Lavinia Spencer is too poor to be anything but practical. But when her younger brother lands himself in trouble, she has no choice but to do the unthinkable. She accepts the help of the dishonorable man that she's always wanted, even knowing that it might mean her ruination...
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The Heart of Christmas spent two weeks on the USA Today Bestseller list, reaching a high of #94.
“This Wicked Gift” is a finalist in Rom Con’s 2010 Reader’s Crown, Best Novella category.
“[T]hemes of honor, worth, independence, and value are folded back onto one another, reappearing and connecting to each other in intricate moments… Like a sword that’s a thousand years old but shines like it was made yesterday, constructed of the thinnest sheets of metal folded back and forth onto itself a million times.”
—Sarah Wendell, of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
“My favorite part of this anthology, is the new story Courtney Milan has contributed. Her characters are amazing (and made me cry), and with deft strokes of her keyboard she has made me extremely excited to read her debut.”
—Stacey, of Publisher’s Weekly Beyond Her Book blog
“A story of faith, hope and redemption that embodies what the Christmas season is all about... If this short novella is what we can expect of her writing I cannot wait for her full-length novel next year.”
—Valarie Pelissero, of Rakehell Reviews
It was four days until Christmas and four minutes until the family lending library closed for the evening. Lavinia Spencer sat, the daily ledger opened on the desk in front of her, and waited for the moment when the day would end and she could officially remove her five pennies from the take. Every day since summer, she’d set aside a coin or five from her family’s earnings. She’d saved the largesse in a cloth bag in the desk drawer, where nobody would find it and be tempted to spend it. Over the weeks, her bag had begun to burgeon. Now, she had almost two pounds.
Two pounds in small, cold coins to the rest of the world. For Lavinia, the money meant pies. Spices, sugar, and wine to mull them with. And, once she scoured the markets, perhaps a goose—a small goose—roasted alongside their usual turnips. Her two pounds meant a Christmas celebration that would make Papa sit up and smile. Six months of planning, but the effort had been worth it, because Lavinia was going to deliver a holiday meal just like the ones her mother had prepared.
The business they’d conducted today had been frenetic. Lavinia finished adding columns in the daybook and nodded to herself. Today’s take—according to her records—had been very fine indeed. If she hadn’t miscalculated, today she’d let herself take six pennies from the till—half a shilling that made her that much more certain of goose, as opposed to mere stewing fowl. Lavinia took a deep breath. Layered atop the musk of leather-bound volumes and India ink, she could almost detect the scent of roast poultry. She imagined the red of mulled wine swirling in mugs. And in her mind’s eye, she saw her father sitting taller in his chair, color finally touching his cheeks.
She reached for the cash box and started counting. The bell above the door rang—at a minute to closing. A gust of winter wind poured in. Lavinia looked up, prepared to be annoyed. But when she saw who had entered, she caught her breath.
It was him. Mr. William Q. White—and what the “Q” stood for, she’d not had the foresight to demand on the day when he’d purchased his subscription. But the name rolled off the tongue. William Q. White. She could never think of him as simply a monosyllabic last name.
He took off his hat and gloves at the threshold and shook droplets of water from the sodden gray of his coat. Mr. William Q. White was tall, and his dark hair was cropped close to his skull. He did not dawdle in the doorway, letting the rain into the shop as so many other customers did. Instead, he moved quickly, purposefully, without ever appearing to rush. It was not even a second before he closed the door on the frigid winter and entered the room. Despite his alacrity, he did not track in mud.
His eyes, a rich mahogany, met hers. She bit her lip and twisted her feet around the legs of her stool. He spoke little, but what he said—
“Miss Spencer.” He gestured with his hat in acknowledgment. Unremarkable words, but her toes curled in their slippers nonetheless. He spoke in a deep baritone, his voice as rich as the finest drinking chocolate. But what really made her palms tingle was a wild, indefinable something about his accent. It wasn’t the grating Cockney the delivery boys employed, nor the flat, pompous perfection of the London aristocracy. He had a pure, cultured voice—but one that was nonetheless from somewhere many miles distant. His r’s had just a hint of a roll to them; his vowels stretched and elongated into elegant diphthongs. Every time he said “Miss Spencer,” the exotic cadence of his speech seemed to whisper, “I have been places.”
She imagined him adding, “Would you like to come with me?”
Yes. Yes, she would. Lavinia rather fancied a man with long . . . vowels.
And oh, she knew she was being foolish and giddy about Mr. William Q. White, but if a girl couldn’t be foolish and giddy about a man when she was nineteen, when could she be foolish? It was hard to be serious all the time, especially when there was so much to be serious about.
And so she took a risk. “Merry Christmas, Mr. White.”
He was examining the shelves. At her words, he turned towards her. His eyes slid from her waist up to her face, and Lavinia ducked her head and stared at the stack of pennies in front of her to hide her blush. He didn’t need to speak to make her giddy, not when he looked at her with that breathtaking intensity. For one scalding moment, she thought he was going to address her. Perhaps he would even step towards her. Her hands curled around the edge of the desk in anticipation. But instead, he shook his head and turned back to the shelves.
A pity. Not today, then. Maybe not any day. And with Mr. William Q. White ignoring her again, it was time for Lavinia to set her fancies to one side and give herself over to seriousness. She counted the coins from the cash box and piled them into stacks of twelve, making sure to exactly align the pennies atop each other before starting a new pile.
Lavinia prided herself on her ability to get the take exactly right. Her longest stretch of perfection was thirty-seven days in a row, spanning the entirety of October. That run had been ruined by a penny’s difference on November fourth. She had no intention of letting October’s record stand, however. It had been twenty-two days since her last error. Today would be number twenty-three.
She’d counted and double-counted every transaction. If she was so much as a ha’penny short, she’d eat Mr. William Q. White’s extremely wet hat. Her hands flew as she placed dirty coins into careful piles.
Four, six, eight, and with the loose coins, that made seven shillings, and four and one-half pence. Less than she’d imagined. She bit her lip in suspicion and glanced at the tally in the ledger.
Trepidation settled in an indigestible mass in Lavinia’s belly. There, written in black and white in the daily ledger, was the final sum. Ten shillings, four and one-half pence.
She wasn’t half a penny short. She was missing three full shillings.
Lavinia recounted the coins, but there was no error. Of course not; Lavinia did not make errors in accounting. Nobody would take her to task for the missing coins. Her father was too ill to examine the books, and her brother would never question Lavinia’s jurisdiction over the shop.
Still, she did not like to question herself. How had she made such a stupendous error? She felt a touch of vertigo, as if the room were spinning in circles around the ledger.
She knew what she had to do. It hurt—oh, how it stung. Those three shillings could be the difference between a small goose and no goose at all. But with her father’s creditors clamoring, and the cost of his medicines growing almost monthly, the family could not spare more than a handful of pennies loss each day. Lavinia slid open the drawer to make up the difference from her precious Christmas hoard.
She always placed the bag in the same spot—precisely halfway back and flush against the left side. But her fingers met no velvet mass lumpy with coin. She groped wildly and found nothing but the smooth wood of the drawer from corner to corner. Lavinia held her breath and peered inside. There was nothing in the drawer but a cracked inkwell, and that—she checked—contained nothing but bluish smears.
“Hell.” It was the worst curse word she could imagine. She whispered it; it was either that, or shriek.
She wasn’t missing a few shillings. She was missing the full two pounds. All of Christmas had just disappeared—everything from the decorative holly down through her carefully-planned menu.
“Vinny?” The words were a tremulous query behind her.
With those words, the rising tide of Lavinia’s panic broke against an absolute certainty. She knew where her precious two pounds had gone.
Lavinia placed her hands on her hips. She forced herself to turn around slowly, rather than whirling as she wished. Her brother, still wrapped for the blustery weather outside, smiled weakly, holding out his hands in supplication. Water dripped from his coat and puddled on the floor.
James was four years younger than she, but Mama had always said to subtract ten years from a man’s age when calculating his sense. James had never seen fit to prove Mama’s formula wrong.
“Oh.” He peered beyond her to the coins, stacked in grim military ranks along the edge of the counter and the ransacked drawer. His lip quirked. “I see you’ve, um, already tallied the cash.”
“James Allen Spencer.” Lavinia reached out and grabbed his ear.
He winced, but didn’t dodge or protest—a sure sign of guilt.
“What,” she demanded, “have you done with my two pounds?”