“Mother, it really is time you remarry,” Will said.
“Mother does not need to remarry if she does not choose to.” Violet poked her brother in his chest. At nineteen and newly married, she acted both as if she were still a child and the most worldly matron alive. “If Mother still grieves dear departed Papa, it is her right.”
“It has been two years,” Will protested.
Belle waited for the feud to subside. Dear departed Papa? Their father, William Coaker, was as dear to her as a dead dormouse. Not that he hadn’t been a good provider, but he had all the personality of, well, a dead dormouse, and a greedy one at that. She never would have agreed to marry him if her own mother hadn’t presented him to her in those first reeling days after breaking off with Ebenezer.
“Now see what you’ve done!” Violet protested, throwing her arms around Belle and smacking her brother in the process. “You’ve reminded her of dear Papa and upset her.”
“I didn’t remind her of Papa, you did.” Will folded his arms.
“Children,” Belle said. She stood to move away from the two of them, the usual emotions churning in her chest at the thought of Ebenezer. “Please. We want to have a nice dinner with your aunt and uncle.” She crossed the room to the fireplace, pretending to warm her hands. Thinking about Ebenezer always created a violent storm within her. The sweet memories of their early courtship clashing with the bitter memories of their final meeting when she finally understood that he would have “enough” money to marry. After she had spent three years waiting, turning down scores of suitors and arguing with her parents, she understood that he loved money so much more than he could ever love her.
After twenty years, one departed husband and six children, she shouldn’t still ache for him, but then she had hoped for more from marriage than lying back and thinking of England. The front doorbell broke into her thoughts. Belle drew a deep breath. Her sister. A moment later, the butler opened the door. Leticia swept in, followed by her stiff stick of a husband and the two youngest of their four living children. “Belle!” Belle was enveloped in a warm hug she could not have prepared for. Leticia always had a keen eye for people, especially family, and she probably already knew the thoughts spinning through Belle’s mind.
“I’m so glad you could come,” Belle said. “I wouldn’t have wanted the holidays to slip away without a family visit.”
“It is so difficult now, and only two of yours could come for the celebration.” Leticia clutched Belle’s hands. “How have you been?”
Yes, Leticia knew what was spinning round Belle’s mind. Belle forced a smile. “I have been fine. Will and I are enjoying the peace of the house to ourselves now that the wedding is over.”
Leticia squeezed her hands, silently promising more discussion later, and turned to Violet. “Well, dear niece, married life seems to be suiting you. Where is your husband this evening?”
Belle turned her back to the room. Why had she invited them over on Christmas Eve? This, the very day twenty years ago when she had broken off her engagement to Ebenezer. It was also the day twenty-three years ago when she had met him at the Fezziwig’s annual Christmas party.
Ann hovered in the shadowy doorway leading to the dining room. Her eyes were red-rimmed and she clutched her chapped hands at her waist. Belle glanced toward her guests, though it was hard to think of Violet as a guest. Seeing they were involved in conversation, she went to Ann. “What is it, Ann?” Belle asked.
Ann shrunk back into the dining room so Belle pulled the pocket door closed behind her. “I’m sorry, ma’am.” Ann sniffled. “I hate to interrupt your party.”
“It’s all right, Ann. What’s wrong?”
“It’s—can I ask for an advance on my monthly pay, Ma’am.” Ann wrung her hands.
Belle blinked. She paid her household staff better than most. It had been a sticking point with “dear departed William,” but she’d fought for it. This year she’d even managed a small Christmas bonus so they could have a nice holiday. Ann’s husband wasn’t a gambler either. How could they have run out of money? “An advance?”
“My landlord has raised my rent. We have until the end of the month to come up with the rest or we’ll be thrown out.”
“And what will you do next month?”
Ann bit her lip and closed her eyes. “I promise, Ma’am. I’ll do my service. I wouldn’t never cheat you.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t, but I’m afraid your landlord is going to drive you out this month or the next. I just can’t believe he would do such a horrible thing at Christmas.” Belle yanked open the door to the parlor. Everyone froze, turning to the door.
“What is it, Mother?” Will asked, rising from his seat.
“Do you know what Ann’s landlord is doing to her on Christmas Eve?” Belle demanded.
Ann shrunk back into the other room, but Belle pulled her forward. “He raised her rent. He’s trying to drive her out of her home.”
“That doesn’t sound like good business,” Will said.
“I’m sure he has reasons.” Violet touched her hair, making sure her ringlets remained in place.
“Reasons? What reason can any man have for driving a couple out of their home at Christmas? Will, you need to go speak to her landlord tomorrow.” Belle shook her head. “No, not tomorrow. I’m sure the miser is giving himself Christmas off. You must go to his office the day after tomorrow and demand that he return their rent rate to its normal rate.”
“Mother, I simply cannot do that.” Will shrugged.
“And why not?” Belle stamped her foot. Will reminded her too much of his father.
“Because he’s not going to listen to me. I am only a young man. He’s running a business. He must have his reasons.”
“Charles.” Belle turned on her brother-in-law. “You will go speak to this man. What he is doing is criminal. To turn a family out in the middle of winter is despicable.”
“No,” Charles sniffed.
“Charles,” Leticia murmured, touching his arm. “Please. You are always good at these things. Perhaps you could convince the man to give them a few more days to get the money at least.”
“It is his business, and I will not interfere.”
“Mother, there isn’t anything to be done.” Violet stood up and crossed the room to take her mother’s hands. “Don’t let it ruin our Christmas.”
“What about Ann’s Christmas? She’s going to be out on the streets in this cold.” Belle pulled her hands away to put an arm around Ann’s thin shoulders.
“She won’t be on the streets,” Violet said. “There are places for poor people.”
Belle caught her sister’s eye across the room and saw her shudder. William had never wanted their daughter to help Belle with her charity work so Violet had never seen the poorhouses. Belle wished she’d fought harder for that too, but there were only so many battles a wife could wage before poisoning the marriage.
“Violet, dear, I don’t think anyone wants to see our own Ann in a poorhouse,” Leticia said. “Ann, go back to the kitchens. We’ll find a solution to your problem. Don’t worry.”
Ann curtseyed and scurried out of the room. Belle walked to the mantle, trying to school her features before her temper really got away from her. Leticia had ever been the charming one. She could keep the party civil for a few moments while Belle got herself back in control. It was one of the things Belle had liked best about Ebenezer. How charming he was. When she met him he could convince the cobblestones to lay smooth so she wouldn’t trip as she walked. She wondered if he was still so eloquent when he whispered sweet nothings to his money.
“I do wonder why a landlord would raise the rent so when he has paying tenants,” Will said.
“He must believe he can either get the money from his existing tenants or know that he can get the rent from new tenants,” Charles explained. “Or it could be that he owes money on the building himself and the rates have gone up. You didn’t think of that, did you Belle? It could be that the man is no miser, but a businessman caught in a pinch.”
Belle clutched the mantle before she turned on her smug brother-in-law. He would not help her. No man ever really had. William had been happy enough to leave her about her business as long as it didn’t interfere with his money-making and ambition. Charles was cut from the same cloth. Now Will would become the same. Who would defend the helpless if the men wouldn’t? She had to go to Ann’s landlord herself. She took a deep breath and turned to the room with a warm smile. “I had planned to wait until after dinner, but I have some small gifts for your daughters.”
Leticia’s girls, who had watched the argument in wide-eyed silence, now sat up. Belle rang the servant’s bell, and a moment later Hexam appeared at the door with a bow. “Hexam, will you fetch the gifts, please?”
He bowed again and left, returning moment later with small parcels which he handed to the girls. The girls cooed as they lifted the tiny, fashionable doll dresses from their boxes.
“Oh, aren’t those lovely?” Leticia said. “Did you get them from Miss Wren? Such amazing skill she has with a needle.” Leticia launched into a story about how they had discovered the crippled doll dressmaker as if she hadn’t bought dresses from her too.
“I wish you didn’t insist on going to those places,” Charles said when Leticia finished. “It is too dangerous for women in those parts of town.”
Belle glared at him, but looked away before he caught her. Men, were they all selfish fools? Hexam opened the dining room door and gestured for them to enter. Everyone settled at their accustomed places around the table. “Ann?” Belle asked, picking up her wine glass.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Ann paused between Will and Violet, holding the soup tureen with both hands while Mary, Belle’s other house maid, ladled soup into bowls. “Who is your landlord?”
“Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, Ma’am.”
Belle dropped her wine glass.
“Oh my goodness!” Leticia jumped up and ran around the table.
Ann beat her to Belle’s side. “Ma’am!” Ann dropped to her knees and started wiping at the spilled wine with her apron. “Oh, your lovely dress!”
“Who did you say your landlord was?” Belle asked.
“And red wine too. Do you want to change?” Ann asked.
“WHO DID YOU SAY YOUR LANDLORD WAS?”
Leticia grabbed Belle’s arm and pulled her out of the chair. “Sister, you need to change your gown. Come along. Upstairs with you.” Leticia dragged her out of the room.
Belle saw the shocked faces of her family as Ann pulled the door closed behind them. Her eyes burned with tears twenty years unshed. Between Leticia and Ann, she got to her room where Ann started unlacing her dress. “It’s impossible, isn’t it?” Belle asked Leticia.
“No, it is not impossible. You knew he was here.” Leticia opened Belle’s wardrobe and pulled out a crimson dress. “You must calm down. I don’t understand how you can still have feelings for that man, after how he treated you.”
The storm of conflicting emotion that she had managed to control earlier swelled, threatening to drown her. “You didn’t know him.”
“Not well, but I listened to you fight with mother and father about him for three years.” Leticia pulled Belle to her feet so Ann could pull the soiled dress down and drape the clean one over Belle’s head.
“I could see him again. Do you think he’s changed?” Belle remembered the sweet, stolen kisses under the mistletoe and the witty glint in his eye.
“Obviously not, the way he’s treating your Ann,” Leticia snorted. “If anything, I’m sure he’s gotten worse.”
“It’s not possible. Worse?” Belle turned and focused on Ann. Poor, nervous Ann who was about to lose her home because of Ebenezer. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. My goodness, what must the others think.”
“As usual, they will think what they are told to think.” Leticia smirked. “We will simply tell them Ebenezer is someone you knew long ago and you were surprised to hear his name.”
“Mother, are you all right?” Will rushed from the table as they returned to the dining room.
“I’m fine. Ann startled me. Ebenezer Scrooge is someone I knew a very long time ago. Before I married your father.”
“That’s impossible,” Violet said with a pretty shake of her head.
Belle fixed her with a glare. “You are aware that I lived before I met your father.”
Violet hesitated. “Yes. I know.” She spoke in a tone that belied her words.
“It is hard to believe,” Charles said. “Imagine our Belle with Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“She was engaged to him for three years,” Leticia informed the room, sitting stiffly next to her husband. “And she was very happy.”
“I can’t imagine Mr. Scrooge happy either,” Charles announced, dipping his spoon into his soup, unaware of the chill emanating from his wife. “They say he doesn’t wear underwear because he considers it a waste of money.”
Will leaned forward as if he were imparting a great secret. “I heard that he only washes his hands, neck and face to avoid spending on water for a proper bath.”
“That’s disgusting.” Violet curled her lip.
“I’m sure it’s not true.” Belle put down her spoon. The soup had grown cold while she changed anyway. “Ebenezer was always so fastidious and very shy.” She could almost see him, lingering near the wall during the dancing at the Fezziwig’ party, trying not to be noticed while watching everything. She had no idea how she’d managed to sneak up on him that night. Or how he’d managed to untie his tongue long enough to talk to her.
“Shy?” Charles slapped his spoon on the table. “Unbelievable. Ebenezer Scrooge was once shy? Oh, I shall have something to share at the club after the holiday.”
“He was. And very polite.” Belle waved for Ann to take her dish.
“Oh ho! Polite?” Charles laughed, pounding the table. “He isn’t polite any longer. Do you know what he has been saying to anyone who dares to wish him a merry Christmas? Bah humbug. Can you believe it?”
“Bah humbug? Really, Uncle?” Violet asked. Belle’s nieces tittered behind their hands. Will shouted that he absolutely believed it, drowning out Belle’s horrified gasp. Bah humbug? But Ebenezer always loved the holidays. He so enjoyed the parties and the pudding. The two years they were engaged he had come to her house to dine on Christmas Day. He played games. He was especially good at Blind Man’s Bluff and always found her so he could claim his kiss. He swore he wasn’t peeking, but that her heart cried out to him to find her. Even on that last day, before they took their walk when she broke off with him, he had been cheerful and happy, explaining to her father his newest business venture.
Ann and Mary began bringing in the next course. Belle sat with her hands in her lap, ignoring the conversation and being a very bad hostess. They were too involved in their stories about Ebenezer’s supposed faults to claim her from her reverie. She should never have left him. He needed her. Without her, he had become a monster. She could have saved him from that fate. Guilt weighed on her chest. Poor Ebenezer. If she had stayed by his side, married him, she could have helped him. Righted his skinflint leanings. Made sure no one could sit around a dinner table discussing his flaws because she might hear. Protected him. Made his life better and helped so many others like Ann who suffered because of his unhappiness.
As she had been so successful with William. Belle glanced at her children, pursing her lips. No, life with William had not been perfect, but he easily could have gone the miser’s route without her by his side. She had improved his lot. Constantly reminding him of the value in the cost. With Ebenezer, she could have done so much more because she loved him.
“I’ll bet the miserable miser is sitting at home alone tonight trying to keep warm with the flame of a single candle.” Charles clutched his sides, laughing.
“Do you think he would spend on the candle?” Will wiped tears of merriment from his cheeks. “I believe he is chafing his hands together, bundled in blankets because they are already paid for.”
Belle blinked back tears at the thought of Ebenezer alone on this night.
“What will you do about Ann?” Leticia asked, reminding Belle why Ebenezer had come up in the first place.
“I will speak to Ebenezer,” Belle said.
“Speak to him!” Charles snorted. “You behave as though Ebenezer Scrooge were a reasonable person.”
“He was once. I’m sure he’ll listen to me, if only because of old acquaintance.” Belle clutched her knife and fork.
“I assure you, dear Belle, the only old acquaintance Mr. Scrooge listens to is the pound note.”
Belle labored to draw a breath. She remembered all too well th last thing she said to him. The words were still bitter on her tongue. “It matters little. To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me, and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve,” she had told him. Though she had grieved, and still did.
“Mother!” Violet demanded.
“Violet,” Leticia hissed. Then she gestured to her daughters to eat more quickly.
“I’m sorry, Mother, but I asked you three times,” Violet said.
Belle nodded only half accepting the half apology. The girl really was too much like her father. “All this talk about Ebenezer is raising a few ghosts from my past. I’m afraid I am a little distracted.”
“I wanted to know how he broke it off with you.”
“He didn’t. I broke it off.”
A collective gasp rose from the table. Only Leticia kept her eyes fixed on her plate, no doubt remembering the Christmas Eve twenty years ago when Belle had returned from meeting with Ebenezer. Belle had succeeded in getting home dry eyed, but the moment she closed the door to the small room she shared with her sister then, she had dissolved.
“You didn’t!” Pansy, the younger niece, whispered.
Charles glowered at Belle. He wouldn’t want his daughters getting the idea they could break off engagements. Not with the marriages he planned to make for them. William hadn’t wanted Violet to know either,.
“I told him I released him from his promise and that I hoped he was happy with the life he had chosen.” Belle felt a queer shifting sensation as if repeating the words said so long ago were a charm to pull her back to that miserable time.
“He must be. He has an enormous house.” Will cut into his goose with relish. One would think he never ate but on holidays.
“I doubt it. There is never a light on and no guests at his door,” Leticia said. She looked at her sister blanching. “I’ve—I’ve passed it on occasion.”
“When?” Charles asked.
Leticia studied her plate.
Belle put down her fork. She couldn’t bear to eat a bite. Ebenezer had been so shy. He said he loved how bright and full of cheer she was because it meant they didn’t have to approach anyone. Everyone came to her. Without her, he’d drawn into a bitter, lonely shell.
“He probably keeps his house like he keeps his office,” Charles said. “A friend of mine had need to visit him the other day and told me Mr. Scrooge and his assistant sit all day in their coats and mufflers, never lighting the stove because he won’t spend money on coal. They probably miss old Marley because the office is colder without his body heat added to the room.”
Belle swallowed. What could she have changed in him if she had stayed and forced him to keep his promise to marry her? If she had been there to remind him of the value beyond the money?
“Wait here, please. I will only be a moment,” Belle told the cab driver as he helped her down to the cobblestones.
“Are you sure this is where you want to be, ma’am?” the cabbie asked, casting his eye along the street.
Belle squared her shoulders. Her charity work had given her a familiarity with poverty, but this close, desperate street ate at her confidence. She had believed the stories Charles and Will bandied around about Ebenezer, but this brought home the scrabbling misery he caused. All through Christmas Day, she had dwelt on what she could say to the man now, so many years later. But, seeing this, words deserted her. Even if she could convince him to show Ann some lenience, another home would have to be found. Ann and her husband could not continue to live under the shadow of this man. Even though he was a man Belle had once loved.
“I am sure. I’ll only be a moment and then you can take me back to my home.” She strode toward the door under the sign that still read Marley and Scrooge. Pushing through, she was—
Enveloped in warmth. Belle stopped, looking around to make sure she hadn’t gone through the wrong door. This was the door under the Marley and Scrooge sign. The stove burned so bright it glowed and there were two overflowing coal scuttles beside it. Charles had said he kept his office freezing. Had she misunderstood? Had it been a tale blown out of all proportion?
A thin man with a bright smile hopped off his stool. “Good morning and how can I help you?”
“I’m looking—” Belle broke off, discovering that her voice had no volume. She cleared her throat. If she couldn’t manage Ebenezer’s man, she would never manage Ebenezer. “I’m looking for Ebenezer—Scrooge. Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge. Have I the right place?” Belle held her breath, wondering for a sick moment if Ebenezer had died yesterday, robbing her of her moment.
“You do have the right place. Have you business with him? Perhaps I can help you. I’m his partner. Robert Cratchit.” Robert Cratchit beamed.
“Mr. Scrooge elevated me just this morning. A kind of Christmas gift, I suppose.”
Belle’s knees began to quake and she thanked the many layers of her dress and petticoats that he would never see it. This was not the Ebenezer she had prepared to face. Perhaps she could appeal to Mr. Cratchit and he could see to it. No, no, that wouldn’t be right. She’d never veered from a need before and she would not start not. “I congratulate you, but I think I should speak directly to E—Mr. Scrooge.”
“Belle, is it you?”
Belle turned to the voice. Tighter than she remembered, but the same. Just the same.
Ebenezer stood in the door of his office also beaming, but on his face, the expression looked uncertain, as if it were still fitting itself in place. “It is you. Please, step into my office. This does call for a celebration. Bob, would you be so good as to send a boy to the bake shop for—” Ebenezer gestured helplessly.
“Tea cakes?” Belle offered.
“Yes! Tea cakes. Take the money out of the coffers. And don’t forget to tip the boy.” Ebenezer held out his hand to guide her into his office. “Belle, it is so good to see you.”
“Yes, I—” Belle stopped at the threshold of his office. Plain of decoration and cluttered with account books it felt cold, but his stove burned brightly too. “I needed to speak to you about something.”
“Speak to me? Today of all days.” His smile crackled around his mouth but the bright, merry light in his eyes was familiar. “What is it? Ask me anything.”
“You have raised the rent on my house maid, Ann Crain.” Belle clutched her bag. “I came to ask if you would give her another month to get the money.”
“Another month? I’ll give her a year. I’ll give her a lifetime. Before you can say Jack Robinson.” Ebenezer threw his hands wide.
Belle stared at him. She hadn’t heard that phrase in years, not since old Fezziwig. How had he come to repeat something like that?
“Please, sit down, sit down.” Ebenezer guided her to a chair beside the stove and perched on the corner of his desk. “Belle, you were right about me all those years ago. I did fear the world too much, but I could never get beyond its sordid reproach.” Ebenezer took her hands in his. “I am so sorry for the pain I caused you. But you have had a good life. Rich with love and children.”
“I have?” Belle shook herself. “How did you know I married and had children?”
Ebenezer coughed, drawing away. He studied her face and motherly experience told her he was deciding whether or not to lie. “I was told. That is all. You did then, marry and have children?”
“I married William Coaker six months after I broke off with you. We had six children, three now living.” Belle clutched her hands in her lap.
“William Coaker. Is he in business?”
“He is in a grave.” Belle drew a sharp breath as if she could pull the words back. Surprise made her speak too plainly. She should have left the matter with his partner and fled. Ebenezer leaned forward and for a moment she feared he would try to take her hands again.
“Were you not happy with your husband?”
“I was not unhappy.”
“Oh Belle, you deserved so much more.” He blinked and Belle swore she saw tears in his eyes. “You did have some happy times.”
“Some. No life goes without a little joy.” She glanced around the office, wondering if perhaps his life had. He reached for her hands again and this time she allowed her fingers to curl around his.
“I cannot change the past, but I can change the shadows of the future. If you’ll allow me.”
“Ebenezer, this is not what I expected of you. I had been told you were cruel and miserly. I don’t know what to say,” Belle protested.
“I am a changed man.” Ebenezer dragged his chair closer to her and the stove. “I have a story I must tell you. You of all people will believe me…”
Belle surveyed the workmen. It had taken an army of charwomen and laborers to bring Ebenezer’s house to rights. When they finished, a new army made up of seamstresses and carpenters filled the house, rushing to have it finished and ready for the Christmas celebrations. Celebrations that would begin a full week before the day itself. Belle watched Ann and Mary put the finishing touches on the parlor. “Perfect.” Belle smiled. “You’d best get to the kitchens to make sure Cook doesn’t need anything before the master comes home.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girls said in unison. They curtseyed and hurried out of the room leaving Belle to survey her work. Fire blazing in the hearth. Comfortable seats. She had wine and hot drinks at the ready. Cook was bent on creating a feast.
Belle turned from her inspection. “Hello dear, I didn’t hear you come in.” She scanned the room again. “It is lovely, isn’t it?”
Ebenezer slid his arms around her waist. “I was talking about my lovely wife.”
Belle grinned at him. “I know. I just wanted to hear you say it.”
“What? My lovely wife?” He kissed her cheek. “Everything is ready for tonight?”
“Absolutely everything. Cook has been in and out of the markets all week and when she can’t go herself, she sends Billy.” Belle rolled her eyes. “And then she sends him out again because no matter what he brings, it isn’t perfect. And then she gives up and goes out for it herself.”
“I know. So does she.” Belle leaned her head on his shoulder. It amazed her that he could still make her feel twenty years old. “I think she just likes to tell people who she works for.”
Ebenezer laughed. The sound was less rusty than it had been a year ago. “I’m sure she does. You know several of the men at the courts believe you are a witch who has enchanted me, but since the results are positive they will not be dragging you to an inquisition soon.”
“That’s a relief.” She moved away to fluff a pillow. “Is Bob bringing his family tonight?”
“He is. Tim is doing very well and Martha is bringing her fiancé for our inspection tonight.”
“Wise of her.” Belle met his eyes. “You didn’t mention anything, did you?”
“About the dowry? No. I want to see the man she’s going to marry before I promise him money. I wouldn’t want to see her hurt.” The doorbell rang.
“Our guests are arriving and you haven’t changed,” Belle scolded, herding him to the back stairs.
“I thought you liked me the way I am,” Ebenezer teased.
“I do, I just want you dressed better for the party. Go, go now.” Belle hurried back into the parlor to greet their guests, smiling. His companions thought she was a witch? Wouldn’t they be surprised to know the truth?