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A mysterious invitation to spend Christmas at an English manor home may bring danger...and love?
England, 1851: When Clara Chapman receives an intriguing invitation to spend Christmas at an English manor home, she is hesitant yet feels compelled to attend—for if she remains the duration of the twelve-day celebration, she is promised a sum of five hundred pounds.
But is she walking into danger? It appears so, especially when she comes face to face with one of the other guests—her former fiancé, Benjamin Lane.
Imprisoned unjustly, Ben wants revenge on whoever stole his honor. When he’s given the chance to gain his freedom, he jumps at it—and is faced with the anger of the woman he stood up at the altar. Brought together under mysterious circumstances, Clara and Ben discover that what they’ve been striving for isn’t what ultimately matters.
What matters most is what Christmas is all about . . . love.
Pour a cup of tea and settle in for Book 1 of the Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series--a page-turning Victorian-era holiday tale--by Michelle Griep, a reader and critic favorite.
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Christmas or not, there was nothing merry about the twisted alleys of Holywell. Clara Chapman forced one foot in front of the other, sidestepping pools of ... well, a lady ought not think on such things, not on the morn of Christmas Eve — or any other morn, for that matter.
Damp air seeped through her woolen cape, and she tugged her collar tighter. Fog wrapped around her shoulders, cold as an embrace from the grim reaper. Though morning had broken several hours ago, daylight tarried, seeming reluctant to make an appearance in this part of London — and likely wishing to avoid it altogether. Ancient buildings with rheumy windows leaned toward one another for support, blocking a good portion of the sky.
She quickened her pace. If she didn't deliver Effie's gift soon, the poor woman would be off to her twelve-hour shift at the hatbox factory.
Rounding a corner, Clara rapped on the very next door, then fought the urge to wipe her glove. The filthy boards, hung together more by memory than nails, rattled like bones. Her lips pursed into a wry twist. A clean snow might hide the sin of soot and grime in this neighborhood, but no. Even should a fresh coating of white bless all, the stain of so much humanity would not be erased. Not here. For the thousandth time, she breathed out the only prayer she had left.
Why, God? Why?
The door swung open. Effie Gedge's smile beamed so bright and familiar, Clara's throat tightened. How she missed this woman, her friend, her confidant — her former maid.
"Miss Chapman? What a surprise!" Effie glanced over her shoulder, her smile faltering as she looked back at Clara. "I'd ask you in but ..."
Clara shoved away the awkward moment by handing over a basket. "I've brought you something for your Christmas dinner tomorrow. It isn't much, but ..." It was Clara's turn to falter. "Anyway, I cannot stay, for Aunt's developed a cough."
Effie's smile returned, more brilliant than ever. "That's kind of you, miss. Thank you. Truly."
The woman's gratitude, so pure and genuine, rubbed Clara's conscience raw. Would that she might learn to be as thankful for small things. And small it was. Her gaze slipped to the cloth-covered loaf of bread, an orange, and used tea leaves wrapped in a scrap of paper. Pressing her lips together, she faced Effie. "I wish it were more. I wish I could do more. If only we could go back to our old lives."
"Begging your pardon, miss." Effie rested her hand on Clara's arm, her fingers calloused from work no lady's maid should ever have to perform. "But you are not to blame. I shall always hold to that. There is no ill will between us."
Clara hid a grimace. Of course she knew in her head she wasn't to blame, but her heart? That fickle organ had since reverted to her old way of thinking, pulsing out "you are unloved, you are unwanted" with every subsequent beat.
Clara forced a smile of her own and patted the woman's hand. "You are the kind one, Effie. You've lost everything because of my family, and yet you smile."
"The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. I suppose you know that as well as I, hmm?" Her fingers squeezed before she released her hold. "I wish you merry, Miss Chapman, this Christmas and always."
"Thank you, Effie. And a very merry Christmas be yours, as well." She spun, eyes burning, and pushed her way back down the narrow alley before Effie saw her tears. This wasn't fair. None of it.
Her hired hansom waited where she'd left it. The cab was an expense she'd rather not think on, but altogether necessary, for she lived on the other side of town. She borrowed the driver's strong grip to ascend onto the step, then when inside, settled her skirts on the seat while he shut the door.
Only once did she glance out the window as the vehicle jostled along London's rutted roads — and immediately repented for having done so. Two lovers walked hand in hand, the man bending close and whispering into the woman's ear. A blush then, followed by a smile.
Clara yanked shut the window curtain, the loneliness in her heart rabid and biting.
That could have been her. That should have been her.
Why, God? Why?
She leaned her head back against the carriage. Was love to be forever denied her? First her father's rejection, then her fiancé's. She swallowed back a sob, wearier than twenty-five years ought to feel.
Eventually the cab jerked to a halt, and she descended to the street. She dug into her reticule and pulled out one of her last coins to pay the driver. At this rate, she wouldn't have to hire a cab to visit Effie next Christmas. She might very well be her neighbor.
"Merry Christmas, miss." The driver tipped his hat.
"To you, as well," she answered, then scurried toward Aunt's town house. A lacquered carriage, with a fine pair of matched horses at the front, stood near the curb. Curious. Perhaps the owner had taken a wrong turn, for Highgate, while shabbily respectable, was no Grosvenor Square.
Clara dashed up the few stairs and entered her home of the last nine months, taken in by the charitable heart of her Aunt Deborha Mitchell. The dear woman was increasingly infirm and housebound, but in her younger days she'd hobnobbed with people from many spheres.
Noontide chimes rang from the sitting-room clock, accompanied by a bark of a cough. Clara untied her hat and slipped from her cloak, hanging both on a hall tree, all the while wondering how best to urge Aunt back to her bed. The woman was as stubborn as ... She bit her lower lip. Truth be told, tenacity ran just as strongly in her own veins.
Smoothing her skirts, she pulled her lips into a passable smile and crossed the sitting room's threshold. "I am home, Aunt, and I really must insist you retire — oh! Forgive me."
She stopped at the edge of the rug. A man stood near the mantel, dressed in deep blue livery. Her gaze flickered to her aunt. "I am sorry. I did not know you had company."
"Come in, child." Aunt waved her forward, the fabric of her sleeve dangling too loosely from the woman's arm. "This involves you."
The man advanced, offering a creamy envelope with gilt writing embellishing the front. "I am to deliver this to Miss Clara Chapman. That is you, is it not?"
She frowned. "It is."
He handed her the missive with a bow, then straightened. "I shall await you at the door, miss."
Her jaw dropped as he bypassed her, smelling of lavender of all things. She turned to Aunt. "I don't understand."
"I should think not." Aunt nodded toward the envelope. "Open it."
Clara's name alone graced the front. The penmanship was fine. Perfect, actually. And completely foreign. Turning it over, she broke the seal and withdrew an embossed sheet of paper, reading aloud the words for Aunt to hear.
The Twelve Days of Christmas As never's been reveled Your presence, Miss Chapman,
She lowered the invitation and studied her aunt. Grey hair pulled back tightly into a chignon eased some of the wrinkles at the sides of her eyes, yet a peculiar light shone in the woman's faded gaze. Aunt Deborha always hid wisdom, but this time, Clara suspected she secreted something more.
"Who sent this?" Clara closed the distance between them and knelt in front of the old woman. "And why?"
Aunt shrugged, her thin shoulders coaxing a rumble in her chest. A good throat clearing staved off a coughing spell — for now. "One does not question an opportunity, my dear. One simply mounts it and rides."
"You can't be serious." She dissected the tiny lift of Aunt's brows and the set of her mouth, both unwavering. Incredible. Clara sucked in a breath. "You think I should go? To Bleakly Manor, wherever that is?"
"I think" — Aunt angled her chin — "you simply must."
Running an absent finger over the burnt scabs on his forearm, Benjamin Lane sagged against the cell's stone wall, welcoming the sharp sting of pain. It wouldn't last long. The crust would fall away, leaving a series of black numbers etched into his skin. A permanent mark, forever labeling him a convict to be feared, and driving a final stake through the heart of his efforts to be something in this world. Turning aside, he spit out the sour taste in his mouth, then his lips curled into a snarl. He was something, all right.
Anger rose in him like a mad dog, biting and completely impotent, for he had no idea who'd put him in this rat hole. The only thing he did know, he wished he didn't. Not now. Not ever. Growling roared in his ears. Was that him? Oh, God. Not again.
Betrayal from an enemy he could understand, but from the woman he loved? What man could fathom that? For nine months he'd turned that question over and over, examining every angle, each nuance, and still he could not reckon Clara's duplicity.
Why, God? Why?
A finger at a time, Ben opened his hand and stared fiercely at a small chunk of stone, barely discernable in the darkness. Worn smooth now by nearly a year of caressing. He flipped it over, just like his unanswered questions, the sleekness of the rock against his palm reminding him he was human, not beast. Outside his cell, a shriek crawled beneath the crack in his door, reaching for him, taunting him to believe otherwise. To join the howl and become one with the pack of hopeless men.
He flipped the rock again. The movement tethered him to sanity.
Cocking his head, he listened with his whole body. Something more than screams crept in. The scrape of boot leather. Growing louder. Metal on metal, key battling key. The low murmur of a coarse jest shared between two guards.
Sweat popped out on Ben's forehead. He pressed his back into the wall, an impossible wish to disappear digging into his gut. The footsteps stopped. Only a slab of scarred wood separated him from his tormentors. Some Christmas this would be.
The key jiggled in the lock, and his stomach twisted. It was safer to remain here. In the dark. At least in this womb of crumbling brick and blackness he still heard the cries of other prisoners, as regular as a mother's heartbeat. He yet felt the dampness of rot on his skin, tasted the rancid gruel served once a day. Still breathed. Still lived.
He flipped the rock again.
The door swung open. A lantern's glow silhouetted two ghouls.
One stepped forward, a club in his grasp. "Out with ye, Lane. Warden's got a little Christmas gift with yer name on it."
Ben wrapped his fingers tight around the stone. Should he make a run for it? Spring an attack and wrestle for the club? Go limp? He'd sigh, if he had any breath to spare, but even that seemed a precious commodity nowadays.
No, better to face this head-on and not relinquish the last morsel of his dignity. He shuffled forward, the chains on his feet rasping. Shackles bit a fresh wound into his ankles with each step.
Leaving behind the only haven he'd known the past nine months, he stumbled into the corridor, guards at his back, prodding, poking. He lurched along, passing other doors, other convicts, inhaling the stench and guilt of Millbank Prison. How many wretches as innocent as he perished behind those doors?
One foot. Then the other. Drag, step. Drag, step. Until the stairway. The weight of his chains pulled him back as he ascended. By the time he reached the top, blood trickled hot over his feet.
The guard's club hit between his shoulder blades, knocking him forward and jarring loose his precious stone. It clacked onto the floor, as loud to him as the hammer pounding in Christ's nails, then bounced down the stairs, taking his soul along with it.
He wheeled about, diving for his only remainder of hope.
But a boot caught him in the gut. A club cracked against his skull. Half-lugged, half-dead, he landed in the warden's office like an alley cat thrown against a curb. The warden's sigh barely registered.
"Don't know why I expected anything different. Thank you, gentlemen. You may wait outside. Up you go, Lane." Warden Hacksby extended a hand.
Ignoring the offer, Ben sucked in a breath and forced his body up, staggering until the room stopped spinning.
"If nothing else, you are consistent." Hacksby chuckled and seated himself behind a desk as angular as the man himself. "Do you know what day it is?"
Ben worked out the soreness in his jaw before words could escape. "Sorry. I'll have to check my calendar and get back to you. Or ... wait a minute. Ahh, yes. Am I to sail for Australia today?" He narrowed his eyes. "But we both know I'll never reach the shore."
"Ever the cynic, eh? Really, Lane. After all the hospitality I've shown you." Hacksby tut-tutted, the curl of his lip exposing yellowed teeth. "But no. There's been a change of plans. You've received another offer, should you choose to take it."
Bitterness slipped from Ben's throat in a rusty laugh. "What, the gallows? A firing squad? Or has Queen Victoria invited me for Christmas tea?"
"Aha! So you do know what day it is. Always the sly one, are you not?" Hacksby rose from his seat and leaned across the desk, a creamy envelope with Ben's name in golden script on the front. "For you. Your freedom, possibly — providing you play by the rules. If not, you're to be shot on sight for any escape attempt."
Ben eyed the paper. What trick was this? He was supposed to be transported to a labor camp halfway across the world, not handed an engraved invitation. He stiffened. This was a trap. He knew it to the deepest marrow in his bones.
Nevertheless, he reached out, and for the smallest of moments, the warden held one edge, he the other. Liberty hanging in the balance.
Despite her cold fingers, Clara rubbed away the frost on the coach's window, then peered out into the December night. She ought be sore by now, riding such a distance over country roads, but truly, this carriage was magnificent — and so was the mansion that popped into view as they rounded a bend. She leaned closer, then reared back as her breath fogged the glass. With a furious swipe of her glove, she stared out the cleared circle, slack jawed.
This was Bleakly Manor?
A grand structure, torches ablaze, lit the night like the star of Bethlehem. The building stood proud at three stories tall, with candles winking behind row upon row of mullioned windows. Clearly whoever owned Bleakly didn't care a fig about window taxes. Clara held her breath and edged closer, careful not to muddle her view with rime. Garland swagged from the roofline the entire length of the building. How on earth had they managed that? Red bows with dangling ribbons hung from each wall sconce, and as the carriage drew nearer, a gust of wind lent them life, and they waved a greeting.
She sat back against the cushion, stunned. There was nothing bleak about this manor. Who had invited her — a lowly lady's companion — to such an estate? Who would even want to keep company with her? And more importantly, why?
The coach stopped, and the door opened. She gave up trying to solve such a puzzle as the footman helped her to the drive.
"I'll see to your bags, miss." A lad, no more than fourteen yet dressed in as fine a livery as the older man, tipped his head in deference.
The respectful gesture stung. She hadn't been so favored since that awful day, that nightmare day nine months previous, when she'd stood in front of an altar in a gown of white.
The footman's voice pulled her from the horrid memory. She lifted her skirts to follow him without tripping. "Yes."
She was ready, truly, to meet whoever had invited her. Perhaps if she explained the frail state of her aunt, she wouldn't be required to stay the full Twelve Days of Christmas.
After ascending granite stairs, she and the footman passed through an arched doorway and entered a foyer the size of Aunt's dining and sitting rooms combined. A crystal chandelier dripped golden light over everything, from a cushioned bench against one wall to a medieval trestle table gracing the other. Fresh flowers filled a cut-glass vase atop the table. Marble tile gleamed beneath her feet, the echo of her steps reaching up to a mounted lion head on the wall in front of her, just above a closed set of doors. She couldn't help but stare up into the cold, lifeless eyes, wondering how many people before her had done the same.
"I should be happy to take your cloak and bonnet, miss." The footman held out his arm.
Her fingers shook as she unbuttoned her coat and untied her hat, though she was hard-pressed to decide if the jittery feeling was from cold air or nerves. Handing over her garments, she waited for further instruction from the tall fellow.
Excerpted from "12 Days at Bleakly Manor"
Copyright © 2017 Michelle Griep.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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