes hung from the ceiling, catching the light from the fire that growled in the grate below. Snow was now falling thick and fast outside, blanketing the acres of lawn with shimmering white. From outside in the wide, open parlour, came a chorus of raucous laughter: Nerissa’s father was playing a game of Charades with her brothers- they’d asked Julian to join them, but he’d politely declined, saying that he’d rather read his book, but would join them in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff later.
Having abandoned charades in favour of racing his sons around the parlour, Nicholas Naughton had fortunately not heard his wife’s call for thumbscrews- and was now chasing the rest of Julian’s brothers around an antique chaise-longue. He adored his wife, but usually left Virginie to remonstrate and discipline her wayward children, as her temper was legendary, and her anger as fierce as a harpy’s. It was well known that just a simple glare could reduce a mortal man to a puddle of hysterical tears. Now Virginie paced to and fro, her eyes full of dangerous fire.
“Mama, you said yourself that we need a new kitchen girl…”
“Not some skinny half-starved whelp of a girl! Someone capable, someone experienced!” she yelled.
“She’ll learn fast…”
“She needs feeding, she needs caring for! She needs a good damn bath, Nico! I don’t care what you’ve persuaded Mrs. Philips to do, I’ll not allow it!”
“It was my idea, Mama,” Julian said, softly but solemnly, from where he sat in front of the fire with his hands curled in his lap. Virginie stared at him. “Your idea?”
“Yes. I take full responsibility. If you are to be angry with anyone, be angry with me, not Nico.”
Virginie stared at him, then sighed, and collapsed heavily into a chair. She dotted her forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. “What will happen when you tell the girl that we’re all vampires, won’t you? All the rest of the serving staff know- even Mrs. Philips. It’ll get out eventually.”
“I know,” Julian sighed. “But we don’t have to worry about that yet.”
A small cough caught everyone’s attention. Standing in the doorway appeared a slim, pale-faced girl with her brown hair neatly combed and braided under a white mob cap. She wore a neat dark dress and plain brown shoes. Her cheeks were rosy and her blue eyes glittered. She smelt vaguely of roses. In her hands she held a silver tray with a cut-glass decanter on it.
“Excuse me, er, Ma’am?”
Virginie looked up. “What is it?” she snapped.
The girl did an awkward curtsey. “I’m Holly Hearth, ma’am. I’d be ever so grateful if you was to keep me as your kitchen girl, ma’am. Mrs. Philips, well, she gave me this dress and washed me with some nice soap that smelt of roses, and then fed me up. She’s been ever so nice. Everyone has, honest. I…I don’t want to go back to the streets, ma’am.” She bit her lip, and tentatively came forward. “I brought you some mulled wine. Mrs. Philips showed me how to make it.”
“You brought me wine?”
“I washed me hands first, ma’am. I swear.”
Virginie pointed to her children. “None of my children ever bring me wine. All they bring me is trouble.”
Holly shrugged awkwardly. Virginie beckoned her forward, and took a tiny sip of wine from the decanter she held out like a sacrifice to a vengeful god. She looked hard at Holly for what seemed to be a long, long time. Eventually she pursed her lips, and nodded. “I suppose your wine is passable,” she said with a small, knowing smile, “I suppose you can stay. But Mrs. Philips will have to train you up, that’s for certain. And take that dress off- no-one’s expecting you to work tonight, it’s Christmas Eve. The other staff will all join us at the high table later, for the meal. Go the servant’s quarters for now, and our housekeeper will see that you have a bed. Rest while you can.”
Holly gave a little leap for joy. “Oh, thank you, Ma’am. Thank all of you!” She looked over at Julian, and grinned. “Did you ‘ear that, Mister Julian? I can stay!”
“Marvellous,” Julian said. “Very good indeed.”
Her eyes rested on the book by his side.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Hmm, this? Oh, it’s A Christmas Carol. One of my favourites.”
“Isn’t a carol some sort of song?”
“Yes, but this is a book. By Mr. Dickens. Would you like me to read it to you?”
Holly blushed. “Yes! I mean, thank you. I never got taught me letters.”
“Fine. I’ll read it to you in a minute. Go and put that wine down, and then we’ll begin.”
Holly rushed off, before either Virginie or Julian could change their mind.
Nerissa, who had been sitting opposite Julian, grinned wryly. “It looks like Julian has a friend,” she said.
As Holly darted out the door, three figures walked in- Nathaniel was arm-in-arm with a tall blonde woman with the startlingly black eyes of a vampire. She wore a gaudily bright cherry-pink dress and cropped jacket, a hat topped with a profusion of roses, and a white fur stole. Behind her walked another woman, similarly pale and with the same black eyes, except that her hair was not blonde, but dark red. It looked almost bloody in the flickering light of the candles. Where the other woman wore pink, she wore festive green, and a tartan ribbon around her long throat.
“Dolly,” Nerissa said to the woman in pink. “I’m glad you’re here.” She leapt up and embraced her, but kept her eyes on the woman in green.
“Gwendoline,” she said finally, turning to her. “I wasn’t…I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Fairlawn Grange needs renovation work, but the plumbing has been a nightmare, and I no longer have hot water or a working kitchen. Your mother heard about my plight, and kindly invited me,” Gwendoline said. “I hope you do not mind? She said you might be in need of some company. And well, I hoped that…um, well, maybe you’d like to spend Christmas with me? But if not, then of course…er…” she broke off awkwardly.
“You arranged this?” Nerissa asked her mother. Virginie smiled. “Consider it your birthday present.”
“Thank you,” Nerissa said, as she felt some of her loneliness lift.
Virginie waved her hand in dismissal. “Gwendoline’s very sweet- she and Dolly can stay here for as long as they like. Hopefully now you’ll stop looking so miserable.”
Nerissa gave Gwendoline a quick kiss on the cheek. “Why would I? I’m sure this will be a merry Christmas now, after all.”
Hours later, the games of charades, snapdragon and Blind Man’s Bluff had ended, the goose and plum pudding had been devoured, pints of mulled wine had been drunk, toasts had been delivered, and- most memorably- Julian had been hoisted onto a very drunken Nico’s shoulders, declared ‘Best Second-Eldest Brother Ever’ and been paraded around the hall, as Lucian and Sebastian cheered.
Now Nerissa crept out of bed, and glided silently down to the servants’ quarters. She eventually found Holly’s room, and carefully opened the door to find her tucked up under a thick coverlet on a plain iron bedstead, fast asleep. A small white candle on a cabinet by the bed had long since burnt down to nothing. She put a hand in her pocket of her nightgown, and pulled out the doll she had bought earlier. Placing it on the girl’s pillow, Nerissa whispered, “Merry Christmas, Holly,” and tiptoed back upstairs to her room, where Gwendoline lay half asleep. Her hair, now loose and unbraided, fell across her pillow like a red silk handkerchief.
“Where did you go?” she asked, her voice still thick with sleep. Nerissa shut the door and climbed into bed. “Oh, I just had one last present to give,” she said, “now go back to sleep.”
Gwendoline nudged her face deeper into the pillow, and gently took Nerissa’s hand in hers.
Far over the snow-covered lawns, Nerissa heard the bells toll for Midnight Mass, coming from the local church. Gwendoline heard them too, and smiled sleepily, her eyelids drifting closed.
“Happy Birthday,” she whispered.
Despite herself- despite Angelica, and loneliness, and everything she and Angelica had endured together- Nerissa smiled back.