The Christmas Tart
A Chance Christmas Connection
Tired of dealing with legalities relating to his father's unexpected death, new baronet Sir Philip Selbourne is ready to leave London and head home for Christmas. But having spent a boyhood rescuing strays, he's unable to resist helping a desperate young woman with speaking brown eyes and a kitten in her pocket.
Young French seamstress Nicole Chambord is in dire straits after being wrongly fired by her dreadful employer. Then chance brings her together with Philip Selbourne. His kindness leads her to accept when he offers to take her to his family estate so she can become a companion to his French-born mother.
But the roads are icy and an accident forces Philip, Nicole (and the kitten!) to seek refuge at the cottage of a lonely widow—and creates a Christmas miracle for them all.
Putney's writing is clear as crystal and smooth as silk.
Tired and saddened by the recent loss of his father, Sir Philip Selbourne is about to leave London to spend the Christmas holidays at his country home. He's always rescued stray animals and broken- winged birds, so it's natural for him to take Nicole Chambord, a young French girl in dire straits, home to become a companion for his French mother.
Nicole spent the night in his bedroom with her kitten while he slept on the sofa, and now it's time to rise and start the journey home.
Philip was awakened by the faint sounds of someone building up the drawing room fire a dozen feet away. It was still dark, and it took him a moment to remember why he was sleeping fully dressed and in such an uncomfortable position. Then he remembered and sat up, sore muscles protesting at having been laid to rest on a sofa that was hard and far too short.
He vaguely expected to find Stephens, the Rochester servant who had been looking after him for the last few days. Instead he saw a slight feminine figure kneeling by the hearth and using tongs to set lumps of coal on the embers of last night’s banked fire. So the gift-wrapped girl on the bed hadn’t been a dream. This morning she was fully dressed in a severe but well-cut gown whose color he couldn’t determine in the predawn darkness.
Merkle was curled up in front of the hearth, a pointy-eared silhouette against the increasing glow of the fire. Both girl and cat looked very much at home.
Hearing his movement, Nicole glanced up with a shy smile. “Good morning, Sir Philip. I trust you slept well?”
“Well enough.” He raised one hand to cover a yawn, then pushed aside the blanket and got to his feet. As the clock began striking six, he said, “Any moment now, two of the Rochester’s staff will arrive with hot water and breakfast. You’d better retreat to the bedroom. Quite apart from the fact that female visitors are frowned on, the fewer people who know about last night, the better for your reputation.”
“Why should it matter?” she asked, puzzled. “I am of no account to anyone.”
“As my mother’s companion, you might be coming to London for the Season. Your reputation will matter then, to her and to yourself.” He stretched to loosen his knotted muscles. “In fact, after breakfast, I’ll pay a brief call on Masterson, thank him for the unexpected gift, then tell him to muzzle James so this little episode doesn’t become common knowledge.”
“Isn’t it too early to call on a gentleman like him?” she said doubtfully as she stood and hung up the fire tongs.
“If I wake him, so be it,” Philip said callously. “However, in spite of Masterson’s air of languor, he’s an early riser. Kirby, on the other hand, hasn’t had firsthand experience of dawn since he came down from Cambridge.”
“When you visit Lord Masterson, will you return the negligee he lent me?”
“So that’s why the thing was so large on you,” Philip said, amused. “His last mistress was a strapping wench.” He frowned. “Sorry. I really shouldn’t speak of such things in front of you.”
Her eyes danced. “Last night I was a fallen woman and this morning I am respectable, but in truth I feel little different.”
They were sharing a companionable smile when the servants’ door at the back of the apartment swung open with a gloomy creak. Nicole immediately darted into the bedroom and pulled the door shut before the footmen could see her.
While the senior footman, Stephens, set a large tray with covered dishes on a side table, the younger servant headed for the bedroom door with the copper of hot water. Philip hastily interposed himself between the footman and the door. “Set the water down on the hearth.”
The young man gave him a curious look, but obeyed. As he set down the copper, Merkle decided to dash across the room in a flash of calico lightning. Stephens blinked at the cat. “Sir Philip, there is a Feline Creature here.”
“Indeed there is.” Philip watched uneasily as the cat took position by the bedroom door and began to cry for her mistress. “I saw a mouse here yesterday, so I enlisted expert help.”
Stephens looked scandalized. “Mice are not permitted in the Rochester. It is against the rules to have any sort of Lower Creature here.”
The younger footman said helpfully, “The way that puss is carrying on, maybe there’s a mouse in the bedroom now.” He started across the drawing room to open the door.
Once more Philip took several hasty steps to block the way to the bedroom. “I think the cat is just interested in finding its food dish.” Anxious to get rid of the servants, he continued smoothly, “I know you must both be about your duties now. Before you leave, allow me to offer my best wishes for the season, and to express my appreciation for your fine service over the last several days.”
Substantial vails, augmented by a generous Christmas bonus, served to distract the two footmen from the question of what might be in the bedroom. As Philip ushered them from his rooms, he said piously, “I will take the Feline Creature back to the country this morning, so it shan’t cause any trouble.” Then he closed the door before anything more untoward could occur.
After the footmen were safely gone, he returned to the drawing room to find that Merkle had leapt onto the side table and was now sniffing enthusiastically around the aromatic covered dishes. Before Philip could intervene, Nicole cautiously opened the bedroom door, then scurried across the drawing room and removed the cat from the table. “I’m sorry,” she said apologetically as the little calico protested with a heartrending wail. “The Feline Creature’s manners aren’t very good.”
“Hunger will raise havoc with manners.” Philip lifted dish covers until he found a platter of ham. “Give her a few slivers of this so we can eat in peace.”
After Merkle had been fed and both humans had washed up, they sat down to break their fast. Nicole’s interest in the food was as great as the cat’s, though her manners were considerably better. With her pleasant expression and disinclination to chatter, she made an ideal breakfast companion. Philip had a brief, unpleasant mental image of her starving on the streets and gave thanks that fate had put her in his path.
After he finished eating, Philip went into his bedroom and packed the few possessions he had brought with him, plus the Christmas presents he had purchased on Bond Street. Most of the gifts were easily stowed in a leather portmanteau, but the music box he’d bought for his mother began to play when he lifted it. The box was a pretty trifle, its circular base surmounted by a delicate porcelain angel that rotated to the melody of “The First Noel.”
As the sweet notes filled the room, Nicole came to investigate, then gave a soft admiring exclamation. “How lovely! A present for your mother or sister?”
He nodded and handed the music box to her. “My mother collects music boxes. I think she’ll like this one because of the Christmas theme.”
When the movement slowed, Nicole turned the key on the bottom again. Her small face glowed as the angel pirouetted, its gilded wings and trumpet shining in the lamplight as the carol played. “I think your mother is blessed to have a son who is not only considerate, but who has such good taste.”
“I’m fortunate to have her and my sister. Losing my father so suddenly has made me aware of how fatally easy it is to take those we care about for granted.” Then, more to himself than his companion, Philip added, “I never told my father that I loved him. Now it’s too late.”
Nicole said gravely, “I’m sure that he knew. Love needn’t be spoken to be understood.”
Philip found a surprising amount of comfort in her words. He had known that his father loved him, though it had never been said aloud. It made sense that his father had been equally aware of his son’s regard. “I hope you’re right.”
Uncomfortable with the extent to which he’d revealed his emotions, he took the music box from Nicole, carefully wrapped it in a heavy towel, and wedged it securely into the leather portmanteau. “My curricle will be brought around in a few minutes, so I’ll go down and speak to Masterson now. Can you be ready to go in ten minutes?”
“Oh, yes.” She smiled. “I’ve little to pack.”