A Christmas Miracle forthe Frosty
6 years ago
Winter was normally Julian Hawthorne’s favorite time of year. All the warmth and joy that came with Christmastide filled Julian with joy. His family, the Duke and Duchess of Thornmire, and his older sister, Elizabeth, upheld many holiday traditions, from their own private Yule log celebration with just their family and close friends, to decorating the mansion from top to bottom with beautiful, extravagant ornaments. In his youth, he would help his mother and sister handmake lush garland strands. As a grown man, his role in the preparations became to help hang decorations in places that were hard to reach for the women in his family, and to help gather berries and flowers to make the décor.
However, during the Christmastide of his twentieth year, the holiday season was the furthest thing from Julian’s mind. The snow in which Elizabeth and he once loved to play, even once they were grown, now felt oppressive and uninviting. The fires burning in each hearth throughout Thornmire Manor did nothing to chase away the chill that settled in Julian’s soul. The lack of decorations, which had been postponed when the duchess fell ill, was the only thing that matched the dreary way Julian felt.
As he stood outside his mother’s chambers, he leaned against the cold walls, trying to pull strength from the air around him and finding none. He closed his eyes, sending up another futile prayer to the heavens for a miracle recovery for his mother. Just two weeks prior, she had seemed to be getting better. But then almost overnight, her illness had worsened, and she had been bedridden ever since, getting sicker by the day.
Just outside the manor gates, the cheery voices of carolers could be heard, muffled by the thick walls. The notes of “In the Bleak Midwinter” grazed Julian’s conscious, but he paid it no heed. The song felt too personal that particular season, and he wanted nothing more than to tune out the music. His mother once led their family in singing carols of their own throughout the season. Now, it sat collecting dust, just as the grounds collected snow.
He clenched his fists, his nails digging into his palms. Reality was too cruel, too sharp, and he couldn’t bring himself to face what his unconscious mind knew was to come. The typically lively household had fallen eerily quiet. Rooms in which Julian’s family experienced so much love and joy were now filled with frantic whispers and fear. Even the servants, who were happy to serve in the duke’s and duchess’s employ, had grown sullen and solemn in the wake of the hushed conversations with the family’s physician.
The door to her chambers opened suddenly, startling Julian, and setting him on high alert. A moment later, the physician appeared once more, looking graver still than he had when he first entered the duchess’s room earlier that day. Julian rushed toward him, pulling him away from the slightly ajar door and looking at him with earnest.
“What is it, Doctor?” he asked.
The physician sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose with the fingers of one hand while holding his spectacles in the other.
“Just since I arrived, her strength has waned,” he said. “Her fever broke, but only for a short time. It has already returned, and it is far worse than ever before. I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do for her.”
Julian shook his head, feeling as though the floor had vanished and he was now falling into a black, bottomless oblivion.
“How much longer…” he trailed off, unable to voice the rest of his question.
The physician understood, even though Julian couldn’t say the words.
“I cannot say for sure,” he said. “But she will surely not last much longer than Christmas day.”
Julian was reeling, and his stomach tried to force the coffee, which was the only thing he had consumed in days, from his bowls. The physician reached out with strong hands and held onto Julian’s arm until the sick feeling passed. Then, he patted Julian softly on the back, gesturing back toward the door.
“I recommend spending as much time with her as possible,” he said. “It could be any day now. As I said, I cannot be sure. Prepare yourself for any scenario.”
Julian nodded, stepping aside so that the physician could see himself out. Then, he turned and headed toward his mother’s bedchamber door, tears stinging his eyes. With each step he took, he felt a tightening in his chest, apprehension squeezing his soul. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door, revealing a scene that he never wanted to confront.
Her thin, waxy figure lay still and as white as the snow outside against gray sheets that had replaced her bright pink and purple bedclothes as her illness had progressed. The physician had been right: she looked infinitely worse than she had even the day prior when Julian had looked in to see about her. Her once glowing eyes, the exact same shape and shade as his own, were dull, their light and life lost to the illness that was rapidly taking her from their family. Her laughter was long gone, replaced by a harsh, rasping cough that made him flinch with every heave of her chest.
She tried to greet her son with a weak smile, which to Julian only looked like a pained grimace. With a great effort, she motioned to the space beside her on the bed.
Swallowing hard, Julian complied, his feet feeling heavier with every step. He gently lowered himself onto the bed, feeling the mattress dip beneath his weight. Tentatively, he reached out, taking his mother’s hand. It was impossibly thin, the delicate veins visible beneath skin that had become almost transparent. Despite the cold, her hand felt feverish, and it was all Julian could do to keep from recoiling from the heat.
“Julian,” she whispered, her voice barely audible, but imprinting him with all the warmth and affection it always had. “My dear boy.”
“Mother,” he choked out, struggling to keep his voice steady, “I’m here.”
Her eyes, still filled with so much love, brimmed with tears.
“I am happy to see you, sweetheart,” she said.
Julian blinked back his own tears, his regret pressing heavily on him.
“I should have come to sit with you more often,” he said. “In fact, I should have never left your side. Please, forgive me, Mother.”
She squeezed his hand, but he only knew she had done so because he watched her make the effort. Her fingers were no stronger than the legs of a newborn pup, but the effort was apparent in her eyes.
“You are here now,” she said. “That’s all that matters.”
Julian lifted her hand onto his lap, covering it with his free hand. Emotions were building within him faster than he could register them: fear, sadness, pain, worry, and anger at a universe that could do such a terrible thing to a woman as sweet and loving as his mother. He held her hand tightly, fighting with all his might to blink back his tears.
“Is there anything you need me to do for you right now, Mother?” he asked.
The duchess shook her head, her eyes becoming briefly unfocused as she did so.
“No, darling,” she said. “I am just glad you are sitting here with me.”
Julian nodded, swallowing again.
“I am happy to sit with you for as long as you like, Mother,” he said.
They sat in silence for a while, his mother’s increasingly raspy breathing filling the wordless room. Julian’s mind raced, and he had to keep pushing his anguish to the back of his mind. He wanted to offer his mother comfort and keep her adequate company. But all he could think about was the moment when the rasping would stop, and her last breath would leave her.
He desperately wanted to turn back the clock, to relive those moments of joy and laughter. He would do anything to have such an opportunity. The wild notion of the magic in storybook tales being worth a try crossed his mind more than once. If he thought even for a second it might work, he knew that it would. But for now, he would cherish the time they had left. He would hold her hand and offer her solace and try not to let the storm cloud of his grief drown him.
As the days wore on, Julian couldn’t help but behold his mother’s dignity and grace with awe. Even as the illness took over, as the pain and discomfort increased and her strength decreased, she maintained much of the poise Julian had known all his life. It showed in her weak but gentle smiles and in the serene acceptance of what awaited her in her eyes. She seemed at peace with her situation. While Julian did not share the sentiment, he respected his mother’s bravery. It helped him make the most of the time he had left with her and forget the hopelessness that was quickly sinking into his heart.
The Christmas season continued outside the walls of his mother’s bedchambers. The servants bustled about, making preparations for the holiday feast and family events, and carolers came to the gates more frequently and in larger numbers. The duchess seemed content to listen to them from a cracked window in her chambers. But Julian’s heart found no comfort in the songs that used to fill him with immense Christmas spirit.
As the final days of the year drew to a close, the notes of his mother’s favorite song, “Auld Lang Syne” began to drift in through the window. His mother closed her eyes, her weakest smile yet on her lips, but the song was nothing more for Julian right then than a reminder that time would move on, no matter how much he wished he could make it stop. It wasn’t just a year that was ending for Julian. It was the end of the life Julian had always known. It was the end of Julian’s ability to open his heart to the world.
As the clock signaled the new year’s beginning, his mother drew her last breath. The stillness left in the wake of her passing was palpable, and all Julian could do was weep. Grief-stricken, he found himself falling into the cold, dark pit of loss and heartbreak. His mother’s death left behind a hole in his heart that no merriment or celebration could ever again fill. Every holiday song, every joyful well wish and holiday tradition, served as a reminder of what his family had lost, forever turning him bitter toward the time of year that had once meant the world to him. No world that had cruelly ejected his mother from it would ever be worth celebrating to him again.
The Berrington Estate drawing room was filled with the golden light filtering in from tall windows that overlooked the snow-covered gardens outside. The hearth burned brightly, the flames producing an inviting warmth that made the room feel cozy and magical on that cold December afternoon.
Clara Bennett sat at the ornate wooden table, surrounded on either side by her younger siblings. The table was littered with piles of ribbons, paper strips, colored beads, and small silver hooks, all meant for crafting Christmas ornaments, as was her family’s tradition. Clara’s fingers moved deftly, twisting and curling a piece of wire into an intricate pattern that, when she finished, would be in the shape of a star.
“I think this one will be my best yet,” Amelia, the second eldest Bennett child, said, holding up a fragile glass ornament that shone with freshly painted snowflakes.
Clara smiled, looking at her sister with great pride and her heart filling with the spirit of the season.
“It’s lovely, Amelia,” she said. “But do remember not to let William near it, lest he sends it crashing to the floor.”
Sixteen-year-old William rolled his eyes at his elder sisters, a smirk playing on his lips.
“I’m not a child, Clara,” he protested, even as he fumbled with a roll of ribbon, wrapping it around his fingers in a haphazard manner.
With a chuckle, Clara shook her head, her chestnut curls cascading over her shoulder.
“Perhaps not,” she said. “But you have all the grace of a spooked horse.”
William narrowed his eyes, and the distraction was all it took for him to drop the ribbon spool.
“That was your fault,” he mumbled, his eyes sparkling despite the pouting in his voice.
Clara giggled again, exchanging a glance with her eighteen-year-old sister.
“Is he not just incorrigible?” she asked.
Amelia laughed, nodding.
“He most certainly is,” she said.
The Bennett children went back to their tasks, the playful banter continuing. They had always been close. Clara had loved her siblings from the first moment she laid eyes on them when they were born. And the holiday season always made her appreciate their bond and connection that much more. She sighed happily, finishing the shaping of her star, and holding it up for inspection.
“Christmas is only a week away,” she said, reaching for the gold ribbon spool. “It’s always been my favourite season.”
Amelia looked up from her bauble with a twinkle in her eye.
“Because of the festivities, Clara?” she asked impishly. “Or is it because of the tall, dark-haired, green-eyed, and intriguing Lord Hamilton you met at the vicarage last year?”
Clara’s cheeks flushed, and she playfully nudged her sister.
“Hush, Sister,” she said. “It’s not because of that. Lord Hamilton was quite handsome and charming, to be sure. But there was very little of substance to him apart from that.”
Amelia raised her eyebrow, her teasing expression temporarily confused.
“He was there to help Mary and Hannah with the baskets last year, was he not?” she asked, referring to the vicar’s wife and daughter. Hannah and Caleb were close with Clara’s own family, and Mary was her dearest and longest time friend.
Clara nodded, but she made a face as she recalled the stiff, emotionless husk that was the earl of Hampship.
“He volunteered his time for a day,” she said. “But it couldn’t have been clearer how unhappy he was to do it. It was only to make himself look good, I am certain of it.”
Amelia nodded, giving her sister a smile.
“I know that you take your charity work very seriously,” she said.
Clara nodded, sighing dreamily.
“Every year, I find joy in assisting at the vicarage, distributing donations to those in need,” she said. “Their smiles, their gratitude—it’s the true spirit of Christmas.”
Her younger siblings, having grown up witnessing their elder sister’s charitable endeavors, nodded in understanding. Clara’s passion for helping the less fortunate had been well known to, and supported by, her family for years. And in the past couple Christmastide seasons prior, William and Amelia had even gotten involved with the charity work at the vicarage alongside Clara. She was thrilled that her siblings seemed to be taking an interest in helping those less fortunate than their own family was.
As the afternoon wore on, the room was filled with the siblings’ banter, laughter, and occasional arguments over who got the last of the silver beads. Clara never felt more connected to her family than she did during the festivities of the season. Even with their playful taunting and fighting, that was the time of year that always made Clara the happiest.
Lost in her thoughts, she barely noticed Amelia nudging her.
“Dreaming of Lord Hamilton again?” she teased.
Clara rolled her eyes, but her smile was genuine.
“For the last time, no,” she said. “Now, let’s just revel in the magic of Christmas.”
And with that, they continued their crafting, the room bathed in warmth, love, and the promise of the festive nature of the season to come.
The chatter and energy in the room were interrupted as the door swung open with a loud creak. All eyes turned toward the doorway, where the Earl of Berrington stood with a thoughtful expression. The sudden change in atmosphere felt like the cold winter draft seeping into a once warm room.
“Clara, darling,” he said, his voice gentle but rather serious. “May I have a word with you in my study?”
Clara’s heart skipped a beat. Her father rarely displayed such gravity without cause. But what could make him sound so formal during such a happy time of year?
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she rose gracefully, casting a quick, reassuring glance at her younger siblings who wore matching expressions of puzzlement.
“Of course, Father,” she said, giving him a sweet smile.
The earl bowed slightly, holding open the door with one hand and gesturing for her to step into the hallway ahead of him. She complied, trying to assure herself that she was overreacting. Her father didn’t look angry, though the intensity of his eyes indicated something of major importance. She chided herself for being so nervous. Her parents had always loved their children well, and she had no reason to be afraid of whatever her father had to say to her. So, why was she?
Inside the study, a fire identical to the one in the drawing room burned in the fireplace, casting an amber glow upon the shelves of books and rich red, shining furniture. The room had always reminded her of the protection and care her father provided for his family. But on that day, it felt different, as though there was a storm creeping in through the walls and waiting to open up above them as they made their way to the earl’s desk.
Her father motioned for her to sit before taking his place behind the desk. His eyes remained intense, even as he offered his eldest daughter a warm smile.
“I wanted to let you know that I’ve had a meeting with the duke of Thornmire,” he said. His tone was pleasant enough, but Clara detected something like uncertainty.
Her brow furrowed. She knew the family, of course, as her siblings and she had grown up with the duke and duchess’s son and older daughter. But she couldn’t think of any business that her family would have with theirs that would be so official sounding. Certainly, none that involved her. And the Bennett’s hadn’t heard word from the family since the duchess had died several years prior. What could have prompted a meeting that would seem to be of such great importance?
“Oh?” she asked. “How is their family doing? It has been some time since I have heard you speak of them.” She did her best to keep her confusion and concern out of her voice. If her father noticed it, he didn’t let on. He took a deep breath, his fingers tapping the top of the desk.
“They are well,” he said, pausing to shrug. “Well, as well as you might expect after such a devastating loss.”
Clara nodded, biting her lip.
“Is there something that you need me to do for them?” she asked. It occurred to her that they might be in need of something to bring them cheer during the holiday season. Or, they could have fallen on hard times, and they might have reached out to their closest friends for help.
The earl shook his head, but his eyes flashed with something that Clara couldn’t understand.
“The duke and I have reached an agreement, one that concerns you directly,” he said.
Clara’s heart raced, but she gave her father another small smile.
“Oh?” she asked again, trying to sound casually curious, rather than suddenly on edge.
Her father nodded, a smile spreading across his face. Whatever was on his mind, he seemed rather proud. She chastised herself for tensing up and worrying. Her father would never do anything to hurt her. Whatever his announcement was, she might even find herself delighted by it.
“Shortly after Christmastide,” he continued, hesitating for just a moment, “you are to be wed to Julian, his son.”
Time seemed to stop. Clara’s mind raced faster than her heart, her thoughts becoming a storm of chaos. They knew the duke and his family well, of course. But a marriage? And one of convenience at that? She hadn’t even seen Julian since his mother died. What had prompted her father’s brash decision?
“But why?” she asked, her voice barely audible.
Her father sighed, running a hand through his graying brown hair.
“There is much to be gained from such an arrangement, Clara,” he said. “Both his estate and mine, as well as both our families stand to benefit from this union. And as you just finished your second season, I believe it will be beneficial to you, specifically.”
Clara’s mind screamed in protest, even though her mouth could not form words. She had always dreamt of marrying a man that she loved, someone who touched her heart and soul, and loved her as passionately as she loved him. But now, that dream seemed to vanish before her eyes.
She blinked back tears, allowing the enormity of her father’s revelation to sink in. Her father’s gaze held a combination of sympathy and resolve, as well as a silent plea for understanding. Clara drew a deep breath, digging deep to hold her composure. She knew it was pointless to argue with her father. But how could she just accept his decision?
Once, Julian and she had been considerably close friends. He had been the mischievous boy with twinkling blue eyes who pulled on her hair and chased her into mud puddles and played games with her and her governess during events attended by him and his entire family. There had even been a time during which she had developed feelings for him, the feelings of a young, smitten teenage girl who could have seen herself marrying him one day, if he had only ever returned her affections.
But the universe seemed to have other plans for Clara and Julian. When Julian’s mother died, so, too, did the young man Clara had known for so much of her life. The devastating loss transformed Julian, and they had lost touch a few months after her passing. She couldn’t believe that Julian would be entertaining the notion of marriage with as terribly as his mother’s death had affected him. She certainly couldn’t understand how she, of all the women in London, had been chosen to become his wife. But with the arrangement made, what choice did she have?
With a deep breath and the weight of years of tradition behind her, Clara nodded slowly.
“I understand, Father, and I will respect your decision,” she said flatly.
Her father exhaled in evident relief, but Clara noticed the hint of sympathy in his eyes. He knew the sacrifice he asked of her. Unfortunately, that didn’t make her feel better. It made the notion that he would even ask such a thing, especially without consulting her beforehand, that much harder to comprehend.
“I am glad to hear that, darling,” he said. “Now, you may rejoin your brother and sister with the ornament making, if you like.”
Clara nodded once more, but she didn’t say anything more. There was nothing else to say. The decision was made, and her agreement was entered with her father. Her reluctance and dread about the situation were hers alone, and she would sift through it in the sanctuary of her chambers.
Exiting the study, the world seemed different. The approaching holiday events and plans, which she looked forward to every single year, now had an extra, unwanted layer of significance. It would now also be the season of her betrothal. It would be the season of her marrying Julian. Could she ever truly reconcile with that notion?
The brilliant sun splashed the sprawling, snow-covered grounds of Thornmire Manor in warm shades of yellow. The steady claps of hooves echoed against the crunchy snow as Julian and his cousin, Thomas, rode along with all the care of young children chasing butterflies in the summer. Julian, tall and regal, urged his horse onward, shivering at the briskness of the cold wind on his face. Beside him, Thomas, two inches shorter and two years younger, grinned, his laugh ringing through the meadow.
“Last one to the back of the meadow treats the winner at White’s next time,” Thomas said, narrowing his eyes and focusing on the landscape before him.
“Impish as always, dear cousin,” he said. Julian only ever lost a race against his cousin if he chose to do so. And on that day, he decided he would do just that. It was nice to be on horseback with the cousin who was more akin to a brother to him. But he was enjoying the light atmosphere of a relaxing trot, rather than the competition of a full-blown race.
The race was short, with Julian keeping a steady but intentionally slower pace behind his cousin. When they reached the edge of the meadow that melted into the edge of the woods between Thornmire Manor estate and the neighboring mansion, Thomas was laughing and wiping his brow.
“You let me win, didn’t you?” he asked.
Julian grinned, reigning in his horse with care and shrugging.
“Perhaps,” he said. “Or perhaps old age is catching up with me.”
Thomas pretended to look shocked.
“You think you are old?” he asked. “Cousin, we shall live forever. And even if you were getting old, you’d be the most handsome and charming elderly gentleman in all of London.”
Julian shook his head, giving his cousin a bemused smirk.
“Flattery will get you everywhere, it seems,” he said with another smile. He looked out towards the horizon, his usually aloof demeanor dissolving as he relished the time with his cousin. “I cherish our rides, Thomas. They are a most welcome escape from life and responsibility.”
Thomas seemed to sense the underlying currents in Julian’s words. He shifted his horse closer to Julian’s, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder.
“You’ve always been a source of great strength for me, Cousin,” he said. “Even when society wrote you off as cold and uncaring, I always felt the warmth coming from within.”
Julian’s eyes shimmered with unshed tears.
“Dear Thomas,” he said. “Your parents would be so proud of the man you’ve become.”
For a moment, a slew of memories hung between the two men.
The death of Thomas’s parents had brought him to live with Julian and his family. And Thomas had been Julian’s lifeline after the death of the duchess of Thornmire. The shared tragedies made the bond they shared, having spent many of their years growing up together, unbreakable. And yet, in some ways, those tragedies had broken the men. Julian, especially.
“I miss them,” Thomas whispered, the playful glint from earlier replaced by a melancholic shadow.
Julian reached over, taking his turn in placing a comforting hand on Thomas’s shoulder.
“They live on in you,” he said. “And you’ll never truly be without them. Remember that.” He understood the irony as he spoke the words. But he pushed aside his own thoughts and pain. His cousin needed his support. And he gave it happily.
Thomas’s eyes welled up, but he nodded.
“Thank you, Julian,” he said.
The two sat in silence for a while, absorbing the serenity of the meadow. Even with the ground and trees coated with snow, it was a picture of peace and calm. Julian hadn’t realized how long they had been riding until he noticed how low the sun was sitting in the sky. He looked at his cousin, whose eyes were now dry and his earlier easy smile was returning.
“We best return before Father sends a search party for two rogue gentlemen,” he said.
Thomas chuckled, his spirits seeming to lift immediately.
“Lead the way, dashing elder,” he said.
As they approached the sprawling estate, Julian thought about the circumstances that formed his bond with Thomas. They were good friends as children when Thomas’s parents came to visit the duke and duchess. But after Julian’s father adopted Thomas, he became Julian’s best friend. Even though he was, regarding his station, merely a very wealthy wine businessman, he was still closer to Julian than any of the gentlemen with whom Julian attended Eton.
He was also, in Julian’s opinion, far more deserving of a spot within ton society than most of the noblemen. He was sure that he and Thomas would have grown close, even if tragedy hadn’t stricken their family. And even though their closeness was borne from that tragedy, he couldn’t help being grateful for having a friend who was more like a brother to him. Julian loved his elder sister, Elizabeth. They had also been close growing up, and he adored her. He saw little of her since she married her husband and heir to an earldom, Stephen Farley, and less still since she had her children, Sarah and Edward, whom he adored just as much as he did his sister. But there was nothing quite like the brotherly bond between Thomas and him. Despite the constant ache in his heart over the loss of his mother, Julian could take a moment to appreciate his cousin, and the time he got to spend alone with him.
Dismounting, Julian looked to Thomas, a soft smile playing on his lips.
“Thank you for today, my dearest brother in all but name,” he said.
Thomas returned the smile, his heart full.
“And thank you for letting me win the race today,” he said.
Julian laughed as they walked together toward the mansion.
“I look forward to our next one,” he said.
Thomas laughed and clapped him on the back.
“I suggest you look forward to losing another race, as well,” he said.
Julian chuckled at his cousin’s good-natured ribbing.
“Next time, I might not let you win,” he said.
The men laughed.
The echoes of the men’s footsteps as they entered the mansion were swallowed by the vastness of the grand hallway. The chandeliers swayed gently, casting golden patterns on the well-designed marble floor. Thomas and he parted ways, and Julian prepared to make his way to his small study. But just as he turned the corner to head through the grand hall, the butler intercepted him.
“Lord Silverstone,” Jenkins greeted with a respectful nod. “Your father wishes to speak with you. He awaits you in his study.”
Julian nodded, puzzled. It was the holiday season, and he didn’t think that his father would need his assistance with any business dealings, as many London businessmen would be taking time off from work, by and large, to spend the holiday season with their families. And he knew that his own family had no holiday plans, apart from a feast on the day of Christmas, which Julian tended to skip since his mother died. What could his father want to discuss?
“Thank you, Jenkins,” he said.
Without hesitation, he proceeded to the study, the heavy wooden doors swinging open to reveal a dimly lit room dominated by towering bookshelves and a grand desk. His father sat at the desk, his grey hair shining in the light from the fireplace.
“Julian,” Albert Hawthorne said, his voice, deep and authoritative. He motioned for Julian to sit across from him. As Julian complied, the duke poured two glasses of amber-colored whiskey, pushing one towards Julian.
“Thank you, Father,” he said, accepting the drink. “What was it that you wished to discuss?”
Taking a tentative sip, Julian barely had time to savor the warmth before his father spoke. And as soon as he did, Julian wished he hadn’t taken a drink right then.
“I’ve decided it’s time for you to marry,” he said.”
Julian choked on his whiskey, the liquid burning a fiery trail down his throat.
“Father,” he sputtered. “What on earth are you talking about?”
Albert met his gaze squarely, his steel-blue eyes cold and determined.
“It’s time you settled down, Julian,” he said. “Your persistent bachelor state has drawn attention within the ton. And I can see clearly that it is not good for you. That is why I spoke to the earl of Berrington about his eldest daughter. Clara and you are to be betrothed, with the announcement to be made at the annual festive ball.”
Julian stared dumbly at his father. The annual ball had been withheld since his mother died. Not to mention the fact that he hadn’t seen Clara in years, and marriage had never even crossed his mind. That his father would present such a proposition out of the blue was ludicrous to Julian. He shook his head, taking another long pull from the drink before slamming the glass down on the desk.
“Surely, you can’t be serious,” he said. “I am in no position to even consider marriage.”
The duke narrowed his eyes at his son.
“This isn’t just about you anymore,” he said. “This is about our legacy, continuing the dukedom after you and I are gone. It is the duty of every man who is to reign as a nobleman to produce an heir. Now, it is your turn to do so.”
Julian’s temper rose.
“I will not be dictated to, especially not about what will permanently affect my own life,” he said. “You cannot just arrange a marriage without my consent. Mother would never allow such an atrocity.”
The duke’s irritation with his son’s insubordination was palpable. He frowned at Julian, shaking his head.
“It’s been six years, Julian,” he said. “You’ve secluded yourself, allowing the world to paint you as a recluse. You cannot live this way forever.”
Julian glowered at his father. Can’t I? he wondered with biting bitterness.
“That’s my life, my choice, Father,” he said. “I do not care what society things, especially where my own life is concerned. And I won’t be forced into marriage.”
The tension in the room thickened, both men locked in a silent battle of wills. It was the duke who broke the silence, his voice barely above a whisper yet carrying a weight that Julian couldn’t ignore.
“Your mother loved the festive season,” he said. “It brought her so much joy. She would’ve been heartbroken to see you so distant, so removed from life and from the world. This isn’t what she would have wanted for you.”
Those words, laced with truth and pain, hit Julian like a train. The room suddenly felt suffocating, the memories rushing in like a tidal wave. The vibrant laughter of his mother, her bright eyes shimmering with festive spirit, and the heartbreaking Christmastide season that had stolen her from their family. He could almost hear her voice, the lullabies she sang, and her ever-encouraging words. And he could also hear her objections to his father trying to force him into marriage.
The duke, contrasting with his earlier sternness, seemed to waiver, a hint of regret reaching his eyes.
“Julian, I want you to produce an heir, but I want you to find happiness, as well.” he said. “Your mother would want that for you, too. You will not find that by wallowing in your sorrow alone for the rest of your life.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Julian looked away from his father.
“Happiness cannot be forced, Father,” he said. “And who’s to say that happiness exists only in marriage and conforming to societal expectations?”
With those words, Julian rose. His mind was reeling and his heart was racing, but his expression remained cold and stern. He let the study door slam behind him, pretending not to hear his father call after him. He was in shock. How could his father think that the solution to anything was forcing him into marriage? And why would he not give Julian, as a full-grown man, any say in what happened with his future?
The portrait room beckoned him like an old friend, promising solace from the brewing anger and frustration bubbling within Julian. His father had caught him completely off guard, and Julian couldn’t pick one single thought from the turmoil that was his mind in that moment. Pushing open the door, Julian stepped into a room bathed in the soft light of the setting sun. The walls were lined with portraits of ancestors, each face telling a silent story. But it was one particular portrait that always drew him in—a painting of a younger Julian, his face innocent and hopeful, standing beside his mother. Her eyes sparkled with joy and love, and there was a smile forever painted on her lips.
He approached the portrait, a sad smile touching his own lips.
“Oh, Mother,” he whispered, his voice catching. “I wish you were here. You always knew how to help me make sense of the world.”
Losing himself in the depth of his mother’s picture, memories once again flooded him. The sound of her laughter, the touch of her hand, and the endless words of wisdom she bestowed upon him resonated in his mind as clearly as if he had just experienced them that morning. He remembered how she used to tell him that true love was worth waiting for, and how she wanted him to find a wife that he adored, and who adored him just as equally in return.
His thoughts turned to Clara, the girl with chestnut curls and the innocence in her eyes. She had been a constant in his life, their families intertwining in various events and gatherings since childhood. He recalled their playful squabbles, his constant teasing her, and their shared adventures on the grounds of both Thornmire Manor and Berrington Estate. Over the years, Clara had blossomed into a young lady typical of the ton.
Yet, for Julian, their friendship had dissipated during the years since his mother died. He hadn’t even seen her in years, so he didn’t even know how she looked now. Whether he had pushed her away, or she had distanced herself from his brooding, he wasn’t sure. But the fact remained that he didn’t know her anymore. The thought of marriage felt almost sacrilegious, especially since his mother would not be there to witness the union. He harbored no illusions of passion or deep-seated romantic desires for Clara. And he was sure that she had to feel the same way.
“Why would Father do this?” he asked, addressing the portrait of his mother.
But the silent image of his mother offered no answers, only a reminder of a life lost too soon.
Julian sank into a plush chair, the weight of his thoughts pressing down on him. He could never do what his father was expecting of him. But he also didn’t have the emotional strength to fight with the duke. His father thought he was doing what was best for Julian. But how could Julian ever convey that his father was pushing him further into the darkness that had ruled his life since his mother died?
Let me know your thoughts!
I’m glad that you finished reading the preview of “A Christmas Miracles for the Frosty Marquess”. It will be on Amazon very soon!