A Mistletoe Mismatch by Sally Britton

CHAPTER1

December 9th, 1815

Winter crept slowlyacross the rest of the country before coming to Devonshire. Or so Jessica Nettle thought, looking out her bedroom window at the dismally gray sky. She pushed the window open, its oiled hinges not protesting in the slightest, and leaned out enough to look at the thermometer she had tacked to the window’s frame.

A cold waft of air slipped by her, causing her bedroom door to slam and her younger sister to emit a tiny yelp. “You are producing a horrible draft.”

After assuring herself the temperature outside was still well above freezing, though it certainly felt cold enough to make frost appear on one’s nose, Jessica ducked back inside and closed the window.

“I didn’t know you’d come in my room.” She looked over her shoulder at her sister with an apologetic smile. Then she picked up the notebook she kept on the desk.

“I cannot think knowing the exact temperature is of any use. One only needs to know if one ought to wear a muff when going out of doors, and I can decide that without a thermometer.” Florence came to peer out the window herself and shivered. “Do you think it will rain again?”

Florence, at nineteen years of age, was the very picture of loveliness. When she stood just so before the window, the faint light of day bathed her face in a gentle glow. With golden hair and warm brown eyes, her sister’s outward beauty matched her inner gentleness. When Jessica answered, it was with fondness.

“As I have no barometer to measure air pressure rising and dropping, I cannot say.” Jessica jotted down the state of the weather. “But I would certainly carry an umbrella and a muff. Just in case.” She put the notebook away and went to her bureau. She opened the top drawer and sorted through carefully pressed shawls before finding the deep green one she favored.

Her coloring wasn’t quite as striking as Florence’s, and certainly didn’t catch as many male gazes. Now two and twenty, Jessica’s blonde hair had darkened to an indeterminate color neither yellow nor brown, and though she had blue eyes, the pupil was ringed in green. Her mother called them fairy eyes.

Florence leaned against the wall and folded her arms across her bodice. “I am worried about Aunt Tempie is all. She should have arrived yesterday.” Their grandmother’s sister, Mrs. Temperance Bolingbrooke, had finally agreed to spend several weeks with their family. She didn’t plan to leave until after Epiphany, which meant spending the whole of Christmas together, too.

“As it rained two days past, you must see how that delay is perfectly acceptable.” Jessica wrapped herself snuggly in her shawl. “Papa and Mama are not concerned. Neither should you be.” She took her sister by the hand. “Let us think on more cheerful things. Come downstairs with me, so we can plan where to put our boughs of green.”

“It is days still before we decorate,” Florence protested, though her feet followed Jessica eagerly enough. “The ribbons haven’t even arrived from Boothe’s yet.”

The local sundries and notions shop carried ribbons throughout the year, but always ordered large spools of gold, silver, red, and green for the neighborhood to festoon their homes for the Christmas celebrations. Jessica wished, as she did every year, that the festivities began early and lasted much longer. But it simply wasn’t practical to put evergreen up before Christmas Eve. The needles and holly leaves would dry out and fall everywhere, creating a terrible mess for the staff.

But there was something quite magical about the house smelling of pine, the glitter of silver bells and bright red ribbon, and the glow of candles in every window. At Christmas, no matter the gray and dull weather outside, her family made merry inside with games, delicious treats, and telling stories.

An hour passed, with Jessica keeping Florence busy. She and her sister went up and down the corridors, planning everything as though they didn’t have tradition to rely upon when it came time to make their house ready. Most of the holly sprigs and long, green branches coming into the house would go in the usual places above mantels and around banisters. But there was always one notable exception to the family traditions.

“Where will we hide our kissing balls this year?” Florence asked, standing beneath a doorway that led into their dining room. “When will you put yours out?”

Jessica’s heart gave a strange twist as an old memory tried to surface. She squelched it, as one would a beetle beneath their heel. She pulled her shawl closer. “I thought I wouldn’t bother making one.”

Florence spun gracefully on her slippered heel. “What? How could you not? We have made kissing balls since we were children.”

Jessica feigned interested in the long-case clock, stretching her arm as though to dust off its top. “Maybe we should wrap this old thing up in silver ribbon, to brighten it up.”

“Do not change the subject.” Florence came closer and eyed first the clock and then her sister. “But I should think gold ribbon would be more suitable.” She touched Jessica lightly on the arm. “Why would you forgo the kissing balls? You know how much Mama and Papa love them, and even Mr. and Mrs. Wilson like pretending they have forgotten where we put them.” The butler and housekeeper, a married couple, always made a show of getting caught beneath the kissing balls.

“I am getting too old for such silly games. Everyone in the house knows where we put them, and then they all pretend to get caught under the Christmas balls anyway.” Jessica shrugged. “Given that we are to have guests for Christmas, and you and I are of age, it might no longer be appropriate.”

“Bah.” Florence waved the excuses away as though they were no more trouble than a twist of smoke. “Everyone loves mistletoe, Jessica. It is only innocent fun. If you aren’t going to enjoy making yours, I suppose it is up to me to make them both and hide both. Then won’t you be sorry when you are caught beneath one with a handsome stranger.” She batted her eyelashes and pretended to swoon.

“Handsome stranger?” Jessica had to resist laughing at her sister’s antics. “We know every man for twenty miles; none of them are strangers.”

“But some of them are handsome,” Florence countered. “Like Mr. Thackery.”

“Mr. Thackery?” Jessica’s chin jerked upward. “Our neighbor? He’s as old as father.”

For an odd moment, Florence’s cheeks turned pink. “No, no. His son. Franklin Thackery.”

“Frank?” Jessica shuddered. “I have known him entirely too long to see him as something other than the fixture that he is. Franklin Thackery is dull and tiresome. All he ever talks about is flora and fauna.” She walked away from the clock, her sister, and hopefully all ideas of creating kissing boughs.

Florence hurried to keep up, tucking her hands behind her back as they walked toward the front door. “An interest in the natural world isn’t necessarily dull. People could say the same thing about your thoughts on travel. All you ever do is talk about places you have never been.”

Though her sister did not speak intending to harm, Jessica felt a pinprick of hurt nonetheless. Their elder brother, Jonathan, was away at that very moment. In Greece. He’d gone away to study architecture, and he wrote them long letters of all he saw. He often bemoaned the state of old buildings and antiquities that Napoleon had ordered removed or destroyed.

Jonathan would return home in the spring. Jessica could only hope he would bring more of the far-away world home for her to examine and discover.

“I didn’t know my geographical interests bored you so,” she said, trying to sound unaffected by the familiar longing. A longing to take off running down the road and go as far as it would take her. Instead, she stayed at home on her family’s estate. Never venturing farther than Watford for large assemblies or concerts.

She hadn’t ever even set foot in London. Not because their family couldn’t afford such a trip. But because her parents had no inclination to leave their cozy home and friendly neighbors.

“I am thoroughly interested in anything you have to say, as a devoted younger sister must be.” Florence linked her arm with Jessica’s, smiling fondly. “I wish to convey that not everyone can be interested in the same topics or hobbies. That is all.”

Before Jessica could respond, they both froze where they stood at the familiar sounds of carriage wheels and horse hooves on the drive. Jessica and Florence looked at each other, then they hurried for the front door as if they were children of five and nine again, welcoming their great aunt with enthusiasm.

Florence arrived at the door first and threw it open before running outside, though she wasn’t at all dressed for the brisk weather. A fine coach and four came to a stop on the gravel before the front door. The coachman atop the box started shouting commands to the two grooms with him.

One of the grooms, dressed warmly against the weather, opened the door of the box and put his hand inside.

A hand clad in a velvety black glove took his, and down from the carriage stepped a woman with graying hair and snapdragon green eyes. Aunt Temperance Bolingbrooke carried herself with the same regal grace as a duchess, despite her sixty-odd years. She wore a black bonnet trimmed in dyed silk flowers, and a gown of deep purple trimmed in black lace, with a coat to match.

“My darlings,” she crooned when she saw them standing there, holding their breath and watching her with the same awe they had held when they were much younger. When she had come to visit on the arm of her husband, an architect. He had died six months before, due to a complaint of the heart. But there had been no doubt in Jessica’s young mind that the couple had loved each other dearly and had treasured each adventure they undertook together.

Florence again moved first, throwing her arms around their great aunt with enthusiasm. “Aunt Tempie, I was so worried when you didn’t arrive as planned.”

Aunt Temperance returned the embrace and bestowed a kiss on Florence’s cheek. “And yet, here I am. Perfectly at ease and eager for my visit to Brookfield House.” She turned to look at the maid who had stepped out of the carriage behind her. “Florence, be a good girl and take Mutton’s basket from Harper.”

Harper, the maid, handed the hamper she held to Florence at once. An excited little yelp came from inside.

Florence crooned at the small dog inside the basket. “Oh, poor thing. Let me take him to the garden so he can stretch out a bit.”

“Thank you, my dear.” Then Aunt Temperance turned her full gaze upon Jessica, and her eyes glowed with affection. “My darling Jess. Were you worried for me, too?” She put her arms out, and Jessica hurried to step into the comforting embrace.

“How could I worry?” she asked, snuggled into her great-aunt’s soft fur collar. “You have climbed pyramids and mountains, crossed oceans and rivers. Driving in a coach from one county to another isn’t even going to fatigue you.”

The older woman laughed, tucking Jessica’s arm through hers. “I did all those things when I was much younger, my dear. Nearer your age.” They walked up the steps together, and just before they walked through the door a tiny dog with a silky white coat darted between their legs and into the house.

Florence ran up behind them, panting. “He’s a fast one.”

“Indeed.” Aunt Temperance’s laugh burst out brightly. “He is a terror of a terrier, as my dear Henry used to say.”

“We were so sorry to hear about Uncle Henry’s death,” Jessica said, her voice lowered now that they were inside the house.

“I am afraid it took me by surprise,” Aunt Tempie said. She stripped off her gloves and handed them to the waiting maid, then her coat and hat. “Harper, do go fetch something warm to eat and drink for yourself, and send one of the household staff to the blue drawing room.” She led her nieces with confidence, as comfortable in their house as she acted in her own.

Jessica studied her great aunt for signs of distress or weariness, but the older woman had as cheerful a disposition as Jessica had ever seen upon her face. “What have you girls been doing this morning? And you must tell me all about the planned festivities.”

Before either Jessica or Florence could speak, their mother burst into the room, and all conversation turned to updating one another on family and acquaintances. Florence sat on the edge of her chair, wearing her usual look of peaceful serenity. Jessica settled in more comfortably, drinking in her aunt’s fine appearance and her mother’s good cheer. Aunt Tempie was Mother’s favorite, too.

With the daily dip in temperature, the warmth of the approaching holiday promised days full of laughter and cozy evenings by the fire. Aunt Tempie’s presence, in addition to their usual neighbors and guests, made everything perfect.

Or…almost perfect. Jessica had yet to hear if one of the neighborhood’s Christmas visitors would make his usual appearance. If Mr. Webb visited his cousin, as he had nearly every year for the past two decades, she already knew precisely how to handle him.

Let Mr. Webb just try to ruin her enjoyment of the winter festivities. She would take great pleasure in putting him in his place. As she did every year. And this time, she would be the victor in their little game.