Images of Christmas pudding, Christmas trees, and a holiday goose roasting in the oven danced in Miss Joy Lynn Thatch's mind as screaming young ladies and general chaos whirled around her. Forcing a smile to remain in place, she carried Lady Penelope's valise to the waiting coach as if she was one of the maids and not the senior teacher at Mrs. Caster's School for Ladies of Refinement. Not that being treated like a servant was anything new to Joy. Thanks to her unusual parentage, those of quality always regarded her as little more than a servant when they learned who her father had been. And, eventually, they always found out. Being seen as a nobody, as no one of consequence, was nothing new.
However, Joy never let their low opinion of her dampen her spirits. Especially during the Yuletide Holiday break. She loved this time of year. Even if she did spend most of them by herself at the same school she had attended nine years ago and now taught at. The school was her home and had been since arriving there fourteen years ago. And for nearly every one of those years, Joy had done the same thing. She decorated her room with the unusual Christmas ornaments and decorations that her father had sent her from around the world.
"My father," Lady Penelope glancing at Joy, "the Earl of Osland, has accepted an invitation to the Duke of Devonshire's annual ball in my name."
Lady Rona squealed with delight. "Oh, how I envy you. My father," also glancing at Joy, as if she didn't know who the girl's father was any more than she hadn't known who Lady Penelope's was, "Viscount Newman, has said I must wait until I make my bow before I can attend a ton ball with him and Mother."
Joy did not doubt that for a moment. After all, the girl was only five and ten years old. As was Lady Penelope. Which meant the likelihood of either one of the snobbish girls attending the Duke of Devonshire's annual ball highly unlikely. But that was not why the girl was making such a bold announcement. It was because Joy wouldn't be attending, nor would she ever be invited despite her maternal grandfather being the Earl of Glenshadow, one of the oldest noble families in England. Her invitation would not be forthcoming as his youngest daughter, Lady Eugene Burns, had fallen in love with a lowly footman, and then had the audacity to marry him. Making Joy, their only surviving child, unacceptable by ton standards.
"Ladies," Mrs. Lidia Caster chided, "your families are wanting to be off. Stop fluttering about as if you have nothing better to do."
In other words, stop tormenting the help. Joy knew she wasn't being fair; Mrs. Caster had always treated her kindly. As kindly as a woman born from a hugely mismatched marriage could ever hope to be treated.
"Miss Thatch," Lidia said, nodding toward the front steps and another waiting student. A valise was on the ground by the girl's feet.
"Yes ma'am," Joy said and headed toward the girl.
The sooner she got the students on their way, the sooner she could begin enjoying her own holiday break. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be for a few more days. Just three more days and she would have the school all to herself.
Grabbing the valise, she trudged after the girl as she walked to her family's crested coach. Joy knew the young lady's father was the Duke of something or another. However, she had forgotten the 'something or another' and didn't really care. Especially when she glanced up and spotted an old man standing across the street.
He was dressed in a forest green coat and pantaloons, snow white hose, and shiny black Wellington boots with bright red tassels attached to each. The tassel perfectly matched the bright red waistcoat the man wore. His face was nearly obscured by a long white-grey beard that hung to the middle of his chest and matched the long white-grey hair that flowed freely to his shoulders. On his head was a red bonnet like a Scotsman might wear. His eyes seemed to glow with happiness as he raised his gloved hand and waved.
Her heart lightened as she smiled back at her friend. A man she had met three years ago. Henry Morton was a funny old man of indeterminate years. From the heavy wrinkles and lines on his face, Joy suspected he was in his late sixties or early seventies. His bright blue eyes seemed to twinkle with laughter or mischief most of the time and defied age. Eyes that were nearly the same color as her own.
He reminded her of the stories she had read about Saint Nick, or Santa Claus. Especially as he only ever showed up around Christmas time. However, unlike the humorous stories about Santa Claus, Mr. Morton was not an elfishly short man with a huge round belly. Oh, he was short for a man, only a few inches taller than her five foot, two inches. And he was as skinny as her; wryly so. In fact, he reminded her of a sailor she once saw. Joy had even asked him if he had been one in his youth.
Henry, as he insisted she call him, had laughed in his hearty way and told her, no he had not been a sailor as a young man. He was a mapmaker by trade and had traveled the world making his maps for King and country. The way he said it made her think he had more than travelled the world making maps. But she was happy to take his word for it as he told her the most wonderful stories about all of the places he had been and the things he had seen.
In a way, he reminded her of her father. Not that he looked like him. Or if he did, she didn't know, as she couldn't remember what her father looked like. Rather, he reminded her of her sire because her father was a sailor. Every so often, her father would send her the most incredible gifts from all over the world. She treasured those presents, especially the unique Christmas decorations that represented the different countries he had visited.
For Joy, it was a yearly reminder that he had not forgotten her. That he remembered how much she loved Christmas as a child. It was one of her few memories from the years before her mother had died; the great fun they had during the Yuletide. Yet, that was before her grandparents had taken her away from her father, and before her father had followed his employer when he sailed away from England and her.
A part of her wanted to hate him for abandoning her to be raised by people who never loved her. Her grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Glenshadow, hated Edgar Thatch and wanted to take everything away from him, including his daughter. But she had never been about to hate the man who once loved her and her mother so much. Nevertheless, she resented him sometimes. Especially at this time of year.
She smiled at the funny old man across the street and held up a finger. As soon as these three were on their way, she would have a few minutes to visit with Henry. At least until Mrs. Caster realized she wasn't attending to her duties.
Ten minutes later, the last of the coaches were headed down the street and Joy was rushing across the road to greet her friend.
"You're early this year," she said by way of greeting.
He chuckled deep in his throat. "Ho, me little poppet. It be the same time as usual."
"No, it is not, Mr. Henry," she scolded playfully. "You have never come by until all the girls are gone."
"Nay," he chortled. "I've been 'ere the same time every year, poppet. Ye jist no’ be a seenin' me until all them noisy magpies be gone."
Joy laughed and gave him a quick hug. Stepping back, she asked, "Then why did you show yourself so early this year? There are still four girls at the school, including Mrs. Caster, whom you cannot stand."
He smiled back with his whole face. "I've got me a bit o’ business to be doin' in town, and did no’ want ye thinkin' I forgot ye, seein' as I might not be back until Christmas morn."
Her heart fell to the pit of her stomach. Over the last three years she had come to look forward to his visits. They made her solitary Christmases seem brighter. Less . . . lonely.
"Now don't ye go a frettin' none. Ye'll be a seein’ me, sure enough. In three years, have I not been there for Christmas morn?"
Joy hesitated then shook her head, "Yes, you have."
He cupped her cheek with his heavily calloused hand. "I'll be there, me Joy. I wouldn't dream of missin' yer special day.
"Me Joy." It was nearly the same thing her father used to called her. It was just another way Henry reminded her of him. To keep herself from slipping into a melancholy, she said, "So, you are off for London tonight."
"Nay, in the morn, poppet. I was a hopin' ye could get away from the old bat and have a wee bite with me this eve."
Joy laughed and shook her head. She had asked him to not refer to her employer as the 'old bat' a number of times. Because despite being very strict and a bit snobbish, Mrs. Caster had proven she could be kind on occasion.
"Yes, I am sure I can. I'll have one of the other teachers watch the girls and tell Mrs. Caster I'm dining with an old friend this evening."
He smiled and nodded. "Then I'll meet ye at the postin’ inn down the street at half past seven, poppet."
Joy smiled and watched him walk off. For a man of indeterminate years, he walked with a light step. As if he didn't have a care in the world. She envied him. However, she knew from her own experiences, that one could hide a heavy heart with a jovial façade.
Pushing her morose thoughts aside, Joy returned to the school and her duties. Her thoughts and steps lightened by the prospect of spending an hour or more with her friend and hearing tales of his travels.
By half past six that evening, Joy was headed to William's Pub and Posting Inn. She knew she was going to be early and didn't care, she'd had all the useless chatter she could take from the students. She knew from past experience that Henry would already be there, and probably already have secured a private parlor for them to eat in. She wasn't sure how he did it, as the private parlors were usually reserved for the nobility. Or the very rich. Something she knew Henry wasn't. Joy suspected that he was a personal friend of the owner. Regardless, she was always grateful as she was never comfortable in crowds.
As soon as she walked through the door, she spotted Henry's unique and brightly colored clothes. As expected, he was standing by the door to one of the private parlors.
"There ye be," he said as she approached. His bright smile filling her with a renewed sense of the holidays.
"Good evening, Mr. Morton," she replied and dipped a quick curtsy.
"None of that, poppet," he said and laughed. "That's no way to be treatin' . . . friends. Now is it?"
For a moment it sounded as if he was going to say something else but changed his mind.
"Come on, I've got hot meat pies, and fresh baked bread awaitin'," he said and ushered her into the room.
The joy of the season that she had been missing returned as they ate and he told her of his latest travels. Faraway places that she had only read and dreamed about. Then as they finished and settled back to savor a last cup of tea, his face took on a contemplative look.
"I've made me last voyage, poppet," he said.
Joy looked up, a mixture of relief and sadness washing over her. She was glad he wouldn't be taking any more dangerous trips. Yet sad that he wouldn't have any new adventures to tell her next year.
"Are you settling down here in England?" she asked.
"Aye. That I am. I was born not more than a few miles from 'ere ye know."
No, she hadn’t known that. Joy had never given much thought as to where he had been born.
"Grew up runnin' the streets of Lundon, I did. Though, I ain't a figurin' on restin' me old bones there. I'll find me a quiet cottage somewhere. Somewhere that I can see the sea, if I've a mind to look out me window."
"Then I'll get to see you more often?" she asked.
He hesitated then looked away. "Aye. If'n ye's a mind to." He looked back and there was something in the way he was watching her that made her uneasy. "I've got some thin's to be setting to rights. And after I do, we'll see how the wind blows."
She was trying to think of something to say when he reached across the table and took her hands in his. "One of them, poppet is about ye."
Startled, she cocked her head to the side and regarded him. "Oh? And just what do you have to set right with me, Mr. Morton?" She had said it with a soft lilt to her voice to hide the uneasiness his comment had caused.
He smiled in the mysterious way of his. "I want to be givin' ye, yer heart's desire, poppet. I want to be a givin' ye yer Christmas wish."