Camellia and the Christmas Curse by Elizabeth Cole

Chapter 1

Dearest Roselind,

I waited for three days to reply to your letter because I kept picking it up and rereading it, sure that I’d dreamed up the words each time. And yet the words remain. You are married! And such a marriage! You are my heroine for taking the plunge and defying all expectations to follow your heart. (And Poppy, I know you are reading these words out loud to Rose, so let me note that you are also my heroine, for it is impossible to imagine our Rose being swept off her feet by a rogue unless you somehow approved it. Bless you, my dear!) To return to my topic, Rose, your family must be furious! I can imagine it well, for I face a similar dragon. I speak, of course, of my stepfather. We have never seen eye to eye on anything, and things get worse by the day. How I wish we didn’t have to leave Wildwood Hall when our schooling was over! I could have lived there forever. What would we have done without Mrs Bloomfield to teach us about the perils of the world? Alas, Mama’s illness returned when least expected, and it seems I was right to come home to be with her though I will not be able to spend Christmas anywhere but this dreary house, since she cannot travel and I cannot go alone. I will write more when I have happier news to share. Possibly, you will never hear from me again…

With much affection and not a little drama,

Miss Camellia Swift

Camellia put down her pen and gazed out the window of her sitting room. It was an uninspiring sight. Grey December skies drizzled rain down on the city of London, dumping water on people and streets with an implacable resolve. It soaked the hems of ladies’ woolen cloaks, it assaulted the leather of men’s boots. The weather made the horses in the streets skittish and the dogs bark more fiercely, as if they could drive away the clouds by sheer determination. The cats would have nothing to do with it at all, and as a species retired to the warmest corners near fireplaces and behind overworked stoves.

The damp seeped in between the cracks of buildings, sneaked in through hastily opened and shut doors, and settled into living rooms like an unwanted houseguest. In short, it was foul. The idea that Christmas was fewer than three weeks away seemed unreal and even hopeless.

It was easy to believe it might go on raining forever. No sunshine had dared peep in the windows of the gracious house at 17 Bedford Square for four days straight. Perhaps even the sun was afraid of the arguments that had been flung about the home since Tuesday. Raised voices could occasionally be heard from the street, which would have embarrassed the family members if they had realized it.

Camellia sighed, thinking of the invitation her cousin sent her, asking her to come to Wyemont Castle for Christmas. The place was grand and old and in a beautiful part of the country, and Lia ached to be anywhere but here. “Oh, why won’t they let me go?” she asked the air.

Just then, a man’s angry shout echoed through the corridors of the house. “Where is that ungrateful daughter of yours?”

Camellia rose from her chair and rushed to the door, yanking it open. “I’m here!” she shouted, in a most unladylike way. “Where else would I be, sir?”

Her stepfather, Edward Bloxham, was already coming up the stairs to find her. “Camellia, I will not have you behaving so abominably in my house. And with your mother so ill! The least you could do is attend her.”

“I was on my way to do just that,” she said, with only a slight stretching of the truth. She passed by him and nearly flew down the stairs to where her mother sat in the small parlor. During daytime, she insisted on leaving her bed, struggling into her gown, and hobbling downstairs so she could sit upright in the wingback chair of the parlor. The chair was placed near the fire, which roared every hour of the day to drive out the damp and keep Mrs Bloxham from catching a chill, which might carry her off in her weakened state.

Camellia wasn’t entirely sure how ill her mother was, since she’d always taken to her bed at the first sign of a sniffle. However, it was true that she’d been coughing incessantly for the past few weeks, and that she tired easily, and looked pale and wan.

At the moment, Lia hurried to her mother’s side. “Do you need anything, Mama?” she asked, adjusting the blanket tucked around her mother’s feet.

“I do, dear. I need you to stop arguing with your stepfather.”

“But, Mama—”

“No, Lia. You two have been fighting like stray cats in an alley, and I won’t permit it.”

“Yes, let’s have this out,” Mr Bloxham said, having followed Camellia into the parlor. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense, Camellia Swift. You have to stop dreaming and start living.”

“I am living!” she insisted. “I spent a whole year teaching girls at Wildwood Hall after Daisy left the position. I worked well and earned my keep. What is that, if not living?”

He snorted, ignoring the fact that it was due to her mother’s illness that Camellia had to give the post up for the fall term, leading her back to this house, where the mood had been tense since September. “Teaching for your whole life like some dowdy spinster is not an acceptable vocation, not for a young woman who still has a chance to marry.”

“You told me that I had practically no chance at all,” she reminded him, thinking of the eternal argument. Mr Bloxham said that Camellia was shirking her responsibility to become an ornament to society. Camellia, on the other hand, doubted that society wanted a wallflower like her as an ornament to anything. “Just yesterday you assured me I was already on the shelf.”

“You will be on the shelf if you give up so easily. Think of your duty to your mother!” He grabbed a clutch of envelopes from the side table, all invitations to various holiday happenings, sent from acquaintances who wanted her to attend simply because they wanted to see three hundred people at their crush. She was to be mere set dressing for the more glittering set.

Bloxham went on, “Accept some of these invitations, go out into society, find a suitable partner, and be engaged by the New Year if you want to have any dowry at all!”

Camellia was horrified by this escalation. What? You have no right to withhold my own inheritance from me!”

“I have every right, Camellia. And your mother agrees with me.”

Lia turned to confront her mother, certain she’d misheard. “Mama! How could you?”

“We want what’s best for you, dear…” she replied in a soft, even timid voice.

“You mean best for you!” she accused Bloxham. “You want a stepdaughter out of the house, so I’m no longer a mouth to feed! So some other man will have to deal with me.”

“Hold your tongue, young lady.”

“If you don’t wish to hear me or see me, you ought to send me away. I told you that my cousin Hortense Fitzgerald invited us to Christmas at Wyemont Castle. I can go there!”

“Not alone!” her mother gasped. “It would be scandalous.”

“Then pay a companion!”

“Out of the question,” Bloxham said. “At this late date, we’d be at the mercy of whoever the employment agency sends.”

“You had three weeks to hire a suitable woman, sir,” Camellia noted coldly. “You ignored my request. How I wish I didn’t have to live here anymore!”

Bloxham’s eyes narrowed, and he inhaled, preparing to deliver a blistering screed that would probably end with Camellia being thrown out of the house and onto the icy streets of London.

“Oh, dear,” a new, confident voice interrupted from the parlor doorway. “I do hope this isn’t a bad time.”