Happy June! In celebration of summer, I present to you the second chapter of The Mischief of the Mistletoe (coming to a bookstore near you on October 28th!).
In Chapter One (available here), we met our heroine, Miss Arabella Dempsey, ignoring the sage advice of her old family friend, Miss Jane Austen. Chapter Two brings us my very favorite two-legged vegetable: none other than Mr. Turnip Fitzhugh.
I hope you adore Turnip as much as I do.
Without further ado… Chapter Two.
They were everywhere.
Young girls. Very young girls. Even younger girls. Not a surprising thing to be found in an all-girls’ school, but Mr. Reginald Fitzhugh, more commonly known to his friends and associates as Turnip, hadn’t quite thought through all the ramifications of placing nearly fifty young ladies—using the term “ladies” loosely—under one set of eaves. They thronged the foyer, playing tiddlywinks, nudging one another’s arms, whispering, giggling. There was no escaping them.
And someone had thought this was a good idea?
Turnip dodged out of the way of a flying tiddlywink, wondering why no one had warned of the hazards involved in paying calls on all girls’ academies. Come to think of it, this must be why his parents had been so deuced eager to foist the job of delivering Sally’s Christmas hamper off on him. He might not be the brightest vegetable in the patch, but he knew a dodge when he saw one.
At the time, it had all been couched in the most sensible and flattering of terms. He was already planning to visit friends at Selwick Hall in early December; it would be only a short jaunt from there to Bath. It would give him an opportunity to test the mettle of his new matched bays, and besides, “Sally will be so delighted to see her favorite brother!”
Favorite brother, ha! He was her only brother. It didn’t take much school learning to count to one.
And where was Miss Sally? Some sign of sisterly devotion, that, thought Turnip darkly, leaving him stranded in a wilderness of young females armed with projectiles. If she wanted her ruddy Christmas hamper that badly, she could at least come to collect it.
He didn’t even see why she bally well needed a Christmas hamper. She would be home for Christmas. What was so devilish imperative that it couldn’t wait the three weeks until Sal hauled herself home for the holidays? She didn’t seem to be the only one, however. Among the bustle in the hallway were what appeared to be other siblings, parents, and guardians, bringing their guilt gifts of fruit, cake, and fripperies to their indulged offspring. The only one Turnip recognized was Lord Henry Innes, bruising rider to hounds, terror in the boxing ring, also lugging a large hamper.
According to his parents, there was a regular black market in Christmas hamper goods at Miss Climpson’s Seminary and Sally didn’t like to be behind-hand in anything. It was, his mother explained, the female equivalent of debts of honor, and he wouldn’t want Sally to welsh on a debt of honor, would he now?
His mother, Turnip thought darkly, had neglected to mention the tiddlywinks.
“Mr. Fitzhugh?” A harried-looking young lady lightly touched his arm. From her age and the fact that she was tiddlywink-free, Turnip cunningly surmised that she must be a junior mistress rather than a pupil. On the other hand, one could never be too sure. Deuced devious, some of those young girls. After years of Sally, he should know. “You are Mr. Fitzhugh, are you not?”
“The last time I checked!” said Turnip cheerfully. “Not that names tend to change about on one that much, but one can never be too careful. Chap I knew went to bed one name last week and woke up another.”
Poor Ruddy Carstairs. He had gone about in a daze all day, completely unable to comprehend why everyone kept calling him Smooton. It had taken him all day to figure out it was because his uncle had stuck in his spoon and left him the title. It made Turnip very glad he didn’t have any uncles, or at least not ones with titles. He’d got rather used to be being Mr. Fitzhugh. It suited him, like a well-tailored suit of clothes. He’d hate to have to get used to another.
“Ah, bon,” said the young lady, looking decidedly relieved, as well as more than a little bit French. Odd thing, nationality. She looked just like everyone else, but when she opened her mouth, the French just came out. “I would have recognized the resemblance anywhere. I am Mademoiselle de Fayette. I teach the French to your sister. Will you come with me?”
Turnip hefted the Christmas hamper. “Lead on!”
“Miss Fitzhugh waits for you in the blue parlor,” said the French mistress, leading him down a long corridor dotted with doors, through which various odd sounds could be heard. Someone appeared to be reciting poetry. Through another, rhythmic thumps could be heard.
“Dancing lessons,” the teacher explained.
It sounded more like something being pounded to death with a large club. Turnip feared for his feet when this new crop of debutantes was let loose on the ballrooms of London and Bath.
The French mistress opened another door, revealing a parlor that lived up to its title by the blue of its paper and drapes. There was, however, one slight problem. Or rather, three slight problems.
“I say,” said Turnip. “Only one of these is mine.”
The one that happened to be his jumped up out of her chair. There was no denying the family resemblance. Sally’s bright gold hair was considerably longer, of course, and she wore a white muslin dress rather than a—if Turnip said so himself—deuced fetching carnation-patterned waistcoat, but they had the same long-boned bodies and cameo-featured faces.
They were, thought Turnip without conceit, a very attractive family. As more than one would-be wit had said, they were all long on looks and short on brains.
It was only fair, really. One couldn’t expect to have everything.
Sally gave him a loud smack on the cheek.
“Silly Reggie!” she said, in the fond tone she used when other people were around. “I wanted Agnes and Lizzy to meet my favorite brother. It’s so lovely to see you. Do you have my hamper?”
“Right here,” said Turnip, brandishing it. “And jolly heavy it is, too. What do you have in here? Bricks?”
“What would I do with those?” demanded Sally in tones of sisterly scorn.
“Build something?” suggested one of her friends, revealing a dimple in one cheek. There were two of them, both attired in muslin dresses with blue sashes. The one who had spoken had bronzy curls and a decided look of mischief about her.
“Oh, Miss Climpson would adore that,” said Sally witheringly. Dropping the lid of the hamper, she belatedly remembered her manners. “Reggie, allow me to present you to Miss Agnes Wooliston”—the taller of the two girls curtsied—“and Miss Lizzy Reid.” Bronze curls bounced.
Sally beamed regally upon them both. “They are my particular friends.”
“What happened to Annabelle Anstrue and Catherine Carruthers?”
Sally’s tone turned glacial. “They are no longer my particular friends.”
Turnip gave up. Female friendships were a deuced sight harder to follow than international alliances.
“What did they do?” he asked jocularly. “Borrow your ribbons without asking?”
Sally set her chin in a way that her instructresses would have recognized all too well. “I liked those ribbons.”
“Ah, yes, well. Righty-ho,” said Turnip hastily, taking a few steps back. Hell hath no fury like a little sister whose ribbon box had been tampered with. “Good term at school, then?”
“Oh, an excellent one!” contributed one of his sister’s new sworn siblings. Bouncing curls . . . this one was Lizzy Reid. Not that it did any good to remember their names. It would be a new set by next Christmas. That is, if Sally weren’t already out on the marriage market by then. That was a terrifying thought, his little sister let loose on the world. It was one that Turnip preferred not to contemplate. Ah well, time enough to jump that hedge when he came to it. “Catherine Carruthers was caught exchanging notes with one of the gardeners and was almost sent home in disgrace!”
“It wasn’t actually with the gardener,” the other one broke in. “He simply carried the notes for her. It was some officer or other on leave from his regiment.”
Sally squinted at her. “Are you quite sure? I heard that it was an artist and they were going to run away to Rome together!”
Tugging at his cravat, Turnip glanced over his shoulder at the door. Was it just him, or did they keep the school unnaturally warm for December? The French mistress, he noticed, had already beat a hasty retreat. Deuced sensible of her. For a large room, this one felt jolly small.
“Righty-ho, then” he said again. “Jolly good. Rome is lovely this time of year. Wouldn’t mind being there myself in fact.”
“Reggie!” His sister pulled a horrified face, delighted to be appalled. “It isn’t jolly good, it’s a terrible scandal!”
“Then why are you all grinning about it?”
The three girls exchanged a look, one of those looks that somehow managed to combine long-suffering patience with a hearty dose of feminine scorn. They must teach those at school along with tromping on a chap’s toes during the quadrille.
“Because,” said Lizzy Reid, “without scandal, what would there be for us to talk about?”
Turnip suspected a trick question. “Your lessons?” he suggested.
“Oh, Reggie,” said Sally sadly.
Blast. It had been a trick question.
“Now,” said Sally, getting down to business, “let us discuss my travel arrangements.”
“What travel arrangements?” said Turnip warily.
“When you take me home for Christmas, of course,” said Sally, as though it were a forgone conclusion. “You can call for me the morning of the twentieth. That should leave plenty of time to drive up to Suffolk.”
“Oh no.” Turnip wasn’t falling for that one. He folded his arms across his chest. “Can’t be done, I’m afraid. The Dowager Duchess of Dovedale is having a house party. Wouldn’t want to cross the Dowager Duchess.”
Even Sally wouldn’t want to cross fans with the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale. The woman had a tongue of steel and drank the blood of young virgins for breakfast. Well, the blood-drinking had never been proved. But she could be jolly nasty when she chose, and she usually did choose. That cane of hers left quite a welt.
“Pooh,” said Sally. Pooh? Turnip regarded his little sister incredulously. When had it come to this? “Parva Magna is on the way. You can drop me off home and then go on to Girdings. Do say yes,” she wheedled. “We’ll have such fun along the way. You can buy me lemonades and tell me all about your latest waistcoats.”
Turnip wasn’t quite sure why buying her lemonades was meant to be a privilege, but Sally clearly viewed it as such, so there was no point in arguing.
“Didn’t the mater and pater make other arrangements for you?” he asked suspiciously.
Sally wrinkled her nose. “Yes, to travel with Miss Climpson! But she’s a regular antidote. It will be deadly.”
“A fate worse than death!” chimed in Agnes Wooliston, loyally rushing to her friend’s support.
“Doing it a bit too brown there,” said Turnip frankly. “Death is death and there’s no getting around that.”
“That,” said Lizzy Reid, “is because you haven’t yet met Miss Climpson. If you had, you would understand. She’s ghastly.”
Turnip rubbed his ear. What was it about young ladies and italics? It was deuced hard on the hearing, having all those words pounded into his head like so many stakes into the ground.
“Ghastly and deadly,” he said weakly. “Sounds like quite the character.”
“Yes, but would you want to spend four days in a covered conveyance with her?” demanded Sally. “You couldn’t possibly wish that on anyone.”
Agnes Wooliston assumed a thoughtful expression. “What about Bonaparte?”
“Well, possibly Bonaparte,” allowed Sally, making an exception for the odd Corsican dictator. Her blue eyes, so very much like Turnip’s, only far more shrewd (or so she liked to claim) narrowed. “Or maybe Catherine Carruthers.”
“Really liked those ribbons, did you?” commented Turnip, and regretted it as three sets of female eyes turned back to him. “Never mind that. I’ll think about it. It’s only the beginning of the month now. Plenty of time to come to an agreement.”
His little sister favored him with an approving smile. “Excellent! I’ll expect you the morning of the twentieth, then. Do try to be on time this year.”
“Just a minute, now.” Turnip did his best to look stern, but his features had never been designed for that exercise. “I never said—”
“No worries!” said Sally brightly. “I wouldn’t want to keep you when I’m sure you have other things you want to do today. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up in the carriage together.”
“Here.” Getting up, she grabbed something off the windowsill and pressed it into his palm. “Have a Christmas pudding.”
“A—” Turnip squinted dubiously down at the muslin-wrapped ball in his hands.
“Christmas pudding,” Sally contributed helpfully.
She was right. It was indubitably a Christmas pudding, if a small one, roughly the size of a cricket ball, wrapped in clean muslin and tied up with pretty gold and red ribbons with a sprig of mistletoe for decoration.
“What am I to do with a Christmas pudding?”
“Throw it?” suggested Lizzy Reid. “One certainly can’t be expected to eat them.”
Interesting idea, that. Turnip hefted the pudding in one hand. Nice fit, nice weight. It would make a jolly good projectile.
Good projectile or not, it didn’t make up for four days on the road, fifty-two stops for lemonade, and an endless refrain of “But why can’t I hold the reins this time?” When he thought about what had happened the last time he had let Sally drive his grays . . . It was the reason he no longer had grays and now drove bays. The grays had been so traumatized by the experience that they had to be permanently rusticated to a peaceful pasture in Suffolk.
Turnip juggled the pudding from one hand to the other. “I say, frightfully grateful and all that, but . . .”
“Think nothing of it,” said Sally firmly, looping an arm through his and leading him inexorably from the room. “It’s the least I can do. To thank you for being such a lovely brother.”
“I think I deserve a bigger pudding,” mumbled Turnip as he stumbled out along the hallway, wondering just how it was that Sally had gotten her way yet again.
It wasn’t that he didn’t love the minx. Of course, he did. As these things went, she was the positive gold standard of female siblings, the Weston’s waistcoat of little sisters. That didn’t mean he loved the idea of four days in a carriage with her.
With a meditative toss of his pudding, Turnip reached for the door. Unfortunately, someone else was there first. The pudding tumbled to the floor as Turnip collided with something soft, warm, and quite clearly not a door.
Doors, after all, seldom said “Ooof!”