INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE ON BY WINTER'S LIGHT
BY WINTER’S LIGHT is an unabashedly holiday-themed novel. How did that come about?
The concept was fortuitously created by the characters, rather than being a deliberate choice made by me. In the Epilogue of the preceding Cynster novel, The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, at the Cynster Summer Celebration in August of 1837, the older group of children go off in a group to discuss some subject - and the most obvious subject I could imagine them discussing was where to hold their family Christmas gathering later that year. The older group is dominated by males, and the notion that they would vote for a Christmas in Scotland, where they could ride in forests and hunt, again seemed an obvious tack - and thus BY WINTER’S LIGHT, the Cynster holidays of 1837, held at Richard and Catriona’s manor in the Vale of Casphairn in snowy Scotland, came to be!
There are a multitude of holiday customs of the past described in the book, some very familiar, others less so. How did you chose which ones to include?
One of the benefits of setting the novel in an isolated part of the Scottish countryside in that period, featuring a large family that is primarily Church of England by birth, but with the local branch having deep local roots, was that I could draw on all prevailing traditions - so while some of the customs described are clearly Christian-based, others are Norse in origin, reflecting the influx of Nordic invaders over earlier centuries, and some hail from even earlier pagan, Druidic, and folk traditions.
With respect to the Christian side of the celebrations, I was surprised to discover that in that particular period, the Scottish Kirk, which is Presbyterian and at that time was severely Calvinist in tone, actively discouraged all celebration of Christmas. It was still a holy day on the calendar, but celebrations were considered frivolous, and in many towns in Scotland, Christmas Day was a normal work-day. Luckily, the southwestern uplands in which the Vale of Casphairn is located are extremely isolated, and it takes no stretch of the imagination to see the local people following their own traditions regardless of any edict from afar.
Can you describe the Norse, pagan, Druid, and folk customs that feature in the story?
Because we are looking back so far - in some cases possibly a millenia or more to the beginning of some of these traditions - it’s not always easy to say this custom derived from this tradition or that. Customs get merged or molded by local folk traditions, which is something we see to the current day. But as to the customs featured in this story:
Sun cakes – derived from the Vikings, but also may have pagan roots. You’ve almost certainly seen the modern version of these, but not realized what they represent. The original sun cakes were cakes baked in a ring, with lines marked on the upper surface radiating outward from the hole in the center. The lines signified the sun’s rays, and eating the cake on or about the winter solstice was intended to call the sun back into people’s lives. But the Scots, possibly because they didn’t have the right ingredients for cake, converted the cake to shortbread – so the modern version of Scottish sun cakes are plate-sized shortbread with a circle drawn in the center (the sun) with lines of varying length radiating outward. On seeing these shortbreads, most people today think the radial lines are simply convenient divisions for dividing the large circular shortbread into wedges – but no! The lines are the sun’s rays, and by eating that shortbread in the dead of winter, you are calling the sun back into your life.
Carolling, wassail, and egg-nog – carolling, also known as wassailing, was widely popular, more a folk tradition than anything else. Carollers were rewarded with a tot of wassail – spiced ale – at each house they entertained at, to help keep the icy cold at bay as they walked to the next house. Egg-nog was a common festive drink shared with others, like a winter punch, and may have Nordic roots. Based on egg and milk, it could be laced with anything alcoholic – in those times beer, cider, wine, and spirits were all used.
Decorating the house with fir and holly – was an old and well-established custom, possibly more Druidic in origin. The most common places to hang or place freshly-cut boughs were on mantelpieces, on tables, and over open doorways. Exactly what this represented, or was meant to do, seems to have been lost in the mists of time, but the custom of decorating houses remains to this day.
Hanging mistletoe - and kissing under it, is likely a pagan-folk custom, and a very old one. However, the specifics – such as from when and for how long the mistletoe is “active” - vary between communities. One of the additional twists that I’ve described in this book is that in some areas, in order for a man to claim a kiss from a woman under a sprig of mistletoe, the sprig had to be carrying berries, and for each kiss, the man had to pluck a berry, thus limiting the activity of each sprig to the number of berries it carried.
Burning the Yule log and the banishing of Cailleach, the spirit of winter - I’ve always thought the first a pagan-Druidic ritual, but the carving of the logs with Cailleach’s face and the subsequent burning to banish the spirit of winter seems to be a more Nordic influence.
Oidche Choinnle—the Night of Candles - seems a very old Gaelic folk tradition. The welcoming of strangers over the threshold was important both on Christmas Eve, and also on New Year’s Eve, as part of Hogmanay, in part reflecting the isolation of many farmhouses and homes, and the dreadfully harsh winters common in those regions.
And what Christian-derived traditions appear in By Winter’s Light?
There are several:
The Nativity - is echoed in the situation of a rude shelter with a baby being born to humble parents in the presence of three wise men, and a host of animals.
Good King Wenceslas - who arrives trudging through the storm and snow, accompanied not by a page but by his trusted deerhound, yet bearing much-needed gifts. I include this in the Christian list, but it is such a very old European folk-story that it might well pre-date modern Christianity.
The Feast of St. Stephen and the ritual of Boxing Day (Dec 26) - I suspect few today realize that Boxing Day was actually about making up boxes of gifts for estate workers, at least in the English tradition.
How did you come to write a story so packed with holiday customs?
That wasn’t intentional but is more an outcome of how I write stories. I start with my characters, in the particular setting and time - Scotland, the manor, 1837 winter holidays - and then more or less follow what those characters would have done. How would they have filled their days? And if they did this, what might have happened next? And so on. So the number of holiday customs engaged in are simply a reflection of how people in that time would have behaved over the holidays. I think we forget what it must have been like when there was no chance of traveling far because of snow and weather, and there were no cars, phone, or internet! People had to entertain themselves, and that, in truth, is where most of our holiday customs spring from.
There’s an obvious tradition that isn’t included - that of a Christmas tree. Why is that missing?
Christmas trees - the erecting and decorating of them - while echoing the decorating of a house with fir and holly, was a German custom. In the early 1800s, the only major house in England that sported a Christmas Tree was the Duchess of Rutland’s household at Belvoir Castle, because the Duchess was German. Only much later, after the marriage of Victoria to Albert, who introduced the custom of Christmas trees to the royal household, did the custom of Christmas trees become more widely adopted in England.
Victoria married Albert in 1840, so in 1837 in Scotland, the custom of a Christmas had not yet arrived.
Although there are a lot of holiday customs throughout the book, they are largely in the background, forming a colorful tapestry against which the action occurs. The romance in this book is between a governess to one Cynster family and a tutor from another. What moved you to write about their romance?
Two reasons, both story-based. This book is an essential volume for setting up the following Cynster books, those of the romances of the next generation of Cynsters, the children of the Bar Cynster couples. We collectively - both readers and myself as author - needed a chance to form some idea of how those children were evolving into adults - so this book could not be about one of their romances.
But obviously there had to be a romance! And I’ve long thought that, occasionally, it’s a good change of pace to offer readers a glance at the life and romance of characters who are not at the very top of the social tree. Daniel is the son of a minister, and Claire is a well-born lady in reduced circumstances after being widowed. There was plenty of material for a romance between them, and, simultaneously, their positions as governess and tutor to the Cynster children meant those children would also feature.
You state that BY WINTER’S LIGHT is an essential volume for the Cynster novels going forward. Why is that?
One of the critical features of a long-running series is readers’ feelings of returning to places and people they know - of seeing heros and heroines they have come to know as individuals go through the challenge of finding love and marrying the right man or woman for them. Knowing at least one of these characters beforehand - understanding what has made them as they are, what their strengths are, and even more importantly what weaknesses they hide - allows greater interest, empathy, and absorption for the reader.
In the case of the Cynster Next Generation, the children of the Bar Cynster couples, readers know who they are, but have seen very little of them. And as we all know, actions speak much louder than words about the caliber of people, of who they really are beneath the outer glamor. In BY WINTER’S LIGHT, readers see Lucilla, Marcus, Sebastian, Michael, Prudence, and Christopher in action, responding to external pressures and threats, and also to each other, and separately readers also learn more about Louisa and her emerging character.
Readers have more recently seen Lucilla and Marcus act in VISCOUNT BRECKENRIDGE TO THE RESCUE, but now they are a decade older, and we - both the readers and me as author - need to see more of the adults they are shaping up to be, which are insights BY WINTER’S LIGHT affords us. Unsurprisingly, the first pair of Cynster Next Generation romances are those of Lucilla and Marcus, and as they are twins, the stories are tightly linked.
Subsequently, working off the base of their characters revealed in this book, we’ll follow Sebastian, Michael, and Louisa through their romances, and later learn about Prudence and Christopher’s romances, too.
So there’s lots more Cynster novels in the pipeline?
Indeed! Lucilla’s book, THE TEMPTING OF THOMAS CARRICK, is already written, and will be released at the end of February, 2015. It will be followed by Marcus’s story, A MATCH FOR MARCUS CYNSTER, in late May, 2015. Further Cynster novels are scheduled for release in 2017.
If there was one thing you could say to readers when they pick up BY WINTER’S LIGHT, what would it be?
Put your feet up, kick back and relax, and enjoy the holidays Cynsters-style!
TO BUY/PRE-ORDER BY WINTER'S LIGHT click HERE
December 23, 1837
Casphairn Manor, the Vale of Casphairn, Scotland
Daniel Crosbie felt as if all his Christmases had come at once. Letting his gaze travel the Great Hall of Casphairn Manor, filled to overflowing with six Cynster families and various associated household members, he allowed himself a moment to savor both his unexpected good fortune and his consequent hope.
About him, the combined households were enjoying the hearty dinner provided to welcome them to the celebration planned for the next ten days—as Daniel understood it, a combination of Christmas, the more ancient Yuletide, and Hogmanay. Seated about the long refectory-like tables on benches rather than chairs, with eyes alight and smiles on their faces, the assembled throng was in ebullient mood. Conversation and laughter abounded; delight and expectation shone in most faces, illuminated by the warm glow of the candlelight cast from massive circular chandeliers depending from thick chains from the high-domed ceiling. The central room about which the manor was built, the Great Hall lived up to its name; the space within its thick walls of pale gray stone was large enough to accommodate the Cynster contingent, all told about sixty strong, as well as the families of the various retainers who worked in and around the manor, which functioned like a small village.
With no family of his own still alive, Daniel had spent his last ten Christmases with the Cynster family for whom he acted as tutor—the family of Mr. Alasdair Cynster and his wife, Phyllida—but this was the first time in that decade that the Cynsters had come north for Christmas. The six Cynster families present—the six families closest to the dukedom of St. Ives, those of Devil, Duke of St. Ives, his brother Richard, and his cousins Vane, Harry, Rupert, and Alasdair—invariably came together at Christmastime. They were often joined by other connected families not present on this occasion; the long journey to the Vale, in the western Lowlands of Scotland, to the home of Richard Cynster and his wife Catriona in a season that had turned icy and cold with snow on the ground much earlier than expected had discouraged all but the most determined.
Out of long-established habit, Daniel glanced at his charges—soon to be erstwhile charges—seated at the next table with their cousins and second cousins. Aidan, now sixteen years old, and Evan, fifteen, had passed out of Daniel’s immediate care when they’d gone up to Eton, yet Daniel still kept an eye on the pair when they were home—an action their parents appreciated and which the boys, at ease with him after all the years, bore with good grace. At that moment, both were talking animatedly with their male cousins in a fashion that instantly, at least in Daniel’s mind, raised the question of what the group was planning. He made a mental note to inquire later. Jason, the youngest son of the family and the last of Daniel’s true charges, was similarly occupied with the group of Cynster offspring nearer his age. Now eleven, later in the coming year, Jason, too, would start his formal schooling—a circumstance which had, for Daniel, raised the uncomfortable question of what he would do then.
Once Jason left for Eton and there were no more boys in Alasdair Cynster’s household in Colyton, in Devon, for Daniel to tutor, what would he do for a living?
The question had plagued him for several months, not least because if he was ever to have a chance at the sort of life he now knew he wanted, and, if at all possible, was determined to claim, he needed to have secure employment—a place, a position, with a steady salary or stipend.
He’d been wracking his brains, trying to think of his options, of what might be possible, when Mr. Cynster—Alasdair—had called him into the library and laid before him a proposal that, in a nutshell, was the answer to all his prayers.
On several occasions over the years, Daniel had assisted Alasdair with his interests in ancient and antique jewelry, with documenting finds and establishing provenances, and also with cataloguing and adding to the collection of rare books Alasdair had inherited from the previous owner of the manor. Alasdair, supported by Phyllida, had suggested that, once Jason had departed with his brothers for Eton, if Daniel was happy to remain in Colyton as a member of their household, they would be delighted to engage him as Alasdair’s personal secretary, an amanuensis to assist with Alasdair’s ever-expanding interests.
The suggested stipend was generous, the conditions all Daniel could have hoped for. Not only would the new position suit him, it would solve all his difficulties.
Most importantly, it cleared the way for him to offer for Claire Meadows’s hand.
He glanced along the board to his right. Clad in a soft woolen gown in a muted shade of blue, Claire—Mrs. Meadows—was sitting on the opposite side of the table, two places down. She was the governess in Rupert Cynster’s household; as Rupert and Alasdair were brothers, Claire and Daniel were often thrown together when the families gathered. It was customary in such circumstances that the attending tutors and governesses banded together, sharing responsibilities and each other’s company, as they were at present. The manor’s governess, Miss Melinda Spotswood, a comfortable matronly sort with a backbone of forged iron, was chatting to Claire. On Melinda’s other side, opposite Daniel, sat Oswald Raven, tutor at the manor; a few years older than Daniel, Raven projected a debonair façade, but he was hardworking and devoted to his charges. Raven was chatting to Mr. Samuel Morris, who was seated alongside Daniel and hailed from Vane Cynster’s household in Kent; the oldest of the group, Morris was slightly rotund and had an unfailingly genial air, yet he was a sound scholar and very capable of exerting a firm hand on his charges’ reins.
All five had met and shared duties on several occasions before; the rapport between them was comfortable and relaxed. Over the coming days, they would, between them, keep an eye on the combined flock of Cynster children—the younger ones, at least. The oldest group, the seventeen-year-olds led by eighteen-year-old Sebastian Cynster, Marquess of Earith and future head of the house, could be relied on to take care of themselves, along with the large group of sixteen- and fifteen-year-old males. But there were six boys thirteen years and under, and seven girls ranging from eight to fourteen years old, and over them the tutors and governesses would need to exert control sufficient to ensure they remained suitably occupied.
There was no telling what the engaging devils would get up to if left unsupervised.
Being governess or tutor to Cynster children was never dull or boring.
Daniel had managed to keep his gaze from Claire for all of ten minutes. Despite the color and vibrancy, the noise and distraction—despite the many handsome and outright stunningly beautiful faces around about—hers was the shining star in his firmament; regardless of where they were, regardless of competing sights and sounds, she effortlessly drew his gaze and transfixed his attention.
She’d done so from the moment he’d first seen her at one of the family’s Summer Celebrations in Cambridgeshire several years ago. They’d subsequently met on and off at various family functions, at weddings in London, at major family birthdays, and at seasonal celebrations like the current one.
With each exposure, his attraction to Claire, his focus on her, had only grown more definite, more acute, until the obvious conclusion had stared him in the face, impossible to resist, much less deny.
Utterly impossible to ignore.
“If the weather holds,” Raven said, commanding Daniel’s attention with his gaze, “and the older crew go riding as they’re planning, then we’ll need to invent some suitable pastimes to keep our charges amused.”
Seated with his back to the table at which the Cynster children were gathered, Raven had turned and asked what the animated talk had been about. Riding out to assess the position and state of the deer herds had been the answer.
Daniel nodded. “If at all possible, let’s get those left to our care out of doors.”
“Indeed,” Melinda said, turning from Claire to join the conversation. “We need to take advantage of any clear days. If it is fine enough tomorrow, I was saying to Claire that the fourteen-year-olds—the girls—might like to gather greenery to decorate the hall.” Melinda gestured to the stone walls hosting various fireplaces and archways, all presently devoid of any seasonal touches. “It’s customary to decorate them on the twenty-fourth, which is tomorrow.”
“I’d heard,” Morris said, “that there’s some tradition about the Yule log that’s followed hereabouts.” He looked to Raven for confirmation.
Raven, his hair as dark as his name would suggest, nodded. “Yes, that’s an inspired idea. Not only is it necessary to collect the right-sized logs, but the logs have to be carved. That should keep the boys amused for hours. I’ll speak to the staff about organizing whatever’s needed.”
Daniel nodded again, and his gaze drifted once more to Claire; she’d been following the conversation, her calm expression indicating her agreement with the suggestions. With her glossy mid-brown hair burnished by the candlelight, with her delicate features and milky-white skin, her lips of pale rose, lush and full, and her large hazel eyes set under finely arched brown brows, she was, to his eyes, the epitome of womanhood.
That she was a widow—had been widowed at a young age—was neither here nor there, yet the experience had, it seemed, imbued her with a certain gravitas, leaving her more reserved, more cautious, and with a more sober and serious demeanor than might be expected of a well-bred lady of twenty-seven summers.
Her station—gentry-born but fallen on hard times—was similar to, or perhaps a touch higher than, Daniel’s; he didn’t really know. Nor did he truly care. They were both as they were here and now, and what happened next … that was up to them.
He’d come to Scotland, to the Vale, determined to put his luck to the test—to seize the opportunity to speak with Claire and plead his case, to learn if she shared his hopes and if she could come to share his dreams.
A gust of laughter and conversation drew his gaze to the high table.
The six Cynster couples were seated about the table on the raised dais along one side of the room, a traditional positioning most likely dating from medieval times. In addition to those twelve—middle-aged, perhaps, yet still vibrantly handsome, articulate, active, and engaged—there were three of the older generation at one end of the board. Helena, Dowager Duchess of St. Ives, mother of Devil and Richard and elder matriarch of the clan, was seated at the end of the table closest to the hearth, and had chosen to summon Algaria, Catriona’s aging mentor, and McArdle, the ancient butler of the manor, now retired, to join her there. The three were much of an age and, judging by their glances and gestures, were busy sharing pithy observations on all others in the hall. Having met the dowager and been the object of her scrutiny on several occasions, Daniel didn’t like to think of how much she, let alone black-eyed Algaria, was seeing.
A comment in a deep voice, followed by laughter, drew Daniel’s gaze back to the twelve Cynsters of the generation that currently ruled. Their children might have been growing apace, might already have been showing signs of the forceful, powerful individuals they had the potential to become, yet the twelve seated about the high table still dominated their world.
Daniel had observed them—those six couples in particular—for the past ten years. All the males had been born to wealth, but what they’d made of it—the lives each had successfully wrought—hadn’t been based solely on inherited advantage. Each of the six possessed a certain strength—a nuanced blend of power, ability, and insight—that Daniel appreciated, admired, and aspired to. It had taken him some time to realize from where that particular strength derived—namely, from the ladies. From their marriages. From the connection—the link that was so deep, so strong, so anchoring—that each of the six males shared with his wife.
Once he’d seen and understood, Daniel had wanted the same for himself.
His gaze shifted again to Claire. Once he’d met her, he’d known whom he wanted to share just such a link with.
Now he stood on the cusp of reaching for it—of chancing his hand and hoping he could persuade her to form such a connection with him.
Whatever gaining her assent required, he would do.
Now Fate in the form of Alasdair Cynster had cleared his path, it was time to screw his courage to the sticking point and act.
Hope, anticipation, and trepidation churned in his gut.
But he was there and so was she, and he was determined to move forward. He knew how he felt about her, and he thought she felt similarly toward him. His first step, plainly, was to determine whether he was correct in believing that—and whether with encouragement, “like” could grow into something more.
* * *
Claire was very—not to say excruciatingly—aware of Daniel Crosbie’s gaze. Of his regard. Of the steady, focused way in which he looked at her.
She wished he wouldn’t—or, at least, her mind told her that was what she should wish. Her emotions—stupid giddy things—were more inclined to be flattered and interested…as she’d said, stupid and giddy. And reckless, too.
Yes, Daniel was a handsome, personable, honest, and honorable man; she wasn’t silly enough to imagine she was in any danger of receiving any indecent or illicit proposal from him.
Which was the point. With his dark brown hair, thick and straight, his lean face that so fitted his long, lean, athlete’s body, and his gentle, intelligent, brownish-hazel eyes, he was too nice, too gentlemanly, too kind—she didn’t want to hurt him by peremptorily depressing any pretensions he might harbor. That she greatly feared he was, indeed, intending to voice.
She liked him and valued the quiet friendship that had sprung up between them too much to want to see it damaged, as it would be, quite definitely, if she was forced to say him nay. If she was forced to dismiss the offer she had a dreadful premonition he was intending to make.
There was no future for her with him—or, more accurately, for him with her. For either of them together. But convincing a gentleman like him of that…
Just the thought made her head and chest hurt.
Avoiding him seemed her only real option, but they were fixed at the manor for the next ten days; she would need every bit of ingenuity and quick thinking she could command to successfully keep him at a distance for such a long time.
She didn’t like her chances, but what else could she do?
Live through one day at a time. That had been her motto during the days immediately following her husband’s death; it was all she could think of that might serve her now.
Turning to Melinda, she said, “Alathea asked me especially to keep an eye on Mrs. Phyllida’s two girls—Lydia and Amarantha—given they’re the youngest here. If I’m to take the older girls out to gather greenery, do you have anything planned for the younger lot, or should we combine the two groups?”
Melinda shook her head. “The four fourteen-year-olds are too close-knit a clique—and there’s Louisa in the lead, too. No need to give her more troops to command.”
All the tutors and governesses knew that Devil Cynster’s daughter was a handful—too clever, too persuasive, and far too adept at getting her own way.
“I was going to suggest,” Melinda continued, “that I take the three younger ones—Margaret, Lydia, and Amarantha—into the kitchen. Cook said she would be making mince pies, and they’ll enjoy helping.”
Claire nodded. “That they will. All right—I’ll take the older four.” Surrounding herself with four fourteen-year-old girls should at least keep her safe through the next day. “What sort of greenery is customarily used for the decorations here, where do we get it, and how much are we likely to need?”
* * *
Lucilla Cynster, eldest daughter of the house and future Lady of the Vale, listened while her twin brother, Marcus, seated beside her, explained the ins and outs of the local deer hunting season to her cousins Sebastian, Michael, and Christopher. The three were sitting on the other side of the table, forming a wall of broad shoulders and masculine chests that effectively blocked the rest of the room from Lucilla’s sight. Glancing down the long board beyond Marcus and Christopher, she saw her five fifteen- and sixteen-year-old male cousins—Aidan, Gregory, Justin, Nicholas, and Evan, all of whom intended to join the exploratory ride tomorrow—leaning forward, hanging on Marcus’s every word.
Sebastian, Michael, and Christopher were much more nonchalant, but as Lucilla could feel their eagerness radiating from them, she viewed their expressions of aloofness with skepticism.
Together with Louisa, they—the older six, including Prudence, who was sitting on Lucilla’s other side—had been principally responsible for convincing their elders to hold the family Christmas celebrations in the Vale. The girls had wanted to experience the magic of an assured white Christmas in the deep, undisturbed silence of the Vale, something they hadn’t known since the last family Christmas held there, when they’d been small children. All of them remembered that time with nostalgic pleasure. The boys, of course, had wanted to hunt, but although the season for does was open, the early snows had sent the deer deep into the narrow valleys in the nearby hills; it had been decided that the group should ride out tomorrow to scout around before mounting a proper hunt on the day after the Feast of St. Stephen.
Beside Lucilla, Prudence—Demon and Felicity Cynster’s oldest child and Lucilla’s closest cousin, friend, and sometimes confidante—leaned nearer and, as Marcus paused to answer a question from Aidan, said, “I’m for the ride—are you going to come?”
That Prudence would ride was the opposite of a surprise; she lived for horses and always had. Given her parents’ obsession with the animals, her fervor was perhaps understandable.
Lucilla thought about the ride, about joining the company. Her gaze drifted further down the table to Louisa—she of the lustrous black hair, pale green eyes, and infallibly engaging manners. If Lucilla remained at the house, Louisa would attach herself to Lucilla, which wasn’t a situation to be encouraged. Not because they didn’t get on—despite Lucilla’s flaming red mane, in temperament they were two peas in a pod—but because, courtesy of the Lady’s gifts, Lucilla saw in Louisa a woman who would one day wield great power.
Whenever they were together, Lucilla felt a strong urge to steer or guide Louisa—yet at the very same time, she knew she…shouldn’t. Louisa was supposed to find her own way without any help from Lucilla; the trials and tribulations Louisa would face were important, presumably in shaping her for whatever role lay in her future.
Explaining that to anyone who wasn’t Lady-touched was impossible. So…
The proposed ride would keep her away from the manor for most of the day. Lucilla nodded. “Yes, I’ll come, too.” As she always did, she consulted her connection to the Lady—her inner compass—and felt her eyes widen slightly in surprise.
She was supposed to ride out with her cousins. As to why… As usual, that wasn’t forthcoming.
* * *
Up on the dais, at the end of the long table closest to the warmth thrown out by the blaze in the fireplace nearby, Helena, Dowager Duchess of St. Ives, looked out on those gathered with an indulgent eye. She smiled, more to herself than anyone else, at the sight of her grandchildren, grandnieces, and grandnephews. “They are growing up.”
There was immense satisfaction in her tone.
Beside her, Algaria twitched her shawl over her shoulders. “Up, certainly. Older, indubitably. But wiser? I believe I’ll reserve judgment.”
The third of their number, old McArdle, quietly laughed. “They’re like youngsters anywhere—they’ll learn.”
Algaria stilled, then she murmured, “You’re right—there will be hurdles and challenges for each of them, but as to what those might be… We can only guess.”
Helena refused to let Algaria’s mysterious allusions derail her pleasure. “In truth, it is what amuses me most these days, watching them stumble and fall, then pick themselves up—watching their lives evolve.”
Algaria and McArdle looked out at the children. Although neither made any reply, eventually, both inclined their heads.
Helena allowed her smile to deepen, content that, at least on the philosophical side, she had had the last word.
* * *
“So!” Prudence thumped her curly blonde head down on the pillow she’d arranged at the foot of Lucilla’s bed. She and Lucilla were sharing the bed, top to toe, while the three youngest girls—Prudence’s sister, Margaret, and their cousins Lydia and Amarantha—had settled on pallets before the fire. “We’ll spend most of tomorrow riding with the others, and then Christmas Day will be full of all the usual eating, drinking, and being merry.” Wriggling into a more comfortable position, Prudence went on, “I can’t remember—do you do St. Stephen’s Day up here? The boxes and all?”
“We most certainly do.” Already settled beneath the covers, Lucilla angled her head to look down the bed. “But here it’s called the Feast of St. Stephen, and for good reason, so be warned. Mama will almost certainly want our help either tomorrow evening or, more likely, on the morning of Christmas Day for making up the boxes. It’s more or less the same as Uncle Sylvester and Aunt Honoria do at Somersham—gifts to all the workers and their families. Here, of course, it’s even easier, as even our shepherds live at the manor, and so everyone will be here—in the Great Hall, anyway.”
Prudence nodded. “So we have all that filling up the day after Christmas, plus the hunt on the day after that. Then what?”
“We have three days to recover and prepare, and then it’s Hogmanay—the end of this year and the beginning of the next.”
Prudence was silent for several minutes, then she squinted up the bed and caught Lucilla’s eye. “I’m looking forward to next year precisely because it’s not our coming-out year.”
Lucilla nodded in understanding. “In a way, the coming year will be our last year—the last year of our girlhoods, so to speak.”
“We should make it count,” Prudence said. Warming to her theme, she continued, “We should make sure we do everything we’ve ever wanted to do, and make sure we leave nothing undone that as girls we can do, but that as young ladies we might find more difficult.”
Lucilla chuckled. “Like driving down St. James in an open carriage?”
“Exactly! And riding hell-for-leather in the Park. Isn’t it absurd that I’ll be able to do that next year—every morning we’re in London, if I wish—but the year after, me doing the same thing will be considered indecorous and unbecoming?”
“Society does love its rules, no matter how silly.” Lucilla paused. “In fact, now I think about it, next year is going to be the perfect year for doing all those slightly risqué things. The better part of society will be so focused on the Coronation and all the events surrounding it that no one will have any attention or disapprobation left over to direct at us.”
“Very true,” Prudence said. After a moment, she went on, “I have to say I feel for those girls who will be making their come-outs next year. I heard Mama say that it’s going to be bedlam with all the events planned in the lead-up to the Coronation, and that getting noticed is going to be next to impossible unless you’re foreign royalty.”
“Hmm.” Although she’d never said so aloud, Lucilla was not looking forward to the year beyond the next, the year in which she, alongside Prudence and Antonia Rawlings, would make her formal curtsy to the fashionable world. It was going to be a dreadful bore—and entirely to no purpose. A point she suspected that her mother appreciated, but she doubted her father did, or would, no matter that he usually accepted her mother’s Lady-inspired decrees on most subjects. It would be for him that Lucilla would go to London and be presented, and promenade around the ballrooms and in the Park…all to no avail. Her future, she knew, lay here, in the Vale, just as her mother’s had before her.
She didn’t know who, or how, or when, but she did know where he—whoever he was—would find her.
Here—somewhere in the lands the Lady ruled.
Prudence turned on her side and snuggled down. “It’s a pity Antonia and her family couldn’t join us.”
Lucilla settled, too, tugging the covers over her shoulder. “Aunt Francesca wrote. Mama said that they had wanted to come, but Antonia’s grandmama is poorly and they didn’t want to leave her at this time.”
Prudence mumbled in grudging approval, “Christmas is for families.” A moment ticked past. “Perhaps they can come and visit when you come south to stay in the new year.” She yawned.
Lucilla yawned, too. “P’rhaps.” A second later, she murmured, “Good night.”
She heard the smile in Prudence’s voice as she replied, “Sweet dreams.”