Mistletoe Promise by Sofi Laporte

Chapter 1

One single snowflake.

The tiny crystal floated through the grey sky, twirled about like a ballerina in a white fluffy frock, drifted over the trees, danced down the gables of a stately mansion and clung to its windowpane, where it melted to a drop of ice water, sliding down like a teardrop.

Frances touched the cold glass with a finger and traced down its path. Lifting her eyes, she saw that it was growing dark outside. In the glimmer of the streetlamp, she saw a host of snowflakes whirling about before they powdered the ground.

She ought to lighten her lamp, too. It was also getting cold in the room. She got up and placed another log into the fireplace. It sparked. Frances took the bellows and stoked up the fire. Normally, it was the maid’s job to do this, but these were strange times. Both housemaids were unavailable. Betty had left to get married several days earlier, Martha had come down with the flu, and Mrs Beedle, the cook, had begged a leave of absence to tend to her mother, who had fallen ill as well. Somehow, word had got out that Martha had measles, which had caused the parents and guardians of the pupils to break out in panic. Despite Frances’s protestations to the contrary, they pulled their children from school a week prior to the holidays.

Frances sighed. She wondered what Miss Hilversham would’ve done in this situation. The headmistress of Miss Hilversham’s Seminary for Young Ladies, which also carried her name, was absent as well. She was visiting a former pupil, the former Miss Birdie Talbot, who was now the Duchess of Dunross. She’d begged Miss Hilversham to help her set up a school in Scotland. Miss Hilversham had agreed, and transferred the running of the school, including all of its administerial duties, to Frances. From the initially planned two months, it stretched to three, and now Christmas was approaching and there was no sign of Miss Hilversham returning.

It is likely I will stay over the holidays in Scotland, she’d written in her last missive. It is nigh impossible to travel now, with the snow blocking most of the roads. I would be quite worried about this predicament if I did not know the school in such capable hands as yours, dear Frances.

Frances folded the letter with a frown. There was no work to do these days since all the students had left. Normally, there was a forlorn soul or two to tend to over the holidays. Frances had looked forward to a small celebration; she’d been prepared to pamper whoever had not been so lucky to leave the school over Christmastide. But all the students had left, no doubt because she hadn’t been able to quench the rumour about the false measles.

The teachers were gone as well. Of the four teachers who taught in the school, not counting the headmistress, Miss Robinson and Miss Brown had left to visit their families over the holidays, and Miss Keating had resigned the day before.

Frances alone remained.

The house was eerily quiet. Gone were the footsteps in the hallway, the scraping of chalk on the blackboards, the shuffling of papers and books, the scraping of quills.

With the house empty of all human sounds, others became prevalent. The wind that howled around the gables. The squeaking of the broken shutter on the upper floor. The mysterious creaking of the floorboards upstairs.

Frances held her breath as she listened. Maybe it was Martha walking around? She ought to be in bed. She pulled her plaid shawl tighter across her shoulder and shivered.

Was she to celebrate Christmas all on her own, then?

With a sigh, Frances placed the letter back in the letter box. It was too dark to read or write. It was too cold to be up and about. She would wrap herself in another shawl, pull over a second pair of thick woollen socks, go down to the kitchen to get a pot of hot tea and crawl into her bed.

Tomorrow will be a new day.

A sudden banging against the front door exploded through the house.

Frances jumped. Her heart pounded.

There again. Bam. Bam. Bam. Insistent. Authoritative.

And now the bell jangled.

Who could that be?

It was the twenty-first of December, St Thomas day, so maybe it was a poor woman, a mumper, who, as was custom on that day, went from house to house, applying to the goodwill of the people, begging for alms. She’d opened her door to more than one mumper already and given them food parcels consisting of bread, cake, and a coin. But all of them had tapped discreetly on the kitchen door, not the main entrance.

She waited one moment for Martha to open the door until she remembered that Martha was lying upstairs in a fever. There would be no one else to open the door. She was all alone.

Frances shivered and for one moment considered ignoring the summons. Surely, it wasn’t a mumper. Who else could it be in this weather? Surely no one important? Miss Hilversham’s missives of the day had been delivered. All the students were gone. It certainly was no parent.

And yet.

And yet, she was left in charge here. It could be someone important. It could be a courier. An urgent letter… Frances got up, pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulder, grabbed her candle and went downstairs.

The old walnut clock ticked in the hallway, shadows flitted to and fro, the open doors of the classrooms looked like gawking black mouths.

Bam. Bam. Bam. Followed by the bell pull.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Frances muttered under her breath in the same way Martha did, especially on busy visiting days.

She reached the front door, turned the heavy key in the lock, and pushed down the latch.

She was pushed back by the weight of a man’s body who’d been leaning against the door.

Frances jumped back with a squeak, holding her candle up in defence as the man stumbled forward.

“I–I beg your pardon. Didn’t expect the door to open so suddenly.” He drew himself up and adjusted the hat on his head. He was tall and lanky with ash blond hair stuck to his temples. His eyes glistened.

Frances took another step back, wishing she’d taken with her the poker stick from the fireplace before she went downstairs. “W–w–we have no more alms.” Where was Martha when one needed her the most? Prostrate in bed.

He drew his tongue over cracked lips. “I want no alms.” His hand went into the breast pocket of his greatcoat.

If he draws out a pistol, I will throw the candlestick at him, Frances thought wildly. She looked around for another weapon.

Instead of a pistol, he pulled out something that crinkled. Frances raised her candlestick, ready to strike.

“I am here for this–” he held out his hand, in which he held a piece of paper.

Frances stared at it.

His hand wavered.

Just in the moment that Frances reached out to take it, his hand trembled, dropping the paper.

With a crash, he collapsed at her feet.

He’d fainted.

Outside, snowflakes drifted and twirled about in a hectic winter dance.