An Uncommon Christmas, a novella prequel to the Uncommon Courtships series
Originally published December 1999 in Mistletoe Kittens (ISBN 0-8217-6303-2, Zebra Regency Romance)
E-novella published December 2013 by Regency Reads
Revised and reissued November 2017 by Edwards and Williams
Before an unflappable miss met her match and an unwilling lady agreed to marry a daring rake, lovely literature teacher Eleanor Pritchett had convinced herself that love was not for her. She'd dared to love once, a man superior to her in birth, education, and position. His family had warned her away. But when his orphaned niece begs her to carry a kitten to him for Christmas, Norrie cannot refuse, even to losing her position.
Justinian Darby, now an earl, always wondered what happened to his first love, a sweet-natured student at the nearby girls' school, who had tutored him one summer when he was home from college, ill. His father claimed she was nothing but a fortune hunter. Now she returns to his life, bearing, of all things, a kitten. Can that tiny creature, and the wonder of Christmas, prove that true love never fades, and hearts once closed can be opened anew?
This sweet Regency-set novella features some of the characters of the Uncommon Courtships series and takes place before the start of The Unflappable Miss Fairchild
"Brimming with kittens, children, holiday hijinks, and love and should please Regency readers and cat lovers alike." -- Library Journal
An Uncommon Christmas was originally titled "A Place by the Fire."
Miss Eleanor Pritchett, teacher of literature at the Barnsley School for Young Ladies, slid into place along the wall of the head mistress' office, tucking her light brown hair up into the black mop cap all the teachers wore. She had never liked the shapeless black bombazine uniform of the school staff, but now she was thankful for the way it hid the fact that her slender chest was heaving after her dash from the second story. As it was, Eleanor arrived just in time to hear Miss Martingale's nasal voice proclaim, "What is this creature?"
So it was true. Dottie had been caught with the kitten. Eleanor knew she should have dissuaded the farmer who brought the eggs from giving the tiny bundle of fur to the girl, but the gleam in Dottie's dark eyes had been too precious to waste. Wincing at the thought of the consequences of that act, Eleanor slipped a little farther along the back wall until she bumped into the quivering form of the school's art teacher. A quick look at Miss Lurkin's pale, narrow face confirmed Eleanor's suspicions about who had had the misfortune of finding the kitten, and the lack of foresight to keep from mentioning it to Miss Martingale.
From her new position, Eleanor could see around the two high-backed leather chairs that stood in front of the massive, claw-foot walnut desk. Dottie stood between chairs and desk, her black mourning gown of fine silk making her look thinner and more fragile than usual. Behind the desk, Miss Martingale's considerable bulk was trembling with ill-suppressed indignation, one gloved hand holding aloft a small, squirming black kitten, who hissed with equal indignation.
"I believe you have been taught to answer when spoken to by your elders," Miss Martingale said sharply. "But I shall repeat myself just this once. What is this creature?"
0 Dottie raised her head to meet the outraged head mistress' gaze and Eleanor had to stifle a shout of triumph. There was determination in those chocolate eyes and not fear. Since returning to the school three months ago, the girl had never looked more like a daughter of a peer than at that moment. All this furor would be worth it if it brought the child out of the unresponsive cocoon she had built since her parents had been killed in a boating accident in Naples.
Miss Lurkin obviously didn't have the stomach for the tension that coiled through the room. "It's a cat," she burst out, then, as Miss Martingale's cold blue glare turned her way, she shrank into herself. "That is," she ventured timidly, "I believe it is a cat. Is it not?"
Eleanor rolled her eyes. Nothing incensed Miss Martingale more than idiocy, expect perhaps outright rebellion.
"To be sure," Miss Martingale sniffed. "It is a cat." The wrinkle of her long nose and the sneer on her thin lips made it obvious what she thought of cats. The kitten spit at her.
"To be precise," Eleanor felt compelled to put in kindly, "it's a kitten. And a rather tiny one at that."
The icy gaze swept over her, and she dutifully lowered her own. As an employee of the Barnsley School, she owed Miss Martingale her loyalty. Having been the recipient of one of the woman's few bouts of kindness, she owed her far more. She would be forever grateful that the taciturn head mistress had agreed to take in an orphaned twelve-year-old whose soldier father had died without even leaving enough to pay for her schooling. She was even more grateful that an allowance from the school's patrons, the Darbys, had allowed that child to learn and ply a trade for nearly fifteen years. And all Miss Martingale and the Darbys had asked in return was complete and total submission.
Until the seven-year-old Lady Dorothea Darby had returned to the Barnsley School, Eleanor had been more than willing to do anything Miss Martingale asked. Since then, she had had more than one infraction. In fact, the last week she had had to try to be on her best behavior to ward off Miss Martingale's suspicions. Still, it certainly wasn't Dottie's fault. Eleanor knew she saw too much of herself in the girl's sadness at being orphaned. She had done everything in her power to ease the child's pain, sneaking sweet meats from the kitchens, taking Dottie on walks about the fields near the school on her day off, and staying with the girl when she had nightmares. It was only for a time, Eleanor had assured herself and any of the other teachers who noticed. It wasn't something worthy of Miss Martingale's attention. If they all just kept quiet, Dottie would be herself again in no time.
And the plan had been working. Dottie would never have been able to stand before Miss Martingale's fury three months ago. Now she stood so tall that Eleanor's heart swelled with pride. If only she could get Miss Martingale to see how the girl had blossomed, and not see the act as full-scale defiance!
"Thank you for that clarification, Miss Pritchett," the head mistress sniffed. "However, the size of the creature is immaterial. We have a policy at this school that forbids the keeping of pets, including cats, of any size. I am sure you are familiar with that rule, Miss Pritchett."
Eleanor fixed a smile on her face and kept her tone pleasant. "Of course, Miss Martingale. Dottie would never seek to break one of the school rules, would you, dear? You weren't actually keeping the kitten, I'm sure. You were just showing the other children and were going to return to the kitten to Farmer Hale in a day or so."
Even though Eleanor was sure Dottie remembered the agreement they had made, she smiled encouragement when the girl glanced quickly back at her, biting her lip. Beside Eleanor, Miss Lurkin bit her own lip. Miss Martingale frowned.
Dottie turned to face the headmistress again. "No," she sighed. "I wasn't going to give him back. I want to keep Jingles."
Eleanor nearly groaned aloud. The request was impossible. Dottie could only be disappointed, and Miss Martingale could only be made angrier. She wracked her brain for a way out of the mess.
Miss Martingale's eyes flashed fire. "Then you admit, Lady Dorothea Darby, to purposely breaking the rules of this school?"
Eleanor held her breath. The delicate black head rose a little higher. "Yes, Miss Martingale, I do so admit."
Eleanor exhaled and closed her eyes. They were done for. She had no idea how strict a punishment Miss Martingale would exact for outright disobedience, but it would be stinging. Miss Martingale had an infallible belief in the structure of life. Everything and everyone had a place, a role to play. Keeping that place was an honorable pursuit. Anything else condemned one to the fires of hell.
Eleanor opened her eyes in time to see Miss Martingale thrust the kitten at Dottie, who clutched him to her. Jingles fur was raised, his ears were laid back, and his yellow eyes glared. The white, bell-shaped patch of fur at his throat, which had earned him his name, stood out, as did the pale oval of Dottie's determined face. Eleanor remembered suggesting that the girl name him Alexander the Great, for from the first he had made it clear he intended to explore and conquer the world. Now, like Dottie's courage, his tiger's heart could only get them in deeper trouble. Eleanor wanted nothing so much as to scoop them both up in her arms and take them out of the room before doom could fall.
"I'm sorry to have to do this," Miss Martingale sighed with martyr-like patience. "The Earl of Wenworth and the Darby family have always been very generous to this school: donating the school grounds out of the Wenworth estate, inviting the staff for an annual tea, encouraging the students in their studies." She fixed Eleanor with a baleful glance. "Miss Pritchett has benefited from such generosity a number of times."
Eleanor felt the color rushing to her cheeks. She did not need Miss Martingale's reminder of how much the Darbys had done for her. She would never forget the summer they had asked her to help the second son, Justinian, study. It was she who had learned, how it felt to love and how to remember her place.
Dottie pulled the kitten closer and bowed her head. "My grandmother says the Darbys are known for their kindness. If my father was alive, he'd let me keep Jingles."
Eleanor's heart went out to the girl. She gazed at Miss Martingale imploringly. "It is a very little kitten, Miss Martingale. Perhaps, since Dottie is still in mourning. . . ."
Miss Martingale slapped her hand down on the desk. Everyone else in the room jumped. Jingles started hissing again. "The rules must be obeyed, by all students, at all times. Anything less is anarchy, and I will not condone anarchy. This kitten is obviously a symptom of a much larger rebellion, a rebellion that appears to have infected you as well, Miss Pritchett. You have left me with no choice but to take the creature out and drown it."
Eleanor gasped. "Miss Martingale, no!"
"No!" Dottie cried, stumbling back out of reach. "No, I won't let you!"
Miss Martingale sniffed. "Lady Dorothea, you appear to have been spoiled terribly. We do you no service by allowing you to continue this way."
Eleanor felt a pang of guilt. If Dottie was spoiled, there was only one person to blame. She took a deep breath. Perhaps there was a small chance they might get out of this unscathed. And it all depended on how much fifteen years of loyal, unstinting service meant to Miss Martingale. "Please don't blame Dottie, Miss Martingale. She is only being belligerent to shield someone else. The kitten doesn't belong to her. It's mine."
Miss Lurkin collapsed against the wall. Dottie turned to stare at her wide-eyed. Jingles growled.
"I see," Miss Martingale nodded. "Yes, that does make a difference. You may go, for now, Lady Dorothea. We will speak again later. Please release that creature into Miss Pritchett's care."
Solemnly, Dottie handed over Jingles. Her dark brows were knit in concern, but Eleanor smiled encouragement at the girl's trusting gesture. Dottie dropped a less-than-respectful curtsey to Miss Martingale and slipped toward the door. Jingles twitched in annoyance in Eleanor's grip.
"As for you, Miss Pritchett," Miss Martingale intoned, "you may collect your things. You are dismissed."
Eleanor stared at her, feeling as if her stomach had dropped to the soles of her feet. The kitten sank its claws into the bombazine in protest to being held so tightly, but she barely noticed. "What?" she managed in a whisper.
"You know very well how I feel about disloyalty. You have either brazenly ignored the rules of this school, and the safety of its residents, or you have shamelessly cozened the girl against my expressed wishes. You had an earlier infraction involving the Darbys, one I chose to overlook against my better judgment because the late earl himself pleaded your cause. You do not have him to hide behind this time. You are dismissed. The matter is closed. Mrs. Williams will have the pay due you through today ready by the time you are packed. Good bye."
"But," Eleanor started. Miss Martingale turned her broad back on her. Eleanor looked toward Miss Lurkin in appeal, but the art teacher refused to meet her gaze. Jingles nipped her hand. Absently, she disengaged him and settled him more gently in her arms. She wandered to the door in a daze.
Dottie was waiting for her in the drafty corridor. She flung her arms around Eleanor's waist and hugged her tight. Jingles mewed in protest at the additional pressure. "Oh, Miss Eleanor, I'm so sorry! I heard what she said! What will you do?"
Eleanor reached around the kitten to stroke the girl's trembling black curls. She should be furious with the child's willful display, she was sure, but somehow she couldn't be angry with the heart-felt sobs. "It's all right, Dottie," she lied. "I'll be fine. You mustn't worry."
Dottie let go of her, sniffing back tears. "But where will you go?"
"I'll find another post, I suppose," Eleanor replied with far more assurance than she felt. Her mind whirled at the thought of leaving Barnsley. She'd lived in the school since her widowed father had brought her there at six years of age. She had never been farther away than the village of Wenwood, some eight miles over the fields. She knew the city of Wells was reported to be about thirty miles in the opposite direction. Perhaps that was where she should go. There must be several girls' schools there, or someone who needed a governess or nanny. It struck her suddenly that worse than her own situation was Dottie's. The head mistress would be sure to withdraw all privileges, and none of the other teachers would dare give Dottie the attention she needed. The child was once more alone at the school. And this time there was nothing Eleanor could do about it.
"Do other schools accept kittens?" Dottie asked hopefully.
Eleanor glanced down at the black kitten who wriggled in her arms. Jingles glared up at her in high dudgeon. Smiling at his utter ferocity, she bent to let him free on the hardwood floor. He scampered away, losing his footing with every other step on the polished wood, until he fetched up against the far wall. There he sat, as if he had intended to arrive at that position all along, and began licking his paw. The king was graciously allowing his subjects a moment to converse in private before attending to his needs. She should be suitably grateful.
The antics of the eight-week-old kitten, the runt of the litter Farmer Hale had called him, had never failed to raise Eleanor's spirits. Now her smile faded into despair. How was she to find a position with no recommendation, limited funds, and a small black kitten?
As if she had followed Eleanor's thoughts, Dottie spoke up. "You must take him to my Uncle Justinian. He'll know what to do."
Eleanor started. Face Justinian again? She wasn't sure she had the strength. She had carefully avoided the public sitting room whenever he called on Dottie. Even ten years later, she had not forgotten the shy, gentle young man she had fallen in love with. The earl his father had made it clear when he had sent her back to the school in shame that she had no right to tell his son good-day. She could hardly go now and ask him something as important as what to do about her future. It had been all she could do to convince the late earl to keep from having her turned out then and there for her brazen behavior. A penniless nobody, daring to love a Darby? Perish the thought! "Somehow I don't think your uncle can help me, Dottie," she replied as gently as she could.
"Uncle Justinian helps everyone," Dottie corrected her. "He might even have a post for you himself."
"Your uncle is still a bachelor, I believe," Eleanor tried tactfully. "He'll hardly have use for a governess or a nanny."
"Take Jingles to him," Dottie insisted. "He'll know what to do."
Perhaps he might at that, Eleanor thought suddenly. At the very least, the staff of Wenworth Place might be prevailed upon to keep the kitten for Dottie, leaving Eleanor with one less impediment to finding another post. She could go to the kitchen door. She wouldn't even have to see Justinian. And perhaps she could mention to Mr. Faringil, if he was still the butler, that Dottie might need a different school after her confrontation with the volatile head mistress. Perhaps she could even convince him to ask Justinian to bring the girl home. It would certainly ease her mind knowing that Dottie and the kitten were well cared for.
She bent and hugged the girl. "All right, dear. I'll take the kitten to your uncle. Don't worry. Everything will come out fine."
Interested in more information on Christmas in the Regency? Try my article on the subject.
Justinian and Eleanor also play an important part of helping his brother Jareth reform his wicked ways, in The Unwilling Miss Watkin, book 4 of the Uncommon Courtships series.