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Entertaining Angels: A Christmas Novella

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ENTERTAINING ANGELS

M. J. LOGUE

 

Copyright © 2016 M.J.Logue

All rights reserved.

 

Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.

 

 

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h1<{color:#000;background:transparent;}. A WORD FROM THE AUTHOR

 

 

Well, is it actually that time of year again already?

Time, then, for the annual Christmas story – and yes, it is a Christmas present, because believe you me I am grateful for the people who read my books. (I would say I’m Thankful but I think he’s taller, and possibly less ginger, than I am.)

Twelve months ago I wrote the first Russell story, more as an exercise in creative writing than anything else, and now here he is all grown up. Because I had to know what happened to him, and it seems so did other people: I’m not the only one to have grown fond of my mad Puritan lieutenant!

So – pull up a chair, plump up a cushion, put the kettle on, and immerse yourself in the domestic chaos of the Babbitt household, circa 1660.

His Majesty Charles II has just returned to the throne, and all’s well with the world.

And if you’ve read my series set during the Civil Wars, you’ll be glad to know that all is pretty much well in the household of one retired colonel of Parliamentarian cavalry, too – give or take three daughters of assorted degrees of conventionality – and getting ready for Christmas.

What they’re not getting ready for, of course, is the reappearance of Thankful Russell. But then again, who is?

 

 

 

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Hebrews 13:2

 

 

 

 

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h1={color:#000;background:transparent;}. ENTERTAINING ANGELS

It was December, and only a madman or a fool would travel in this bitter inimical cold by choice, in the gathering dusk, on a weary horse.

Well, Thankful Russell was both, or so he’d always understood, and so he kicked up his stumbling mount. Missing the indefatigable Doubting Thomas, retired this three years and more, who looked as if he’d been put together from the tag ends of three other horses and had a temperament like the wrath of God, but who could go all day and come in dancing at the end of it, unlike this spavined hackney.

He was tired, unutterably tired. Like a sick animal, he skulked off from the glittering court, to the quiet places and the dark places. (Like a man with a recurrent fever, more like, who spent a lot of his time with a blinding headache, wanting a little peace.)

He’d lied to General Monck, who’d just given him leave anyway and not much cared where he was going – asking out of polite conversation, where he might spend Christmas, now that such existed again. And Russell, who had forgot the existence of such a thing in eleven years of dour Commonwealth, had not known, except that he could not bear to be in Whitehall, a shadow amongst the gaiety and the feasting. A figure of awkwardness and embarrassment, because he was tall and slight and scarred and he wore his hair short, and they laughed behind their hands and called him the old Puritan. Which he was, had been, but the fact of his presence there made the old men awkward and the young men scornful, and some of the women venturesome: and he wanted to be left alone.

Almost forty, with a tertian fever from his dogged days in Scotland that threatened to split his head like a wormy apple, and for the sake of his aching head, if nothing else, he could not bear a month of insane forced gaiety.

Not ever having known what Christmas was before, how should he know now? And so he’d dropped his eyes to hide whatever expression might show in them, and murmured something about spending the time with family that he had not seen this many a year. He only meant to get away, to not be in London. To be alone, and himself, and not polite. To not wear a waistcoat and fresh, starched linen every day, but to lie on the bed with his boots on and read books and papers, the like he had craved reading for many months and dared not, for fear of who might say what and to whom about Major Russell’s taste in reading matter. Seditious. Libellous. Papist. Pornographic. He didn’t, actually, care, so long as he could read in peace: as long as he chose, and what he chose. The mice in the wainscot could make their reports to the King’s agents, for all he cared.

He had meant to hole up in an inn for a month until it was all over, and settled to what passed for normality in Whitehall, and this dreadful fevered gaiety had simmered to a bubbling scum.

Instead, he’d walked into the inn, with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder, and the air had been shimmering.

He blinked.

It remained hazy, and he jerked his head, just a little, to see what might happen. A horrible pain shot through his skull – not, for once, along the lines of the old scar on his ruined cheek, but behind his eyes.

The innkeeper was looking at him curiously. “Help you, sir?”

“I wrote,” he said faintly. “I had bespoke a room? In the name of Russell – Thomas. Thomas Russell.” Half his horse, and half himself, like some kind of perverse centaur, and wholly untraceable – God willing.

He might die here, the way his head felt, and none any the wiser. And none to care, either, and the way his head felt at the moment that would be something of a blessing too. The innkeeper blinked, frowned, and then his face cleared. “Oh, aye, aye, I mind it. You’d took the room for a whole month, no?”

“And paid for it,” he reminded the man, narrowing his eyes. Which probably looked deeply menacing, but was nothing more than a relief from the way the straight lines of the room seemed to ripple like moving water.

“Up the stairs, at the back.”

He thought Russell was some kind of ruffian, up to no good. Which, to be fair, he looked, in his nondescript plain grey wool suit with the plain pewter buttons, and his unfashionably, brutally cropped hair, and his marred face. He was wet and filthy and every one of his bones ached singly and together. The room was clean, however, and warm, and almost quiet, with a window that opened on the stable-yard, and a sloping pitch to the roof that a tall man could crack his already-aching head on when he sat on the bed to pull his boots off. “You expecting a man following on?”

“I am travelling to meet friends,” he said grimly. A lie, of course, and an obvious lie, unless you had the kind of friends who you would wait a month to see, but since he had paid for the room, and the man’s silence, he did not expect questions.

Please, no more questions. He could not bear any more questions. Other than -

“Supper?”

And he shook his head. No supper.

He was too leaden-weary for food. Tomorrow, perhaps, when his head did not swim, and when he had dried out sufficient that he could feel his hands and his feet again, he would amble downstairs – ah, bliss undreamt, he would amble down the stairs unshaven and unwashed, in crumpled linen, and amble back up the stairs again to his bed with a plate of bread and cheese and curl himself up in his blankets and read until his eyes ached, and then he would sleep, regardless of the hour. Set his book down and doze, and then wake up and read again, and eat apples from his saddle-bag, and when it grew dark he would go downstairs and eat supper in the public rooms in the gloom.

That was all the company he craved, thank you. He was surfeited of company, of having to smile – which hurt his head – and be polite and feign an interest in gossip and scandal and meaningless chatter.

A little time alone, he thought. To lick his wounds, to regroup – and most of all, to be at rest.

It sounded like perfect bliss. Solitude, and silence, and rest. Days of it – of being himself, of no pretence, no guard. Of doing as he willed, when he willed it, for as long as he chose.

He had never known such freedom, never. And prim, frigid, solitary Russell – the Old Crophead himself, whose puritanical self-denial was an object of scorn and amusement the length of the new, libertine Court of Charles II – kicked off his boots and left them, dirty and tumbled, in the middle of the floor.

He did not undress. Did not want to. He lay on the bed in all his travelling-dirt, grinning to himself. Closed his eyes, and wriggled his toes in his cheap, badly-knitted stockings – worn through at the heel, but what of it? Who was there to care, if he did not? – pulled the blankets over himself, and slept.

And for the first few days, it was, indeed, bliss. The ale was good and they kept it well, and when his throat began to scratch the maid was kind enough to bring it warmed, and beat an egg into it, and that was enough. He meant to eat, and the food smelt good enough, but somehow when it came to it the thought of sitting down to meat made his raw throat close up, and so he did not. He asked if he might have another blanket, and they gave him another blanket. It was cold, black-cold and damp and sunless. It was not a thing of note that he might be cold.

It was the fever that did it, for the maid came on him only half in his wits with it, and he talked so wild that it frightened her – of rosemary branches, and bloody swords, and sea-green ribbons – it was a brief fit, it was the calm before the storm, but it frightened her and so they kicked him out. A decent inn. No contagion here. Very sorry. Go and die in a ditch, sir, and take your money – the which we have soaked in Vinegar of Five Thieves, a sovereign remedy against what ails you – with you.

The King – no, the other King, not this one, but the last one – hadn’t killed Russell, and neither Cromwell nor the Scots had managed it since. “Unbreakable,” he said to a passing tree, and giggled. The horse’s ears flicked, but the jade did not halt. Probably as well, for if he got off the brute he doubted he would have the strength to remount. Not sure where he was, for all woods were alike in the dark, and a frost was setting in hard as iron.

-Cold, or wet? What did he prefer? His hands were cold, but - had he had gloves, some time, or had he dreamed that? Dropped them, maybe. He halted the sighing horse to look at his hand, almost translucent in the frost-light. (Was he already dead, then? Was that why he could see all his bones through his fish-belly white skin?)

The road went ever on. There was a song, the lads had used to sing it, marching song. Not one of the godly ones. Russell had only ever got the hang of the godly ones – voice like a cracked vase, he’d tried singing with the company but they asked him to stop. Didn’t matter with the Psalms. No tune anyway. He raised what was left of his voice in the old Soldier’s Psalm, clattering the rooks out of the trees with his ragged shouts.

He was ill. Knew that. Stopped the horse in a patch where the trees weren’t so gloomy and coughed till he heaved up bile and blood, steaming down the horse’s shoulder.

(“Should have eaten,” he told himself firmly, and then, as if he were answering someone else’s question, “Well, it’s no good telling me now, is it?”)

He wasn’t going to die. Be a bit stupid, falling off his horse and dying in an Essex ditch, wouldn’t it? He didn’t have a contagion. He had a tertian fever, that was all, the same wretched low fever he had brought back from Scotland, not a -

Stupid. What was he doing, wandering in the woods while the rest of his company advanced without him? “Lucey,” he called, and his voice was a reedy whimper. He strained his eyes till the bare black branches wriggled in his vision, but his friend was gone on ahead, and the troop colours with him. “Luce, in all charity, will you wait for me, sir!”

-No, that was wrong, he was not a hot young lieutenant any more, and Cornet Luce Pettitt had been left the service of the Army ten years.

He knew that. Luce was gone, he was -

There was a black horse, moving through the trees at a brisk canter at his side. He could hear it, and see the glint of frost-light on a man’s breastplate and the barrel of a carbine slung at his knee, and the thick fall of a tangled cinnamon-brown ponytail that hung down his back.

He turned the hired horse’s head, and kicked the beast into a lumbering canter, hooves snapping dead wood. (Musket fire? To the right, and behind?)

Of all things, Colonel Hollie Babbitt trusted his lieutenant to be as the sword in his right hand.

Perhaps the dead rode, this bitter night. Perhaps Babbitt’s company of horse were reunited for this one last engagement.

Perhaps he was dead with them.

It was of no account.

He set his spurs to the hired horse, and rode.

Hollie had a cat on his chest, a daughter in his lap, and a pile of neglected harness to his hand, and a wife opposite him who was all but asleep.

It was that sort of night.

Nell was no lightweight, bless her. She was as solid and sturdy as her mam, and she spilled over Hollie’s lap, much to the cat’s consternation. She also had the habit of holding herself in place with one hand wound into his hair.

Well, he was all story-told out for the night. The house was as snug as a weevil in a barrel of flour, Henrietta was yawning fit to crack her jaw and trying to pretend that she hadn’t been up since before dawn, and it wanted but a week to Christmas.

It was a funny thing. It’d been the year of Naseby – over ten years ago this summer, which made him laugh a little wildly for he didn’t feel rising fifty – there’d been no little Nell, then, there had barely been a Joyeux, only Thomazine, and she not quite two – this very room, he had been blown in on the wings of the storm from the West Country and he had sat in this very settle and looked at two fair-haired boys curled sleeping on the parlour floor with his bright girl held safe between them. And now Luce was a barber-surgeon in his own right and living in that rambling black and white house out at Witham that had been his mother’s, with a pretty wife and a quiverfull of fair-haired brats of his own.

And Russell – odd, passionate, disfigured Russell, who’d never said much but quivered like a leashed sighthound with the ferocity of everything he wasn’t in the business of saying – dead in the battle at Dunbar, likely, was the last report from anyone who’d known him in the old days. Thomazine had been desolate, for the boy had been peculiar at best but the child had loved him with the single-minded adoration that only a five-year-old could muster.

Aye, well, so had Henrietta been fond of him, for all his funny ways. Not conformed to this world, that’d been him, all right. Without a single bone of compromise in his elegant body, and he’d had the choice of break or bend. They both had. And Hollie had bent, for love of his girls, and Russell had -

No, nothing would’ve broke Russell, he thought, smiling to himself. The lad wasn’t made so. Hollie had loved the daft bugger, too, though he’d not have said it in words. There’d been four of them, and now there was two: Luce in Witham and Hollie in White Notley, Russell dead, and Drew Venning gone respectable out at Diss, a day’s ride from here in Norfolk. (He still saw Drew, betimes, but he was different. Took to wearing one of them God-awful periwigs that made him look like the Devil crapped himself flying, and he was about the size of one of his own barrels of salt fish. He was still Drew inside, mind, even if it did take a couple of quarts of ale to get him to forget he was Sir Andrew these days.)

Hollie missed the old days, sometimes. Not the sleeping in a ditch and being shot at, but the laughs and the half-cocked stunts and the waking up in the mornings being alive, tingling-alive all the way down to your toes with the knowledge of not knowing where you’d be by this time tomorrow. Aye, well. War was a young man’s game, and he’d given it up as a fool’s labour ten years ago. Still missed Russell summat fierce, though: that dry, sardonic humour that you had to think about twice before you knew he was being funny – the way he couldn’t do anything half-cocked, from getting drunk to falling in love, he just threw himself at it grimly and set his teeth and kept on at it – the way he’d used to follow Het round the farm that summer permanently blushing like a rose and fluttering his eyelashes.

He wondered, briefly, if the lad had thrown himself at getting killed with the same zealous abandon as he’d done everything else.

And then stopped, for it hurt him, still, to wonder that.

And he was sleepily musing on the eventual and unlikely fates of his old company, when he heard the beat of galloping hooves in the yard, slipping on the cobbles, and he was struggling with the bolts on the door with his girls surging about him like the waves of the sea, not a one of them full awake but all terrified in case it was bad news -

Dark horse he didn’t know, ridden to within an inch of its life, frothing and steaming in the slice of light from the open door.

Rider dismounting with a thump, going almost to his knees on the frosty steps. Flinging his head up like a curbed horse, something about that abrupt mannerism that was tugging at Hollie’s memory. Thin. Broad in the shoulders, but his wrists - his bare wrists, white, frozen-looking fingers splayed on the cold stone, what kind of fool comes out without gloves on such a night? -all bone, his hands like bundles of knobby twigs.

Panting with his mouth open, clouds of white breath in the bitter air.

His mouth was open cockeyed, his teeth glinting like bone on one side, lip twisted awry-

“Thankful?” Het said faintly, and her fingers found Hollie’s and gripped his hand very hard. “Thankful, dear, is that really you?”

“Not,” he said, and gave a great shaky gasp, “not deserted my post. Sir.”

“Good Lord,” Hollie said, remarkably mildly, and his old lieutenant – who was not dead, but who looked as if he were considering it – looked up with the old mad, fierce intelligence in his black eyes.

Looked at Hollie for about a heartbeat, and then all the intelligence left his eyes altogether and he pitched forward onto the steps, face down, and lay still.

He’d fainted, that was all. They picked him up and Het worked her wonders and he perked up, made no sense at all at them for a good quarter-hour by the clock, and then fell asleep sitting up.

The girls, who didn’t remember him at all, clustered round, staring. The lad looked like he’d just been cut down off a gibbet, or summat to frighten birds with. “Is he catching?” – and that was pretty much all Hollie needed to know.

Het shook her head, only half attending. “No. No, I don’t think so, dear. Though I warn you, it is Thankful, and I would have had him stay regardless.” She gave him a bright, severe glance over the glasses she wore for sewing, now. “I am guessing, by the look of him, that he has fallen on hard times. We would help him, of course? Do we lack for labour on the farm, that he might be – we might offer him some employment? He could lodge with Mattie, perhaps, or in the village?”

“Not sure you’d get much work out of him, lass,” Hollie said dryly, touching the tip of his finger to Russell’s bony shoulder gently. “There’s nowt to him, poor whelp. He should have come sooner.”

“I would have seen him decently fed, at any rate, the poor lamb. What can have happened to him, to be so reduced in the world? He was always so particular!”

Hollie could guess. Rather not say it, though, before the little wenches – that Russell could not bear to be crossed, that he’d always took it bad, without fail. He’d been on his best behaviour for Het. Hadn’t took to drinking and brawling and trying to get himself killed, while he was here that time. But no, Hollie could see that, all too easy, that he might not have took to Army discipline again. Might have drifted, homeless and purposeless but always downwards, losing his commission, his reputation, his dignity -

Aye, that’d fit. Ten years was a long time.

“Come on, then, Hapless,” he said, and the lad’s eyelids fluttered at the sound of his old Army nickname, but he did not wake. “Let’s get you to bed. That’s an order, lad.”

Hollie was the first to admit that the women of his household were something of a mystery to him. Seventeen years of relatively unruffled marriage, and he still had precious little idea of what went on in his wife’s head.

And actually, that was how he liked it: not out of any careless intent, but because she was her own woman, still, after those seventeen years. He often had a good idea what she might think, but she could still surprise him, when she’d a mind to.

He did not think it was anything he’d done – or not done – that was making his wife blink so rapidly. He thought it might be to do with the reappearance of that poor wraith from his old soldiering days – but he was never sure, with Het: Hollie had left the service of Parliament, and Russell had not, and he had thought it best for the career of a junior officer who might yet go far that he not be tainted with the guilt of association of a noted rebel and Dissenter.

So it had been a while and a while, and he had very deliberately not sought to know how the boy fared. He thought it was best, that way. And then there had been news of the battle at Dunbar, and they had thought – well. Where he was. He was distinctive. They said.

Het had wanted to keep him, all that time ago. That was the thing of it. He might have been Hollie’s lieutenant, and Hollie might have seen him as a friend and a comrade, but Het had seen him as her son in everything but name. The lad had had nowhere else in the world to go and no one who’d have took him, the year of the great battle at Naseby. He must have been scared witless, poor whelp, when Hollie came to look back on it. Blinded, in a deal of pain, with no idea where he was going or how he might earn his bread if his sight never came back – ah, God, no, it was no surprise he’d been fierce and strange company, that summer. But he’d made a place for himself at White Notley, and Het had come to value him. Love him, even. Well, it had sort of been in both their heads for a while, that they might take Russell as their son, when it looked as if the Lord might not bless them with a boy of their own blood.

But you couldn’t do that. (He’d tried to tell her that, ten years ago, but she’d her heart set on it, and he could never bear to not give her what she wanted, so far as it was within his gift.) Friendship with Russell was hard work: it was all or nothing with him. You couldn’t just be a casual, pass the time of day friend, you must either love him or hate him, and he’d pushed as many people away as had took to him. Het, being a woman, and soft-hearted, had thought if someone might love him sufficient he’d have straightened up and settled down, but Hollie – well, he wouldn’t have pitied the lass as wed Russell, for he would be faithful, and he was a hard worker, no denying that. Whatever he did, he put his back into it. But comfortable? Probably not. He’d always have that odd kick in his gallop, and you’d always have to put down what you were doing betimes to go and pet him and bring him out of his sullens, when he was in that sort of mood. Het had set her heart on schooling him from what a childhood of loveless godliness had made of him, and Hollie didn’t think it was possible; but she’d brought him half-way round, he’d been something like ordinary when –

Aye. When the war had ended, and Hollie chose not to think about that time. Russell had had both feet on the road to being a handy enough lad, in time, and then the war against the King had ended, and Russell had stayed with the Army and gone to Scotland, and Hollie had not. And what frightened him now, very much, was not that the lad might have gone beyond Het’s mending in ten years away, but that the thing that might need mending might be his wife’s good opinion of him.

Het had had her heart set on a thing, and Hollie had not given it to her. And that was not so dreadful, for he had never bought her the pearls he’d promised, either. But she had looked to him to keep Russell on the straight and narrow, and he had very evidently failed in that duty. He had chosen not to keep contact with the lad, not out of a dereliction of his duties, but for fear it would harm his prospects – that the dust might settle and Russell might be allowed to get on with the business of being a commanding officer in his own right, untainted by having Hollie Babbitt’s anarchic shadow over him. But that wasn’t how it seemed, was it?

He had done what he had done for the best.

It did not stop Het from looking at him, when she thought he couldn’t see, as if he had throttled one of the kittens in front of her. She thought Hollie had seen the things the same as she: that most of the world stood in need of some repair, and that they would do it between them, one meal at a time. And now she knew he did not. And that grieved him.

She’d treated Russell as the child of her body, but he’d not been a child. He’d might have bloomed under it, but then he’d never been allowed to be a child, had he? Blossomed in her care like some spiky dark flower, and that was good, but he wasn’t their child, not truly, and all Het’s wishing and hoping would not make it so. He was Praise-God and Margaret Russell’s boy, born and brought up on Buckinghamshire soil, and he had a sister, even if she loathed him. (For all Hollie knew, the lad might have had a wife and children missing him by now – and Het didn’t know it, either, before she took him back to her bosom as the poor lost lamb.) He was not theirs to keep. They’d offered him a place at White Notley ten years ago, and he had chosen to go into the world and make his own way, on his own terms. He’d cocked it up, by the look of him, but at the very least he’d cocked it up on his own two feet. Het would have took that choice off him, and swaddled him in loving if she could – and Hollie would not. And that was going to stick like a bone in the throat, if he did not take care to mend it. “Is he all right?” he said warily, and Het had looked up with a smile that fooled no one.

“Surely, dear. I am surprised that you think it worth your notice?”

And now Thomazine had stopped sewing, with the needle poised in her fingers trying to look as if she wasn’t listening, and she was too still to be convincing. Not like Zee to be still. But then Zee was like her mother – born to manage – and she had always thought of Russell as her playmate, a boy her own age, not as a man grown. “That’s hardly fair, lass. If he’s sick –“

“Oh, little ails him,” Het said brightly, and she was cross with someone, you could tell. “Any more than not enough to eat, and too much work, and an insufficiency of sleep, on top of an inflammation of the lungs – nothing serious, Holofernes!”

And rather startlingly, she threw a rolled-up pair of stockings at him. He caught them by sheerest reflex, and he must have looked bemused, because she glowered at him over the top of her glasses and she growled, “Look at those, husband. Look at them.”

He couldn’t see very much wrong with them. They were ragged, and badly-darned, and not especially clean, but he’d seen worse. He looked obliging, because this was evidently some female piece of outrage that he wasn’t expected to know about, and his wife said, “Those are bought stockings, Holofernes. Cheap, badly-made, shoddy things!”

“I see.” – He didn’t, but it was always best to agree when she was in this mood.

“I am not surprised that poor boy is sick, husband! He must not have had a dry stitch of clothing to his name, in this cold weather, since – well, they didn’t grow so overnight! And his shirts are no better!”

So it was his fault, evidently, then. “Ye-es,” he said warily, “aye, I see that, but –“

“It is eleven years since the last time that poor boy slept under this roof, Holofernes. When he left here he was a whole, happy, healthy young man with his whole life ahead of him. And now look at him!”

“Lot of water under the bridge in eleven years, lass.” He put his hand in that ruined stocking, spread his fingers. Tried not to think what it might be like if this was your life: not having anyone who loved you enough to keep you decent. Lonely, he thought, and a little ripple of goosebumps went up the backs of his arms at the thought of such loneliness, for it was a dark place, and he had been in it, before there had been Het.

“Indeed, husband. And as I said. I do mean that he will stay here until he is mended: you know that, don’t you?”

It was a challenge. It was the eighteenth anniversary of the night they had first laid eyes on each other and he should not have fallen in love with Het Sutcliffe quite so irrevocably had she not been the kind of woman who took in itinerant derelicts as a kind of moral duty.

It was the eighteenth anniversary of the night he had first set eyes on her and a man could feel hard-done by, deprived of the joy of his wife’s company on that anniversary by an ungrateful itinerant derelict they hadn’t passed the time of day with in over a decade. He met her gaze, and did not drop his eyes.

“Well,” Joyeux said sweetly, “what does it say in the Bible? ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’”

Thomazine, recovered to activity, looked at her sister with an expression of mild astonishment. (Joyeux, at fourteen, was having one of the excessively-conventional turns that seemed to afflict her of late. And Thomazine, at not quite seventeen, was evidently stifling a desire to stuff her sister’s head into the bread oven.) “Joy,” she said, “it’s Russell. You remember him. He’s not an angel, and he’s not that strange.”

“I think he’s very peculiar,” Joyeux said with a sniff. “Coming up to people’s houses in the middle of the night that he hasn’t seen for about a hundred years, and then falling over dead on the doorstep. It is hardly reasonable behaviour, you know.”

“Is he that old?” Nell wanted to know – as well she might, as she hadn’t even been thought of when Russell had last been at White Notley. “Like Methusaleh, that kind of old?”

“It’s Christmas,” Hollie said, returning to the fray with what he fondly imagined was a quelling look at two of his children. “He must stay for as long as is required, Henrietta. After that, it is his choice.”

“I am perfectly well aware of the season,” his good wife said, with more asperity than he thought was needed. “I have my hands sufficient full already, without having the care of that poor boy as well – “

“But he’s not really a boy any more, is he, though?” Nell put in helpfully, “you said –“

“Eleanor!”

Thomazine folded up her mending, absently stroked the striped cat and set her back in the mending-basket, and stood up. “It’s all right, mama,” she said, and she smiled. “I’ll see to Russell. I don’t think I am capable of seeing all to rights for Christmas, but I do think I can manage to baste an invalid with sage oil. Assuming we don’t mistake him for the Christmas joint, and try and roast him. We’ll manage.” And then she looked at Hollie and he thought, with a sudden sense of amazement, that his firstborn was a child no longer. “Pass me that stocking, daddy, if you’re done with it. I can have it darned by tomorrow.”

Thomazine wasn’t quite sure how she felt about her childhood friend being the first dead man she’d ever seen.

She wasn’t quite sure he was dead, either, but he certainly looked it currently.

He was so thin, and it wasn’t how she remembered him. Thin, and sort of mangy-looking, with his hair cropped almost to his scalp – but raggedly, as if he’d done it himself with a pair of shears and no mirror – and that horrible thing on his cheek gone all bluish-purple and sore-looking with the cold.

He didn’t look very nice to know, actually. And Thomazine wasn’t sure which was worse, that he looked like a dead person, or that he looked like a very intimidating dead person, because neither of them sat well with her memory of a young man she’d used to share her ill-gotten sweetmeats with, on the stairs in the dark. He had been the most glamorous, fascinating thing in the world she could conceive, then. He’d spent most of his lieutenant’s pay on wildly unsuitable gifts for her, having no other family of his own: the vivid scarlet of the length of wool he’d bought at her childish insistence one Christmas was still in use about the house, somewhere. (Nell had had the wear of that scarlet gown, even, though it had looked better on dark-haired Nell than it ever had on amber-haired Thomazine.)

She had loved him very, very much, when she was toddling – like a dog, or a good horse, she would have followed at his heel through the gates of Hell, all unbidden. She did not know what might have happened to make that brave, bright, half-beautiful boy into this dreadful starved beggar. It was the first tragedy she had known in her comforted and beloved life, and it felt as if a little window had opened into darkness – that it might happen to someone she had loved, in spite of the strength of her loving, frightened her.

She was still staring at him, trying to work out if that shaking hiss was the sound of sleet on the black window-glass or just his painful breathing, when her mother came in.

“Thomazine, dear,” Het said gently, from the doorway.

And by some small miracle his eyes opened, and he was not dead: he looked like the worst of cut-throat beggars but her old friend was still in there, somewhere.

“Thom. A. Zine?” he whispered, and blinked, frowned slightly, and then his eyes slid over her shoulder to her mother.

“Het?”

Who took a step into the room. Thomazine’s eyes flew to that solid, familiar shape in the doorway, for where her mother was everything would be all right, and no harm could befall them. “Yes, dear. You are safe home, and it wants but three days to Christmas, and we have missed you a good deal,” Het said.

And she sounded so happy that Thomazine did not understand why her mother’s eyes sparkled with tears.

Hollie came back into the parlour, stifling a shiver as the hail rattled the windows in their casements again, and moved a comfortable cat from his fireside seat.

“Spark out,” he said, with satisfaction. “What on earth did you slip him, Het?”

“Posset, no more,” she said, and did not look up from her mending, but jammed a needle through the seam of the shirt she was darning, with some venom. “And a little syrup of hyssop, for his poor chest. I do not like the sound of his breathing, at all.” She gave another meaningful sniff, and dragged the thread tight through the linen with a little jerk.

She did not look up, but she radiated irritation like a banked fire. “Have I upset you, lass?” he said, sufficiently concerned by her coolness not to be applying himself to the tricky matter of how best to mend a stirrup leather that had worn right through at the buckle-hole.

Het looked up then. She was frowning a little bit, but her eyes were teary-bright. “You? No, husband. Not you.”

“You’re cross with Russell?” he hazarded, and she shook her head.

“Surely not, husband, I am overjoyed that he has been ten years without a word, leaving the pair of us believing him to be dead and buried in his service in Scotland, and then he arrives unannounced in the middle of winter. Half-dead with a fever, and frightening the wits out of our girls, and it wanting less than a week to Christmas and where has he been for the last years, that he has forgotten us till now?”

“Cross,” Hollie said, nodding, having hit the nail squarely on the head. “I knew you were.”

She gave him one simmering glare, and then her face softened. "Oh, I do love you, Holofernes. I -" she gave a deep sigh, and smoothed the rumpled shirt in her lap - "not for one day have I regretted the day we wed."

“Truly?”

She nodded, and gave him a wobbly smile. “Truly.”

“Even given the mending I put you to?”

“Even given the amount of mending you put me to, dear. By which admission I am guessing you have something as yet undisclosed, in need of attention?”

"The usual," he confessed, "the pocket on my good coat is come away. A little. Me and Thomazine were overlooking Marston's colt in the top field after church, and I happened to put one too many apples in the pocket - gentling the colt, you understand- "

“Perhaps, dear love, you ought to pay more mind to gentling your daughter,” she said mildly, and he hunched his shoulders and wriggled. “Thomazine is a fair way to becoming a hoyden, and you have fallen into the habit of treating her as if she were one of your old troop, dear.” Het looked over the top of her glasses again, with that dear three-cornered smile illuminating her whole face. Her face was a little rounder, after seventeen years of marriage – a little better upholstered in the beam and the bosom, after three living girls and a boy in the churchyard at Colchester – but she still had the same smile. “Though she is a dear child, and a delight. I hope, though, I hope that Thankful will not be too shocked at how wild she is grown, since he last saw her. They were always close, they two, weren’t they?”

“If he’s shocked by my girl, he’s not the man I thought him,” Hollie said, and the corner of Het’s mouth curled up.

“No, dear. That’s what I was saying. I should hardly recognise him as the same young man we knew. Then.”

And then she fell silent, and he knew, as he always knew, that she was thinking of their own boy, who would have been Nathaniel Elijah had he lived so long, instead of baptised child-of-God. He’d have been almost twelve, now. And would he have been tall and lean and bright, like amber-haired Thomazine, or solid and russet and freckled, like little Nell, or slender and dark and fair-skinned like Joyeux.

There was always a place at White Notley for him, though, for that shadow-boy who would never play amongst the apple-trees or fish in the brook, in life. And so it was that when Luce Pettitt’s three coltish blond boys who played in the orchard, and fished in the brook, the shade of Nathaniel Elijah splashed and climbed with them.

- Luce’s eldest had also been caught trying to get Hollie’s stud horse to jump a four-foot hedge, as well, and had had his backside warmed nicely for him. But that was boys for you, and no doubt Nathaniel would have been every bit as bad. Had he lived.

It was quiet enough in that room that you could almost hear the stars ringing overhead like bells in the iron-cold air. One of the girls coughed, upstairs. A fox barked – he had an eye to them, as well, come lambing time, and the eldritch yell of a fornicating vixen still stood all the hairs up on the back of his neck.

She set down her mending, and came and sat next to him on the settle and tucked her arm though his. “Would you consider Thankful to be wholly reduced to poverty, dear?” she said carefully, and burrowed her head against his shoulder.

(Seventeen years of marriage, and she still seemed to be as blind to the shortcomings of his bedtime toilette as ever she had been. Which was comforting.)

He leaned his cheek against the top of her head, and thanked God for her forgiveness. Unlooked-for. Perhaps he had worried for nothing. Outside was the black window glass and the rattling dark, and he considered the lad’s circumstances critically, glad that if nothing else they had the boy here on such a night. “Aye, pretty much.”

A long pause. “Dear.”

Decent boots, but Russell had always been picky about his boots – Hollie had taught him that, even if little else had stuck. That was a career soldier thing, that you bought the best boots you could because if your feet were warm and dry you’d get by, even if you were sleeping in a ditch.

It was plain he was mending his own linen. Hollie had seen him safely tucked up in bed in nothing but his shirt, and it had had worn patches in the elbows you could read your Bible through, and the darns were as lumpy as walnuts. Het would have shamed to use that shirt for floor-cloths, and yet there was Russell wearing it – and nothing else, presently – like it was his most precious possession. Not married, then. Cheap, skimpy, poorly stitched, plain shirts, and precious few of those in his saddlebags. A sword that had to be as old as Thomazine – sentiment, or necessity? You couldn’t tell, with that lad – and a knock-kneed, spavined, hobbling hired horse.

“Dear,” Het said carefully, “I would agree, he is in want. But he is not ill-kept, you know. He is not dirty, and his nails are perfectly clean.”

- trust Henrietta to notice that, he thought wryly.

She took a deep breath. It wasn’t forgiveness, then. She wasn’t letting Hollie off the hook, she’d just seen something in him that gave her pause for thought. She sighed, and wriggled. (Evidently the thing was worse than he thought. Larceny? Bigamy?) “I think he is not what we think, and it troubles me. Dear,” she said again, “do you think he is still involved in –“

“Poking his neb into politics,” Hollie said firmly. “I doubt it, lass. I reckon all that time with Cromwell broke him of his habit of meddling, once and for all.“

“Yes,” Het said forlornly. “I had hoped so, too. What if he did not?”

Russell had no idea where he was, and he lay in the dark feeling very odd indeed – knowing this house, and yet not knowing if it was real, or how he might have come there.

If it was some fiction of a disordered brain, that in his head he had returned to the one place where he had been happy and useful –

He did not think he was lying dead in a ditch. His feet were warm, and he could hear the weather outside rattling on the windows and the roof-tiles, and whining in the chimney behind his head.

(The window still thumped in its casement when the wind took it, and surely that meant this could not be illusion, for when he had dreamed of this place – of clean linen, and laughter, and peace, and kindness – he did not remember a loose window, and yet now that he heard it, he recalled it -)

If he was lying dead in a ditch, it was a good ditch to be in.

He did not know where he was, and his aching, over-strained body did not care. Tired of the long, cramped days that were his bread and butter, now: of hunching twisted over ill-written papers in a chair made for someone six inches shorter, of creeping headaches in dim, stuffy rooms, parsing other men’s scrawls.

He knew this place, for it was where he went to in his head, while his body knew no other freedom. And he was afraid to open his eyes, lest it be a dream in truth, and he find himself again surrounded by leering, cruel faces and mockery disguised as humour, and a long, unending loneliness.

He tried to be afraid, rather, but he was past the worst of the fever and he was limp and weary with the utter exhaustion of healing. His toes twitched, feebly, against the delicious heat of his warm sheets. (Warm, smooth, clean sheets that smelt of sweet herbs and fresh air.)

Blankets. The bed was piled high with blankets, and he was melting by slow fractions, the ache in his bones dissolving away to a lovely leaden lassitude.

Rain. Sleet? Pelting the window like shot, while that whining bitter wind fingered the loose casement. And it was outside, that was the blessed relief of it, it was outside, and he was inside, safe, while the world scrabbled at the windows outside trying to get in at him.

Through his lashes, the flame of the tiny night-light floating in a dish on the press beside his head shimmered. Darkened. Shimmered again – wake, Russell, you must not sleep, you must not drop your guard even for a heartbeat, open your eyes -

Darkened again.

And he was gone.

Breakfast was an odd meal. It was usually a cheerful festival, but mama was distracted, and daddy had a sort of watchful look, as if he were waiting for something to happen.

Christmas, in all probability. Well, Thomazine was too old to get excited by Christmas, though she humoured the little ones, of course.

She’d knitted some stockings for daddy for a New Year’s gift, and she flattered herself they’d come out all right. They were a sort of smoky grey blue coloured wool, and thick. He had plenty already, of course, mama not being the sort of lady who could sit idle, but they were a nice colour, and they’d be warm.

A length of amber ribbon for Joyeux, who was gone potty on boys presently, to her parents’ despair. (It explained the propriety, at any rate. Boys, apparently, like the sort of girl who said pretty much what you expected her to say. Which was – in Thomazine’s unfeminine opinion – hideously dull.)

A doll for Nell, that mam had made a dress for, in the last of that old scarlet worsted. A lavender sachet, for mam herself.

It didn’t seem much like Christmas. It wasn’t snowing, it was just bitter cold and wet, and everything was black and grey. No life, no colour, no excitement. And Russell was no more than a worn-out, ragged old man. Joyeux had been at great pains to point that out, last night.

He was still her friend, though.

And he still needed looking after, though, and her mother was still up to the elbows in preparation for the feast at Christmas, and although Thomazine was pretty much grown up she didn’t consider herself to be capable of co-ordinating a formal supper for thirty people, and cleaning the house bottom to top, and finding time to go to church and to Uncle Luce’s for his annual Christmas Eve revel.

And to make sure that her notoriously untidy father was presentable, and hadn’t nipped back upstairs and changed back into his plain grey Sunday suit where he was comfortable, instead of his festival blue silk.

And that Joyeux had been parted from her mirror, and that Nell was decent – Nell took after daddy on the matter of personal presentation, and was prone to cat-lick toilettes if not watched carefully.

Which was all right, so long as she hadn’t tried to conceal a streak of honey down her bodice with an artfully-disarranged collar, or put her hair in a cap instead of combing it – both of which she had some history of.

Not being pretty herself, mind, Thomazine wasn’t bothered, so long as she was clean and decent.

But it gave her pleasure to be in charge of taking care of the poor wretched man. It was Christmas, after all, and that meant there was frumenty for breakfast, rich and creamy and sweet with honey, and stiff with plums, and warmly spiced. (While their cook wasn’t looking she slipped in another great ladle of sweet cream, and then licked her fingers surreptitiously.)

It was sort of a family thing, her mother’s recipe for frumenty – she put something in it that made it special and different to anyone else’s. She said it was a pinch of loving.

Feeling oddly self-conscious, she ladled a bowlful into one of the everyday bowls –

he wasn’t company, he was Russell – and, well, no, to the Devil with it. He was an old friend and a good one and he happened to have fallen on hard times and there was no reason she should feel ashamed about helping him. Thereby some have entertained angels unawares, remember?

There was no reason at all why she should feel nervous. Possibly that she might trip over her own feet and drop frumenty in his lap. Or that he might be grateful, and she wasn’t sure what she would do if he was grateful, other than be embarrassed. (He would still be Thankful, of course. He would always be Thankful. It had always been the one and only joke he ever made in company.)

She bent her head over the fragrant bowl, and breathed in the smell of home, and loving, and Christmas.

She had not recognised him at first, last night, but then how should she? It had been a while and a while since, and she had dreamed him into many things in the meantime: he had been her rebel angel, back in the day, when he’d been daddy’s lieutenant and armed with nothing but zeal and a flaming sword.

And now he was a tired, sick old man, and a vagabond, and the light faded out of the world again a little at that thought. But only a little, for he might have stories to tell, of when he had been young and lovely to look on and only a little bit broken.

The only thing that troubled her was whether he was still breathing. And she wasn’t quite sure what she would do if he was completely dead this morning, instead of just partly. But she could hear him breathing, even if he whimpered as if it hurt him to do it, and he snored, a little bit. (Not as badly as daddy but then as mama said betimes, dear, nobody snores like your father.)

On such things are childish dreams broken, she thought, feeling very grown up and womanly. Her rebel angel was a poor worn-out old soldier, and he snored.

She pushed the door open with her foot.

It was a nice room, she thought with satisfaction, and she thought it was good that he got to sleep here, because when you were old and poor you probably did not often get to be warm, or to sleep in a proper bed with enough covers and clean sheets. And to have good things to eat, like mama’s frumenty. At least, she thought, it wasn’t raining. Cold enough to freeze the birds in the trees, but dry this morning, and she felt the bottom of his bed for the brick that made it such a little bliss to climb under your quilts at White Notley.

He was all huddled in on himself, even down to the way his eyes were pinched shut. Poor thing, she wondered how long it had been since he had been warm, properly warm. And for the first time Thomazine wondered what it was like to be poor – not to have enough to eat, not just not enough of the nice things like lovely buttery frumenty or honey cakes, but to be hungry all the time. And to be cold, to have holes in your stockings and not enough clothes, and -

Just not to be loved.

“I think you should not have gone away,” she said, her eyes filling with sentimental tears. “We would have looked after you.”

He had moved in the night, from flat on his back like daddy had left him, to a rather more reassuring position. He appeared to have been fighting with the blankets, for he was half off the bed and rolled in his quilt. Definitely not dead, then, which was a great relief to all concerned. She wasn’t sure if it was the first rosy light of a very reluctant sun that gave him a degree of healthy colour, but he looked asleep, rather than freshly dug-up.

He did not look much as she remembered. Even asleep, he looked irritated, but that might have been down to the shape of his eyebrows, which were quite level and really quite surprisingly dark, for a white-haired old man.

He had a little scar through one – was that an old one, or not? She didn’t remember it – and a frowny sort of crease between his eyes, which didn’t mean much, because mam had a very similar one when she didn’t wear her glasses.

Out of interest, she poked him, and he twitched and muttered and the scowl deepened as if he were screwing his eyes tighter shut.

He had a very straight nose. It was rather a nice nose, she thought appraisingly, it wasn’t at all red or bulbous like you’d expect it to be if he was as, well, depraved in his personal habits as daddy had implied. (Daddy thought he was being discreet in saying such, but his idea of a subtle whisper was a little bit impaired by thirty years of standing on the wrong side of heavy guns.)

A lot of silvery bristles. She didn’t recall him being quite so hairy, before. Maybe it was a thing that happened when you got old. White bristles on his chin, and patchy on his cheek, where the scarring was, giving him the look of a scalded side of bacon.

Not pretty, she decided, setting the bowl down and kneeling down for a better look. He had lines about his eyes and his mouth, and a sort of ashy colour to his skin. All his bones showed.

Black lashes, with gold tips to them, and long as a girl’s, curved on his colourless cheek.

And she was peering at him from a distance of all of eight inches, in pity and fascination, when those intriguing lashes fluttered.

He stared back at her in complete incomprehension. (Stormy eyes, not black, but grey, like the stones of the church floor. Blank with sleep, and not a clue who she was. That hurt.)

He frowned at her, and blinked, and then suddenly the dark lifted out of his eyes: she saw it go, and they were grey like the sky in autumn with the sun behind it instead.

He was piteously thin, and she wondered if she could see things crawling in his hair, or if it was just her imagination.

Maybe that was why he’d cut it so short, when he had been used to wear it long and tied in a tail down his back. Or maybe he was going bald, perhaps, in his old age –

“What,” he said grimly, sounding very much like his old self, “are you peering at, mistress?”

“Your hair,” she said without thinking.

He unrolled himself abruptly from the quilts and glared at her. (Outrage rather suited him, actually. That snapping of indignation meant he looked like a man, and not an old bone.) “What about my hair?”

“The lack of it?”

“How dare you, madam!”

Though he didn’t sound much like a vagabond, or a drunk, or – well, what did a villain sound like, anyway? He sounded like himself, and like he’d never gone away. Which was a little unfortunate, because –

“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said, and she could not help the forlorn note creeping into her voice. It had been ten years, and a lot could happen in ten years, and perhaps she had not been as important to him as she had always thought she had been.

“Remember you? Should I –“ he cocked his head to one side, and that was a trick he’d had then, too, that way of tilting his head to the side where the scar was, the better to think. He looked a little bit worried. “Madam, did I – have we – do I know you? Should I know you? I – it is not meant in discourtesy, mistress, I –“

“It doesn’t matter.” She made her mouth smile. “I brought your breakfast, see? Eat it all up, and rest.”

“But no – I should know you, I should, yet I –“

It might have been a rude scrutiny, in anyone else: it was certainly ferociously intent. Frighteningly so. And yet he was the one who began to look frightened, and she was afraid all of a sudden that he might have some sort of relapse, or fit, or something – “Thomazine?” he said faintly, “Thomazine Babbitt? Is it you? Truly?” And then, sounding perfectly outraged about it, “But you are a woman grown!”

“Well, I can assure you I didn’t do it to spite you!” she said tartly. “Of course I am, you stupid man! You have been gone ten years – what did you expect?”

“I should hardly recognise you!” And then, shaking his head again, “Am I at your house? Where is your husband? Um – do you have a husband, or is that a stupid question?”

“Yes,” she said, “it is a stupid question, and – Russell, I was sixteen this February past. Do you not actually know anything about girls at all?”

In the old days, he would have answered her back tit for tat. Now, he simply looked at her in awe, out of the corner of his eye. “Your – parents? They are still – in good health?” he said warily.

“They both enjoy perfect health. As do both of my sisters.”

Both of your sisters?” She wondered what else she might say to shock him. “Joyeux I know – I knew – but another? There was – there is – another child?”

“Hardly, Russell. Nell’s almost ten. She’s not really a child. This is what happens, you see, when you disappear without a word to anyone. You miss all this.”

“I –“ and he stuttered a little bit, and then looked up at her with his dark eyes all starry. “But this is a crowning wonder, Thomazine –“

“That we are all still alive? So is most of the world, Russell, did you but look. Amazing how many people I know are not dead. Now, hush, and eat up your frumenty. Which mama makes special, it being Christmas. I think you timed your arrival perfectly.”

He stopped talking and started eating, and she could almost see him filling out in front of her eyes, like a new-fledged butterfly when the sun uncrumples its wings. Which sounded considerably more romantic than he looked, with his raggedly cropped hair and all his bones sticking through his skin. He needed a shave, too. And he was sitting there, all prim and funny , trying to look as if he was still more grown-up than she whilst shoving mama’s frumenty into his head like he’d not seen good food in months.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting some more,” she said, and he gave her a wry look, and shrugged, and grinned apologetically.

And then, in the space between one breath another, he had keeled over fast asleep, as suddenly as a new baby, or a kitten. Leaving Thomazine feeling very odd indeed. Half delighted and half dissatisfied and – well, confused, for he was not at all what she remembered and yet he was not what she expected, either.

After Thomazine had come down with her joyous news, Het went upstairs herself. Not that she didn’t believe her daughter, but she was minded to see for herself that he was on the way to mending.

And, possibly a little, to see if he might remember her, too.

Het went upstairs with Thomazine bouncing at her heels, and frowned down at Russell, and said she did not like his breathing, and considered liquorice tea and whether he needed more sage oil on his poor chest, and buried him in a foot and a half of extra blankets and shoved more hot bricks at the foot of the bed.

Russell, being very firmly asleep, said nothing about anything.

She put her hand on his forehead and scowled. He wasn’t feverish, he was just worn to a pack-thread, poor boy. He muttered and stirred under her hand restlessly, tossing his head on the pillow. She picked up his dropped coat and smoothed it absently over her arm, folding it and setting it on the coffer. And wondered how he might have come by such a good coat – in his pitiable state, with his erratically-mended linen and his threadbare stockings, it seemed somehow incongruous that he should have a decent suit. Well. Probably second, or third, hand. Good cloth, plain, but very well-worn. Discreetly patched, and nicely-mended in places – shiny in the elbows and the collar, as if it had been someone’s favourite coat, once, before the rag-man had it.

Slightly bloodstained in the breast, as if a previous owner might have died in it. She set it down hastily.

It chinked, and Het stiffened.

She put her hand in one of the pockets. Carefully, in case the thing that chinked was dangerous, or sharp, or loaded.

A small, soft leather purse. Her mouth was dry, suddenly. She took it out and loosened the strings, and then put it back very quickly.

And then opened it again, because it was not a scandalous sum of money. It was no more money than they often had in coin themselves, when Hollie had sold some of the young stock. It was not unreasonable that a man should have (she counted, with shaking fingers) sixty guineas, in gold coins, in his pockets.

In those pockets? Sixty guineas would have bought him decent clothes, and enough to eat. Neither of which he had owned for some while, by the look of him.

The pamphlet “New Jerusalem’s Glory”, though, frightened her. It was an old one. It was out of date, and surely such things had passed from fashion, and talk of insurrection and insurgency was –

“Was nuts and fruit to that boy, in the late wars,” Hollie said grimly, when she told him. “Now what is he up to?”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s not doing him any good!” Het snapped, irritable with relief now that such matters as being a party to treason had been dumped in her husband’s lap. “What is it?”

“Fifth Monarchy-men, Henrietta, is what it is. That’s their talk, that is. He’s going to get himself cut in pieces, that one. God! Does he never learn?”

He looked furious, and that was not so uncommon, for Hollie still had a red-haired temper, even though the russet of his hair had faded to a rose-brown with the years. But that he was frightened, and he was, she could tell – that frightened her. “What are Fifth Monarchy-men, dear?” she said warily. “Is it a soldier thing?”

“All you need to know, lass, is that they’re bad ‘uns. And that’s not me telling you what’s the proper things to think, Het, because the less you know about Fifth Monarchy-men the less they can question you on, if that one up yonder gets taken up. Which he will, because in addition to not having the sense God give to rabbits, Hapless Russell has never had the ability to keep his shumoutht. Whatever stupid whelp thought he’d made a good spy, wants his head testing. They’re rebels, and you’d have thought he’d have had his fill of rebellion ten years ago. Seems he’s not learnt nowt, doesn’t it?”

“They shan’t have him.”

Neither of them had heard Thomazine come back downstairs.

“Don’t talk stupid, Zee.”

“But he hasn’t done anything!” she said wildly, “he couldn’t have, daddy, he’s my friend, he couldn’t –“

“Thomazine, now, hold your tongue!”

And Het looked up sharply at her husband because it was not like him to speak so short to his eldest daughter, his firstborn, and the one who looked and behaved the most like him. In most things he had indulged her most horribly. “You don’t know what he might have done, or become, in ten years, daughter,” Hollie said sternly, “I’ll not harbour insurgents in my house. I’ll not put my family in danger for that scabby wreck upstairs. He’s out, so soon as he can stand on his own two feet –“

“You would do that to Thankful? After all he did for you?”

“All what he did for me? Nearly get me killed, on more than one occasion – be a pain in the necessary, drooping about the place like a wet weekend – getting me in perpetual trouble? Disappearing without a word for nearly eleven years, letting us think he was dead or worse, with not so much as a letter to mind him by? Damn’ right I’d turn him out, Thomazine! How could I do else, but turn him over to the authorities? D’you not think if he’s up to the ars- earholes in bed with the Fifth Monarchy-men, one of the first places they’re going to come looking for him is here?”

“I don’t care!” Thomazine yelled back at him, “I won’t give him over to the King! They’d kill him!”

“Better him than you, lass!” Hollie yelled back at her. “I’d rather see his head on a spike than yours, Zee, for that’s where it’ll end!”

And Thomazine fled, sobbing and unlovely, and Hollie folded his arms and glared at his wife in the manner of a man who knows very well he has said something he ought not to, and is not going to apologise for it.

“There was no need for that, Holofernes,” Het said, very mildly. “You did not need to be so blunt about it.”

“She has been tagging after that lad since she could walk, and I’ll not have him lead her into bad ways.”

“You have not so much as spoken to Thankful since he arrived, husband. You are very quick to assume he is a leader, and not himself led. Which is an assumption I should not care to make, were I you. He could always be turned from intemperacy by kind words –“

“Aye, ten years ago!”

Het lifted her chin in a martial fashion. “Would he change so much, then? For you knew him for –“

“Half of that, Henrietta. And I would have said ten years ago little would turn him from intemperacy but thirty-two pound shot. And now I wouldn’t even bet on that being sufficient. When I knew him last he was an ungovernable little – piece of work – and he’s had I dunno how long of being masterless, since. I couldn’t keep him muzzled when I was stood six inches behind him with a firm grip on the back of his collar. The hell chance d’you think I’d stand now, when he’s been his own man since they kicked him out of the Army?”

“You don’t know he was – discharged,” she said primly, “from the Army. You don’t know anything!”

“I do know that that fleabitten vagabond turns up and starts fluttering his eyelashes and all the female members of my household suddenly go a bit wobbly,” Hollie said, and closed one eye and squinted at her thoughtfully. It wasn’t a look she’d seen him give her for this many a year, and it suddenly made her want to giggle.

“Holofernes Babbitt, I believe you’re jealous!” she said in astonishment.

“What, of that long streak o’ raddled crow’s-bait?” He snorted. “In his dreams. Don’t change the subject.”

“Oh, you silly man. I did not – I do not – have anything other than a maternal affection for Thankful Russell. Although he is still a good-looking boy –“

“Henrietta, if you consider that – derelict with half the side of his head missing, a good-looking boy –“

“Don’t exaggerate,” she said lovingly.

“He’s an ungovernable rebel!”

“Well, Mr Kettle, meet Mr Pot, dear. So are you.”

“I’ve learnt the error of my ways, Henrietta!”

He sounded outraged, and she hadn’t been married to him for so long without knowing at least something of his tricks. “No you’ve not, Holofernes. You have simply learned to be quieter about it.” And she looked at him over her glasses, smiling. “You are every bit as wicked and dangerous as when I first set eyes on you, dear. An ungovernable rebel, indeed. Now go up and see him, for I imagine he is very much afraid.”

Hollie sat on the edge of the bed with a thump.

“I want a word with you – is it still Lieutenant Russell, boy, or have you lost that dignity again long since?”

Russell sighed, and fixed his eyes on some dust in a shaft of chill sunlight. “Not lieutenant. Not for this many a long year.”

It was a daft thing to have said, and he was sorry he’d put it quite like that as his old commander took a long breath and then listed every wrong thing Russell had done in ten years of service, with a few that he didn’t remember and some which he didn’t even think were physically possible. But. He had sown the wind and now he was reaping the whirlwind.

He waited till he was fairly sure Hollie wasn’t going to kill him, and then said – with, he thought, remarkable restraint – “It’s Major. Now.”

(And Hollie did yelp, at that point, and cuff Russell sharply about the ear, but he considered it to be well-deserved by then. To his deep shame, he seemed to have acquired a talent for theatrical revelation that would have shamed a Drury Lane orange-girl.) “What. The. Hell?”

“It’s Major Russell. Has been for -” he thought about it, “six years, thereabouts. I’m on Monck’s staff.”

“You infernal whited sepulchre.”

“Sr, I must protest! I -”

And Hollie gave him a cuff round the other ear, which hurt, it being the damaged side and his hearing somewhat impaired in that direction “You’re putting me on, you sneaking little skellum, you’re no more an officer than I’m a bishop! You’re nowt better than a broken-down hedge-creeper, skulking round my house making up to my wife, I ought to have you horsewhipped!”

“I have nothing but respect and affection for you, Colonel Babbitt,” he said primly, struggling upright in the bed, and then he snapped “ – but miscall me again sir and I will knock your teeth down your throat!”

“Bring it on, boy!” Hollie yelled back at him, shoving his sleeves up in a meaningful fashion, “I been kicking your backside for twenty years and I can still take you!”

Possibly it was slightly comical, for neither of them were what they once were: Hollie greying and Russell stiff, snarling and glowering at each other across a rumpled bed -

“Officer to His Majesty my left foot!”

“A senior one at that, sir, hang it all!”

“Doing what, then? – d’they give out commissions for drunkenness and theft these days?”

“Theft? Theft, sir, how dare you call me a thief? I’ve called men out for less!”

“Oh, have you, Russell, the cut of you! Derelict drunk in a ditch, you’d be dead by now if it hadn’t been for my girl’s kindness, and this is how you repay her!”

And that stopped him like a curb-bit. “A what? You call me a what?”

“Come off it, Russell,” Hollie said contemptuously. “Skulking round Essex wi’ your hair cropped like a convict and a bag o’sedition? And sixty gold guineas in your purse, and not a whole shirt to your back? What – you serve His Majesty for t’good of your health, do you? For if you look like this on a senior officer’s pay, I’d hate to see what the plain troopers look like!”

He stared at his erstwhile commander blankly. “Sixty -? What? What are you talking about?”

“Found it, did you? Just returning it to its rightful owner?”

“No,” he shook his head, “no, I had paid in advance for a month’s lodging in Maldon, at the Spotted Dog. The which you can check with the landlord, if you are so minded. I was taken ill – you know I was, I ended up here, though how – they turned me out. For fear of the contagion. Which I don’t have. I – “ he shook his head again because it made no sense, “they must have returned it to me. I’d not have known any different, they could have – well, that was honest.”

“You what? You meant to stay at the Dog for a month?”

“It has a reputation as a place of quiet,” he said.

“Aye, but you could - Russell, you couldn’t -”

“I enjoy a senior officer’s pay,” he said, and sniffed indignantly, “and I may do with it as I see fit, sir.”

“Not married, then, I see,” Hollie said dryly. “And the pamphlets my wife found in your pockets, sir? Inflammatory material, printed by a woman printer, and talking of a new Jerusalem? I know the Fifth Monarchy-men, Russell, and I had my fill of insurrection eleven years past –“

“May I not read?” he said mildly.

“Not when it’s like to end with you drawn and quartered at Tyburn, you fool!”

“Oh – that. Oh, I doubt it, Hollie. Knowing things is my work. I work for His Majesty in the business of, ah, knowing things.”

Hollie sat bolt upright with his mouth open. “You’re a spy?”

“Not in so many words. The Fifth Monarchy-men are a matter of personal interest, but no, I doubt if anyone would wink at my having such literature in my possession. I’ve had worse, in my professional capacity.” He felt a slow blush rise from the collar of his borrowed nightshirt. “Um. Have you – um – your wife did not, I hope, did she? – looked all through that, uh, packet?”

With a fierce scowl, Hollie emptied the saddlebag out onto the bed, and poked the papers gingerly. The look on his face would have been almost comical, had it not been quite so humiliating to behold. It started angry, and faded, slowly, into amusement and disbelief as his eyes flicked from one worn pamphlet to another. “Russell,“ he said faintly. “Good God, Hapless, what – ‘A Lover’s Joy Compleat’ ?– Russell, you whelp, this stuff is scandalous!”

“And illustrated,” he said wretchedly, before Hollie did.

“What the – ? “The School of Venus”? What the – Russell, what is the matter with you? Wandering the countryside with a saddlebag full of dirty books and sedition – and what’s going on with the hair, in all charity? Did you do it for a bet, or summat?”

“It –“ He did not like to look in a mirror, still. Did he still have to say that aloud to Hollie Babbitt, who had known him when the rags of his cheek were still as pink and twisted as grave-worms? “Expedient,” he finished, and looked away quickly.

“And that scruffy horrible suit, I presume, is the better to avoid comment, despite being two yards high and conspicuously fair-haired – what hair you’ve left yourself? Russell! Henrietta’s had you marked down as some kind of itinerant insurrectionist, you silly lad!”

“She did what?” Russell said blankly.

“My wife had her suspicions of you, you whelp. She reckoned your hands were too clean to be as down on your luck as you seemed –“

“I never meant to seem anything! I – in all charity, Hollie, how would you like to be marked by every eye so soon as you set foot out of the house? I wished to pass for ordinary, so much as I might, and to be left in peace for a time – no more than that!”

Hollie was looking at him as if he’d started speaking in tongues. “So let me get this straight. You cut your hair like a convict, you’re wearing a suit wi’ bloodstains all down the breast –“

“Nosebleed,” he admitted. “When I was first sick. I fainted in the inn, smacked my head on the bedpost, and bled all down my coat. I imagine the handkerchief is worse, if you care to look at it –“

“I don’t,” Hollie said, wrinkling his nose. “I reckon even salt water won’t get the stains out o’ that, after a fortnight. Roaming the county off your head wi’ fever, frightening the maidservants into fits, with your saddlebags rammed full wi’ dirty books – and you reckon that’s inconspicuous? What d’you do if you want to make a grand entrance, lad?”

“I spend my days in a professional capacity reading other men’s lives,” he snapped, not smiling. “Might I not have some of my own?”

“Russell.” Hollie closed one eye, and suddenly Russell was twenty again, and caught out in some petty humiliating misdemeanour. Especially when Hollie was evidently trying not to laugh, and doing that awful, well-remembered thing where he was covering up the trying not to laugh with scratching the back of his neck under his ponytail. “Russell, you had sixty guineas in that purse, and what you had in your pockets. Um, the missis didn’t go through your breeches. If you’ve got worse in them pockets, now’s the time to own up to it. Sixty guineas is a, a, how do I put this? You could probably make the acquaintance of a number of cleanly ladies of negotiable virtue with sixty guineas, instead o’ spending a month reading about it in the garrets of the Spotted Dog?”

“I did not care to,” he said through gritted teeth, and suddenly understanding, and sympathy, dawned on his old commander’s face, and Hollie put his fingers to his own cheek and raised his eyebrows in question.

And Russell – stiff and boiling with mortification – nodded, shortly, just the once.

And Hollie understood. And it was shameful, but it wasn’t going to kill him, and Hollie wasn’t laughing. “Aye,” the big redhead said, with an unaccustomed gentleness. “I can see how that might be. And the rest of it?”

“I imagine I know more about the Fifth Monarchy-men than you do, Hollie. I am not one of them. And nor, indeed, will they be by the end of the year, I suspect.” He closed his eyes, feeling suddenly very limp indeed, for all this unexpected emotion. “I could not bear it all again, you know. I am too old for any more – insurrection. I should rather have order again, such as it is.”

“And so you are an intelligencer?”

“And so I am an intelligencer. Which is a – well, since I am my own man, the shame or otherwise of being a King’s man and a spy is none but my own to bear.”

There was a long silence. He rather thought it was raining again, and his throat was tickling horribly, and it didn’t seem right to cough, somehow. They were talking of serious, weighty things, it seemed wrong for Russell to be hacking his lungs up into a square of stiff and bloodstained linen. He choked it back for as long as he could, but once he started he could not stop, and he coughed till black spots danced in the corners of his sight and his ribs hurt. And Hollie was unexpectedly gentle again – when had he grown gentle? Ten years ago he’d have been likely to cuff Russell about the back of the head and tell him to stop malingering and get back to his duties, and now he was settling pillows at Russell’s back as if he were quite accustomed to such work.

But Hollie had daughters, though, did he not? He had children, who would have suffered childish ills when they were young, and would have been comforted by the loving touch of a father’s hand. And Russell, who had never been expected to comfort any child living save for this man’s daughters, wanted to weep.

He was lying with his eyes closed, and the room settled to stillness again, and he just wanted Hollie to leave him in peace with his shame and his misery, and –

“Pay well, does it?” Hollie said curiously, and it made his mouth twitch suddenly in spite of himself, for the idea of the conspicuously outspoken and cinnamon-haired Hollie Babbitt as an intelligencer made him giggle, in his head.

“Sufficient for my needs.”

“Aye. Well. Tha doesn’t take much feeding, I see?”

He had not the energy to laugh, and so he did not, but only breathed out a little huff of amusement. “You haven’t eaten at Court, then, I take it.”

“Neither have you, by the look of you, Hapless!”

“Can’t say’s I fancy it, much. I don’t care for the food, there.”

“Ah? Why, what’d they give you?”

“God alone knows. Too rich for my tastes, though – French messes, and cream, and none of it fresh, in the City. Prefer plain cooking –“

“I’m wearing you out, aren’t I?” Hollie said briskly. “Get your head down for a bit, Hapless. I’ll send one of the girls by later, with a bite of breakfast.”

He wanted to say that he’d had his breakfast, and that what he had had would suffice, and that he would not put the girls to trouble. Instead his belly made a horrible enthusiastic growling noise at the prospect of sensible food, and his heart gave a little shy skip at the thought of company.

His eyes wouldn’t open again, though, and he heard Hollie laugh. “Oh, bless you, Russell. You have not changed a bit. I reckon me and Het were both right.”

Which made no sense at all. But it didn’t matter, and most things didn’t matter, now, because he was –

Asleep, again.

“Cork-brained,” Hollie said firmly, and Het looked up at him and raised her eyebrows.

“Hm?”

“Him. Upstairs. I’ve known hedge-sparrows wi’ more common sense.”

“Dear?”

Hollie shook his head. “That one. No, he is not poking about in politics, and yes, he is still a soldier. He is yet respectable, lass, and I thank God for it. We are not harbouring a desperate villain. What he is, is a soldier with too much time on his hands –“

“Oh, I knew one of those, a long time ago,” Het said, and there was a little colour creeping into her cheeks and a little brightness in her eye. With relief, he rather thought, though she would not admit it even if he asked.

“Ah? And what became of him?” – as if he didn’t know.

“I found one or two jobs for him to do about the farm,” she said, and then smiled a wicked smile, “and then I found he had made himself too valuable to let go, and I married him.”

“Ah, well, I think Major Russell’s come a bit late to the party to marry you, lass, since I’ve already caught you.”

“Even if I – Major Russell?” Her hands flew to her mouth, which did her stitching a power of no good, and he grinned to himself at the fact that he could still astonish her after seventeen years of marriage. “Thankful is a major?”

“A major nuisance, aye. Better than that, lass, he’s on Monck’s own personal staff. That’s why we hear so little of him, I imagine. I guess that awkward old curmudgeon keeps his nose to the grindstone – but aye, he’s doing all right for himself. Done all right for himself. At Court and everything.”

“But then – Hollie, is he telling you the truth?”

She was happy, but warily happy, as if she didn’t know whether to believe it.

“He is. He might not have sufficient brains to come in out of the wet, but he’s dead-straight so far as honesty. That – “ he jerked his head up the stairs, “tertian fever, picked up in Scotland. So did every other beggar, so far as I hear. It comes back, when he gets too tired –“

“Or doesn’t look after himself. I can see that.” She picked up her stitching again, and spread it over her lap. “Do you think he would take it amiss, if I were to make him some fresh linen?”

“I think he is quite sufficiently placed to have his own,” Hollie said carefully. “That sixty guineas was his own – it was, uh, he meant to have a holiday.” Which was as discreet a way of saying it as any, he supposed. “He, um, yes. They, uh. They are not always kind to him, at Court. You know how he is. He don’t do fashions. So, aye, having him lurking about the place looking like the wrath of God is – well. He scares some of the lads witless, apparently, and some of ‘em like to poke fun of him, and he hates it – well, you would, I imagine. The idea of being trapped in London for the month while His Majesty forces everyone to have a good time didn’t have much appeal for our Hapless, so he lied and buggered off. I think he’s supposed to be spending time in prayer and sober reflection with his family. I think that’s what he said he told Monck, anyway.”

“And he was going to do what, Holofernes?”

Hollie scratched his ear, feeling slightly uncomfortable. It was not really a thing he felt quite happy to tell Het, in truth. “Hole up at the Spotted Dog in Maldon till the middle of January, I think,” he said eventually, which was half true. “He was hoping to pass unnoticed. Hence the, uh, unconventional attire.”

Het blinked once or twice, and her lips twitched. “Unnoticed?”

“Aye, I know. I told him that.”

“I thank God he does not fancy himself as an intriguer, dear, if that is his idea of inconspicuous.”

“Um. Het.”

She looked up again. She was happy now. Her boy was not a ragged vagabond, and he had made good, and he was here where she could fuss over him. And that was all good. Except -

“Het, lass, ah. Het. Um… He is an intriguer.”

At which point she dropped the sewing again, and he picked it up this time. “Intelligencer, then.” As if that made it sound better, and went on very quickly. “He says it’s very dull, mind you, and not at all what people think it is. He reckons it’s a lot of reading other people’s letters, and precious little else.”

“Well, he’d hardly tell you, dear, if he was – adventuring, the whole time! Oh, Hollie, I hope it isn’t dangerous –“

“It’s Hapless, lass. You know very well he’d tell me, if he was involved in anything exciting. He’d be close as an oyster for half an hour, and then it’d all pop out in one go and he’d sit there wriggling at me being happy in all directions. You know what he’s like. Oh, Het, don’t weep!”

“I am happy!” she said furiously, with her face in her sewing. “I should be happier if he were closer to home, and we could see him more often, and if he – well, if he were to settle, dear, and get married. I would like very much to see him with some sensible young lady who would be a comfort to him. And I could wish he had not lied to his superiors about his whereabouts, for that troubles me, that he should have it on his conscience –“

Hollie thought about it. “He didn’t,” he said, after a while and a while. “He didn’t lie. He is spending Christmas with his family. Such as we are.”

She appeared from the folds of linen, and her eyes were shining.

“I wouldn’t bet much on the matter of prayer and godly reflection, mind, in this house,” he grumbled, though, just in case the wench thought she’d got her own way.

“No,” Russell said, and turned his head away.

“Oh yes,” Thomazine said, with equal firmness, and aimed the spoon at his lips again.

“I don’t want,” he was about to say, and found himself with a mouthful of particularly horrible tonic.

“Don’t you dare spit it out,” that incorrigible little wretch said, looking down her nose at him and closing one eye in a manner that reminded him quite frighteningly of her father sighing down the barrel of a carbine.

He tried pleading, and he tried flattery, and she was having none of it. He would have electuary of hyssop – which tasted like something drained from a midden – and he would have a tonic to cleanse his blood and he would have -

“I may assure you, madam, that my – ah – my – my inner workings are perfectly adequate!”

“Bowels, Russell, I believe you mean.”

“I would not speak of such things to a lady!” he yelped, and she stopped with her fingers in a pot of something unspeakable, eyeing the open collar of his borrowed nightshirt consideringly.

“Why? Do you not think ladies have bowels?”

“Thomazine!”

“I may assure you, sir, that we do,” she said mockingly, “and my sweet sister is no scented violet, either!”

“Thomazine!”

That was Het, on the landing, and he couldn’t help but exchange a glance of some sympathy with the girl, calomel or no.

She made him laugh, and he was all out of practice at laughing. Het gave her froward eldest another fearsome glare, and then she advanced on Russell with the noxious pot.

He was compelled by dignity to sit absolutely rigid while she basted him like a joint of meat, and that infernal young woman cackled like a setting hen at the look on his face -

“What,” he hissed – as soon as the door was closed – “what, precisely, is causing you so much merriment, mistress?”

“You,” she said, quite blithely, and then while he was still being outraged she took his face between her two hands and kissed him on his forehead. “You are a funny old thing. I should have thought it was a fool’s errand to be dignified in somebody else’s nightshirt, but you will persist in trying, bless you.”

“And what was that for?”

"What?" She'd turned away, tidying the assorted nostrums and potions into order. As if she didn't know. As if it didn't matter -!

“You just kissed me!”

“Well, yes, I often kiss mam and daddy, I even kiss my sisters betimes, what of it?”

“Thomazine, you cannot go about kissing strange men! It’s not decent!”

And she turned back and eyed him consideringly, her head on one side. “Ye-e-es,” she said, at length. “Yes, you have grown stranger than I was accustomed to, before,” she said. “But I’m sure you will come about, when you grow used to handling.”

“I am not one of your father’s horses!”

"No, well, surely -"

"Or he would have had me shot by now for kennel-meat," he said, putting his head back against the pillow with a sudden return to the hopelessness that had dogged him, these last months. (Tired, and sick, and wretchedly lonely - and she was laughing at him again, and he opened one eye and prepared to be irritated, for it was not a matter for amusement, not at all -) "What is so comical now?”

"We don't have a dog, Russell," she said, and blinked at him, and then her mouth twitched and her shoulders heaved -"oh bless you, you look so funny -"

And she giggled, and once it was out she could not stop herself, she hitched and hiccupped and eventually sat down in a puddle of skirts on the boards and put her head on her knees and howled. He would have been outraged, save that in her descent the pot of sage oil had tipped on its end and he folded his arms and sat up again, watching with immense personal satisfaction as the murky fluid oozed from the top of the coffer, down – and -

Down -

And right down the back of her collar, where her head was bent and the clean linen pulled away from the white skin underneath.

It was cold and sticky together, he knew that from bitter experience, and she yelled very satisfyingly as it must have trickled down her back. Soaking into her linen, which was clammy and uncomfortable and he knew that from bitter experience too. He did not smirk; it was not an expression he was physically capable of. But she looked up with an expression of childish outrage on her face, and she said, “You whelk!”

“Temper,” he said reprovingly, and a very immature giggle escaped him.

“You horrible whelk!” Thomazine said slowly. “You absolute, wretched, whelk!”

And that was when she hit him with the towel that all those dreadful potions and pills had been standing on, and he ducked neatly sideways and all of a sudden he was not himself any more, or at least, not the wretched, unhappy self he had been ten minutes ago. He had become the sort of self who might throw a balled-up handkerchief at the wench, and to squawk and squirm most horribly when she retrieved it at speed and rammed it down the back of his nightshirt.

He was about to wreak a dreadful revenge when -

“Thomazine Babbitt, what on earth is going on in here?” her mother said from the doorway, and Russell turned an innocent face to her and said, “I was having some sort of seizure, mistress. It seems I have them often, whilst I have been afflicted with the fever.”

And Thomazine, with a handful of rancid ointment pressed to the back of his neck, patted him gratefully.

(Which was every bit as revolting as if she had still been endeavouring to drown him, but which was considerably more reassuring.)

And somehow he could not get his old self back, try as he might. Every time it seemed as if he might be on the brink of recovering his old icy distance, that wretched child would poke him, or make him eat honey-cakes, or haul him out of his bed and make him come out in the raw grey afternoons to admire the black colt Marston – and he wanted to say he hated it, wanted to be left alone. And he didn’t. He found himself tagging after her, awkwardly, like a dog on a string. Wanting to make her laugh – which she did, often, and that was a new thing, that he was a man who could make a pretty girl laugh.

She took shameless advantage of him and like a fool he let her. Everyone knew it, but there was an indulgent conspiracy that this was all part of Russell’s rehabilitation; that he would fetch and carry for her, and tag at her heels, as if she were still four years old. And she wasn’t. He was very aware of that.

He was taller than she, with a trick of baleful innocence. No one could ever suspect that the old Puritan, that frigid, dispassionate engine of impeccable virtue – that wouldn’t be him guarding Thomazine’s exit while she stole handfuls of raisins from the kitchen, or perched alongside her on top of the river meadow gate with a midwinter gale stirring the skirts of his coat and the black colt’s head in the oat-pan between his knees. (Hollie said they were not to start even thinking about starting to gentle that colt. Russell said, absolutely stony-faced, that they hadn’t thought about starting. And they hadn’t – it had just sort of happened.)

He did not know what would happen, when he had to go away. He would have to – he could not bear to stay, and yet he could not bear to go. Even now it would break his heart to leave this place, and the people in it who had taken him to their hearts as if he had never left. As if he belonged.

As if they cared what became of him. And he did not know what might become of him, of a rootless, friendless intelligencer who might be killed in the commission of his duties tomorrow, or next week, or – Thomazine poked him, hard, in the ribs, and he folded over with a yelp.

“Attend me!” she said.

“I am attending!”

“You are not, you are wool-gathering! And feeling sorry for yourself!”

“I – oh, all right, I was.”

She sniffed. “Right. Joyeux. Ribbon.”

He held up the offending tangle, and a sad tangle it was. He combed it with his fingers, setting it into a kind of order again. “For you cannot give her such a gift, in this sad state, my tibber. What did you do, give it to the cat?”

“Ah, something like.”

Into a bow. She was staring at him. “Russell, you are most unexpectedly clever with your fingers, you know. That is very pretty.”

“Hm?”

“You have made it pretty.”

“You sound surprised? What is it – that I am so conspicuously not pretty, and yet –“

“Fishing for compliments, sir, ill-becomes you,” she said tartly, and she meant it, she was cross with him. “You are not a courtier, and so I shall not flatter your vanity. I am surprised, because I should have expected you to have little practise with frippery. Being an old Crophead, and all. And not having a wife to practise on. You don’t have a wife, do you, Russell?”

“I imagine she would have missed me by now, if I had, tibber.”

“Thankful.”

“Hm?”

“You’re an idiot.”

“True. But I am an idiot who ties pretty bows.” He finished, smugly, tying the ends in a fancy lover’s-knot. “There. Ribbons, all tidy.”

“Sweet lavender, for mama. That’s out of our garden, you know.” She shoved a handful under his nose, and he inhaled, and sneezed. “Doesn’t it smell like summer?”

“It smells like here,” he said, and then, very shyly, “it smells like home.”

“Mm,” Thomazine said, without looking up, “it does, doesn’t it? She puts it in all the presses. Do you not?”

“Not in my lodgings, tibber, no.”

“Why?”

“Never crossed my mind.”

She sniffed again, and set the bundle down. He picked it up and tied it with one of the stems, shaking his head. “You’re making it pretty again,” she said, and he smiled and shrugged and said he couldn’t help it, he had no gifts of his own to give, so he must do the best he could.

“Well, these are from both of us, then,” she said, quite without thinking, and that was what broke his heart, really, that they were all so kind to him. Such undeserved and unasked-for kindness, and he did not know how he could go away, back to unkindness.

Thomazine said he was an idiot, and he supposed he was. He had been here just over a week, and that gave him but two weeks of his leave left before he must go back to London to take up his own position as Death at His Majesty’s particular feast. Thomazine had told him he was an idiot pretty much every day of that week, in some guise or another, and he was beginning to suspect she meant it in affection. It was a very odd thing for such as he to be treated with such absolute and loving contempt, by the entire Babbitt family. No. That was not wholly true. When he was being Major Russell, who had a position to maintain and who could intimidate the braying whelps of the Court with no more than the flicker of an eye, they thought he was an idiot. They let Thankful get away with murder. And that felt funny, for he was not sure that Thankful had a right to still exist.

The young man who had been welcome here ten years ago was dead, surely. Had had the life choked out of him in Scotland, and at Court, and under Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. He had no right to kindness, for he gave none; he had no right to affection, for he had none. He was what the Army had made him, now: he was as straight and fierce and implacable as a good sword, and it did not matter in whose hands he was, for he would be as lethal in the King’s as he had been in the Commonwealth’s. It did not matter, not any more. He had not the right to that choice. Not now.

They were kind to him, and he did not know how he was going to bear that, when he went away. Het trimmed his hair even with her sewing-scissors, where it was growing out at different lengths. Joyeux had grudgingly admitted that he was not so old or so mangy as she had first suspected, and that the inch and a half of tousled pale hair that he now had was fair, not white, and quite a pretty colour. And if he would but wear nice clothes and a periwig like fashionable men, he might pass for civilised.

Nell had shared a gingerbread pig with him on Christmas Eve, and that had made him weep, afterwards, for having that sticky confection shoved into his unsuspecting hand reminded him painfully of a small Thomazine and her old habit of trying to feed him half of everything she was given. There was a grown-up Thomazine now, and that made him weep, too, privately, for she had grown up without him being there, and he had had not known till now how much he had missed her uncomplicated childish friendship.

He wondered if they were real tears, or if he was simply thawing, like cracked cat-ice, and they would come to wake him for breakfast one morning and find nothing but a puddle in the bed where he had finally melted away altogether.

Even Hollie was kind, and gentle with him. (As if he were fragile, and might break. He was not sure he would not.) Although that kindness took the form of lending him that infernal festival smoke-blue silk suit, for they were of a like height –

“I would not have you turn out to the party in what you’re presently wearing,” Hollie had said, and looked innocent, for it had been a thing of remark, once, how much Hollie hated getting dressed up and would do almost anything but wear smart clothes. Lending Russell his finery was a good enough reason not to –

“What party?”

“Come on, Hapless! Your family’s got land, haven’t they? Well then! You know how it is – you’re obliged to show willing on New Year’s Eve, for the farm-hands. Open house. Feasts of fat things, and all that. Anyway, Het’s got her heart set on showing you off a bit –“

“Me?”

“Aye, you. Local boy made good and all that. You’re the only one of us that’s come to owt, let’s be honest. Had you not noticed? Truly? She’s been bustling about like a bee in a bottle for t’best part of a week, and there’s none of us allowed in the kitchen for fear we might upset her planning by coming out wi’ a handful of raisins she had a use for.”

His hands and face had gone very cold, suddenly. “They have – she would – she has asked people to come? To see me?” Blinking very hard because the room was swimming about him and he thought he might faint. Which was shameful, and spineless, but she would hold him up to be stared at, laughed at –

“You all right?” Hollie said curiously, and he nodded, and said through numb lips, “Not – wholly mended. Yet. I – think I might be. Sick.”

And he was.

It was, of course, Thomazine who ended up tending to him.

Half-blind with headache, cold, sweaty and shivering, the ragged muscle in his cheek locked rigid, and yet she did not seem to mind, and nor did she mind that outside in the dusk they could hear voices, laughter, the ring of hooves and wheels on the barton cobbles as people gathered.

“Be a shame if mama ended up missing her own party, wouldn’t it?” she said cheerfully. “How are you feeling now?”

“Miserable,” he said, and meant it.

If he sat up in the bed, if he crossed to the window, he could likely see the lights between the open barn doors. Lanterns, standing on trestles, and hanging amongst the trees in the orchard. Little pools of kind golden light, like warm honey. He could imagine it. It was better to imagine, than – “You go. Down. Stairs.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” she said, and there was nothing meaningful about the way she said it. She just did not want to leave him. It was that simple, and he turned his head on the cool pillow and closed his eyes again. No tears. They hurt his head too much, and he had not the energy for anything so definite as weeping.

“Why?” he said eventually, without looking at her.

She sighed. (He could not see her face, where he lay looking at the rough blank wall, but he could imagine it. When you had spaces when you could not see, you grew used to reading sounds. The soft rustle of fabric, where a woman might set her work down, not knowing what to say. The sound of her hands clasping and unclasping in awkwardness. Someone, outside, tuning a fiddle. There would be dancing, tonight -)

“Because,” she said, and he heard her set her shoulders, the tiny creak of reed in her stays. “Because it’s rubbish being left by yourself when you’re poorly,” she said, with a sudden fierceness. “When everybody else is having a good time, and you can hear them, and you’re stuck up here by yourself feeling miserable, and ill, and – “ and she swallowed, “And frightened. You are, Russell, aren’t you? Frightened?”

Why should he not tell her? What could she do? “Yes.”

And she said nothing, though he could tell by the silence of her that it was because she didn’t know what to say, rather than any disgust of him, and so he went on, “She means well, tibber! She meant only kindness, and she does not know – oh, Thomazine, how should I know what it is to keep Christmas?” he muttered, and then burst out, “What do I know of it? Other than that I am forced to perform like a chained bear for the amusement of cruel children? Laughed at and poked and dragged out of the places I am comfortable, to be ogled for sport?” He paused, and his voice shook, and he hated that. “And where, in God’s name, would this marred face be welcome at any occasion of joy?”

“There is no one?” she said carefully. “Truly? You have no home - no kin, no -”

“No one who would own me. No. I – I have always preferred to have it so, you see. It did not matter. It does not matter. But I do not think I could – ah, God, tibber, you have no idea! There has been talk of nothing else for weeks in London – oh, the feasts! The plays! The gowns! The masques!” he mimicked an affected Court drawl bitterly – “a month of mandatory gaiety that none is permitted to leave without His Majesty’s wish – it’s like being confined under suspicion of a contagion, without the release of being dead at the end of it! And I come here – I come to Essex – to hide from it, and I find that your mother has brought it dragging after me, like a dead chicken round a hound’s neck, to remind me of what I cannot have!”

He closed his eyes again, and a shiver ran through him, leaving a cold constellation of goosebumps in its wake. “I am afraid,” he said, and it was the first time he had ever said it, out loud, in words. “I am terrified, Thomazine. Because I want what I cannot have, and I fear asking for it. I am like a hound – a whipped one, who craves the favour of the master who beats him, and is too afraid of a second beating to ask for it honestly.”

Outside, in the kind darkness, he began to recognise “Packington’s Pound”, played very badly, on a squeaky fiddle.

She said nothing. And then, “Russell.”

He shook his head, just once. “Russell,” she said again, and there was that in her voice that did not brook argument, “if I go outside this room, and stand on the landing till you bid me come in again, will you dress?”

“I – what?”

“Put your clothes on. And come down. And dance with me.”

Which was so ludicrous as to be faintly comical, and he frowned, fidgeting, his mouth working –

But why should he not? –

He could not, of course. They would talk. He had no idea how to dance, and if he ever had, he had long since forgotten it, and they would laugh, and -

“I could show you,” she said reasonably. “We can hear the music from here. And it’s not hard. You take my hand, so –“

And so he found himself – barefoot and dishevelled, dressed only in his own ragged breeches and shirt – pacing the steps of the dance with her, while she rapped the directions to him.

“And step – and step – And turn, no, not like that, Russell, you haven’t dropped something, I know you have some grace, sir, I’ve seen you on a horse, turn all the way about – “

No softness about it, no sentiment. “And clap – oh, in all charity, Apple! Watch your feet, will you!”

“If I watch my feet, I fall over them,” he said plaintively. “And you have shoes on, and I do not.”

“Then I suggest you do?”

He did not think he could enjoy it, for his whole attention was fixed on remembering which way about he was supposed to be facing at any given time and where his feet were supposed to go next. But then, Thomazine’s whole attention was fixed on making sure he remembered, and he did not think she was enjoying it much, either. Though she had a fierce grin on her face, to be sure, and her fingers clasped his with a degree of satisfaction at the end of the music as though she was proud of him.

“You see? You can do it!”

“I –“ Can’t, he was going to say. And then he realised he was standing in the middle of a chamber filled with furniture, and he had danced a full measure with her, and all the walls were still standing and he had not broken anything. He took a deep breath. “I can, can’t I?”

“Then let us go and show them what you’re capable of,” she said. And since she thought he could do it, he could do it, and he put his boots on, and followed her meekly down into the iron-cold, smoky air.

There was a brief, horrible moment when he thought he could not, just as he had always thought he might break and run the heartbeat before he had the order to charge, in battle.

And then her fingertips brushed his, and caught, and held, and the miserable sick shakiness was replaced by a different sort of sick shakiness: the sort of sick shakiness of a man who hasn’t eaten for most of a day, and is assailed, suddenly, by a thousand good smells all vying for his attention.

Thomazine gripped his hand, and grinned up at him. “Well, then, so,” she said, “here you are, and you are not dead, and no one has noticed you. I did tell you so much. Sit down. We can dance later, when you are not so likely to faint away from a want of nourishment.”

“I shall burst, instead,” he said, and she looked at him thoughtfully, and very deliberately put another slice of brawn on his plate.

“Thomazine, if I eat another thing!”

She cut it into two. Four. “Mustard?” she said sweetly, and he was about to protest, and she quite matter-of-factly inserted a forkful of spiced meat into his open mouth.

And no one minded. No one laughed. No one even looked. It was dark, and everyone was talking and laughing all at once, and passing food up and down the trestle tables -

He had not eaten so much in years. He had not seen so much food in years, in so much pleasant company. Had not played snapdragon in ten years, and had not, it seemed, forgot how, to Hollie’s enormous amusement.

“Now Het you’ll be putting him to bed in a wheelbarrow, you keep encouraging him with that!”

And Het – rosy and rumpled and laughing, with her hair in unaccustomed ringlets about her bright face and her spectacles misty with the warmth of a third bowl of flaming brandy – laughed like a girl and took her husband’s hand between hers, quite unashamed.

Russell looked at his plate again. It appeared to have grown a helping of the light apple cream that he’d eaten most of a dish of already. “Cheep,” he said to Thomazine, and she handed him the spoon with a look of comic resignation.

“You can feed yourself, sir. Since we seem to be reduced to scraping the bowl.”

She was slender, the white fingers that curled possessively around her own bowl were elegant and narrow. Which was deceptive, because the maid – like the rest of the Babbitt household – was an impressive trencherman. She leaned across the table to talk to Nell, and he took the opportunity to remove the last spoonful of apple snow from the bowl at her elbow. (Het saw. Het gave him a conspiratorial grin, but edged the half-eaten ember tart closer to Hollie, for its own protection.)

She was talking to Nell, but every now and again her eye would slide sideways and check that his plate wasn’t empty, and once she put her finger on the bone of his wrist. It wasn’t a caress. It was an assessment, and it made him smile. It made him feel a little like a Martinmas goose, but that was all right.

He would go away. Not tomorrow, not the day after, but he would go away, back to London. Back to a place that set no value on what he was inside his head and in his heart, but only on what he looked like, and what he did.

And that was, he thought, maybe also all right, now. It didn’t mean that was what he was.

He was not stupid. He had positioned himself as carefully as Het would allow him to, so that the scarred side of his face was in shadow. People still looked. It still hurt.

Het still looked, but she looked to see if he was enjoying himself.

Hollie still looked, to see if his ale-mug needed refilling.

Thomazine still looked – to see that he was still paying her attention, and that made him smile. (And yes, it was ugly, and twisted, but he was drunk enough and well-fed enough and happily weary enough not to care. Tomorrow – well. That was going to be tomorrow, wasn’t it?)

She was still holding his hand, and he liked that, too, for it was like there being two of them. Wherever he went tomorrow, whatever he did, they could not take that out of his heart – that for this one night, in all his life, he had been a man like other men, and unremarkable, and easy.

And when he was back in his ill-fitting harness in London, when he was no longer allowed to feel or think in case it scared the horses, he could remember this night and be comforted.

He was not so conspicuous as he feared, sometimes. He was a middle-aged, unremarkable, grim old soldier, so far as anyone knew, fit only to sit with the greybeards and mumble over his ale. And that was all right, too, if unflattering. Like many lonely men, he thought the world revolved around himself, and it did not.

Something was digging into his side, and he looked down. Thomazine’s elbow.

“Hm?”

“I said – were you paying attention, sir, which you were not, being too busy predicting the future in the dregs of your ale-mug – I said, I have a pocket full of gingerbread, and a piece of cheese, if you chose to make your excuses and leave.” Her eyes were sparkling. He could not help smiling back at her.

“I am not twenty-one any more, my tibber. I am too old for midnight feasts.”

“You will never be too old for midnight feasts, Apple. Not while I’m alive.”

“You should be in bed. It grows late.”

“As should you. Invalid.”

He gave her a reproving look, and she laughed at him, and said it made him cross-eyed. “Will you come, or will you no?”

He sighed. “Cheese and gingerbread, you say?”

“And raisins. They may be sadly jumbled.”

He touched the pocket of his coat. His own coat, not Hollie Babbitt’s good silk, which was a relief, for he suspected Hollie’s finery would not be improved by the acquaintance of a half-dozen deliciously buttery mutton pies, and a chicken breast. “Have we apples, my tibber?”

“I have an Apple,” she said, and her elbow touched his flank again, in a lovely conspiracy. “What did you have in mind?”

“Christmas,” he said, and smiled to himself. “Where else should we keep Christmas, but in a stable?”

She looked at him in brief incomprehension, and then intelligence dawned, for he and she had always thought alike. “With the black colt?”

He nodded, and they grinned at each other – two apples, apiece – and then she yawned mendaciously behind her hand and said she was tired and going to bed, and off she trotted.

And a respectable time later, he put his coat on, and claimed a similar destination.

He was a middle-aged, unremarkable, grim old soldier, and maybe tomorrow – next week – next month – he would remember that.

But for tonight, he was twenty-one again, and the dearest friend he had in all the world, and a half-gentled black colt, were waiting for him in a warm stable under an arch of stars.

*
h1<{color:#000;background:transparent;}. And a taster of the second book to feature the Russells, An Abiding Fire – out summer 2017.

_ Four Ashes, Buckinghamshire, 1666_

He looked absurd, and rather sweet, sound asleep braced crosswise across the big black settle in the kitchen. He always slept with his mouth open slightly crookedly anyway, and she could see the gleam of his teeth in the soft amber glow of the kitchen fire. Thomazine Russell was rather proud of her husband’s teeth, which made him sound somewhat like a horse, but for a man of two score years they were remarkably straight and remarkably whole. Excepting the back ones on the left side, which had not been there since the battle of Edgehill, some twenty years ago, when a pike had shattered them – and most of the flesh and muscle of his cheek with them.

Which was why he slept with his mouth open slightly crookedly, and why Thomazine padded across the kitchen to brush her fingers across the ragged scarring, in tenderness. He must have been lovely enough to stop the breath in your throat once, she thought, before Edgehill, and there was a part of her that was glad he was not now. If he had still been beautiful – if he had not learned pity, and humility, and kindness, in his hurt – she would have been afraid of him, for Thomazine was not entirely beautiful herself. If he had been perfect, she should not have loved him so much.

He murmured at her touch, and smiled in his sleep, but he did not stir, and that made her heart hurt a little, too, for the reason for his ridiculous slantwise repose was their son, sprawled head-down and blowing spit bubbles on his father’s shoulder. They looked much like each other in sleep, save that Thankful did not have the habit of sleeping with his backside stuck in the air like some kind of flannel-swaddled caterpillar, but both had the same trick of sleeping intently, eyes screwed shut in fierce dreaming concentration. And Small Nathaniel had considerably less hair than his father, though it was of a similar fairness. (They both dribbled, though. She thought it might be kinder to her husband’s dignity not to tell him that.)

He had one hand squarely on his firstborn’s well-padded bum, fingers splayed to hold the child secure in place, and the other held a well-travelled letter.

Which wasn’t the worst thing in the world, after all.

Major Russell was retired from his service to the Admiralty, in either a formal or an informal capacity: his time was his own, to spend in the bosom of his family, or in the meaningful study of sheep. Any intelligence-gathering that took place now in his world, was the garnering of meaningful information for his loving wife. Thankful Russell had condemned gossip, once, when he was the topic of it. He still didn’t care for it, but he had come to understand the value of it as social currency, particularly when information received from his loving wife led to the acquisition of twenty acres of good pasture at a particularly satisfactory price – although that had been more investigation than gossip, truly. It simply happened that the eldest Insley daughter was said to be on the verge of finalising an understanding with the middle Paull boy, and Thomazine happened to come by that information, and happened to be also in receipt of information that the Insleys were perhaps slightly financially pressed, this quarter. And she just happened to drop the information into Thankful’s ear, with a suggestion that really, he would be doing them a kindness were he to offer to buy that twenty acres that marched alongside Four Ashes – after all, Margaret Insley was in need of her dowry now, not in a twelvemonth’s time – and obviously, he would be offering them slightly less than the going rate for land that really, did require some labour to bring it back into heart –

He had nodded, looking slightly stunned. “And this is what you talk about, over your stitching?” he said faintly, and she’d smiled at him.

“No, dear,” she said. “We sometimes talk about our husbands, as well.”

Which had left him minding his manners for weeks, bless the lamb, as if he wasn’t one of the best and kindest husbands in the Chilterns: when not getting himself shot, burned, taken up as a traitor, stabbed, or thrown out of racing carriages.

Well, there would be no more of that, thank you.

There was Small Nathaniel to consider, for one thing, and there was the issue of the Insley land, and the price of wool, and the apple crop, and –

“You’re thinking, tibber,” he said drowsily. “I can hear you from here. You’ve been stood there a good five minutes by the clock peering at me, and you’re plotting something.”

“Taking over the world, darling,” she said. “Was it so dull a letter that it sent you to sleep?”

He swung his feet to the stone-flagged floor and sat up carefully, holding his son secure with both hands. (Nathaniel did not wake, but Nathaniel was suffering, rather badly, from Teeth at the moment, and he took his repose where he could find it, since it often did not come at night. For him or for anyone else.) “Not desperately exciting,” he admitted. “Mistress Bean –“

“Bean?”

“The poeting lady. You know. Brings limp young men to dinner parties, giggles a lot. Not well received in polite company. You know the lady!”

“I – do I?” She did not recall – “Oh! Behn!”

“Looks like Bean to me,” he said, unmollified, and she kissed him on the top of his head quite without thought for which of the staff might see them and be shocked at this display of public tenderness. (None, in all probability. The Russells and the shocking openness of their affection – aye, and more than affection – for each other, were last year’s news.)

“You need spectacles.”

“Due to my declining years, no doubt?”

She peered down at the crumpled paper held against her son’s back. “No, due to Mistress Behn’s appalling handwriting.”

“Badly-cut pens, and cheap ink,” he said, sounding a little too knowledgeable for Thomazine’s tastes. “The story of Aphra’s life, I fear, tibber.”

“Ah,” Thomazine said, nodding intelligently and refusing to be diverted. “So what does she have to say for herself?”

Nathaniel quacked, grunted, and heaved his backside further into the air, and Nathaniel’s father looked narrowly at the child’s palpating hinder portions. “Thomazine. Thomazine, can you – “ he was a most doting father, and a tender one, but the possibility of dealing with infant bodily emissions still scared him witless – “would you, ah – help!”

It wasn’t really funny, of course. A man who had faced rank upon rank of the King’s soldiers, unflinching; who had suffered dreadful privation and pain in his soldiering days – been all but tortured, as a little boy, by his horrible godly sister – and he was terrified of his own son. No. That was unfair. He was afraid of getting it wrong. She hefted the child over her shoulder, avoiding the soggy areas, and avoiding the way Russell flinched when she did it – you can’t pick him up like that! He is the most precious child in the world! – and went in search of Small Nathaniel’s nurse.

And then, having handed over their son to a very competent nurse who was almost – almost – as fond of the child as his parents were, and being possessed of a terrier-like tenacity where her husband and other women were concerned, she came back and sat down and smiled at him very sweetly.

“So, dear. You were saying about Mistress Behn?”

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Entertaining Angels: A Christmas Novella

SOMETIMES, LOVE ISN'T HARD TO FIND. YOU JUST NEED TO LOOK IN THE LAST PLACE YOU HAD IT. Winter, 1660. Retired from the Army after twenty years of service, Major Thankful Russell's whole life till now has been made up of war and intelligence. And now in peacetime, he suspects no more war and, on current showing, precious little intelligence. The idea of spending Christmas surrounded by drunkenness and debauchery at His Majesty's court is more than he can bear - and so he begs leave, to spend a quiet family Christmas at home. The problem is, he doesn't have a family. And nor, with his scarred face and his shyness, does he ever expect to have one. But when an accident of fate returns him to the only place he's ever called home, it's down to his old commanding officer's daughter to teach him that not everyone sets so high a value on the outer wrapping of the most precious gift of all....

  • Author: M. J. Logue
  • Published: 2016-10-25 08:20:11
  • Words: 21866
Entertaining Angels: A Christmas Novella Entertaining Angels: A Christmas Novella