A Maiden Lane Christmas Special

Marrying the love of one’s life was all very gratifying, Artemis, Duchess of Wakefield reflected, especially if said love of one’s life was a duke who was both powerful and rich and a rather remarkable lover to boot. But—and there always seemed to be a but, didn’t there?—but just because a man was married didn’t mean he changed his essential nature.

A leopard doesn’t change his spots, a tiger can’t transform his stripes, and apparently Maximus Batten, Duke of Wakefield—one of the most hardworking peers in Parliament—didn’t change his work habits just because he happened to be married now. For example, he thought it perfectly acceptable to go jaunting off on ‘important political business’ at night, thus abandoning his newly wedded wife.

On Christmas Eve.

“He did promise he’d try and meet us at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children,” Lady Phoebe Batten, Artemis’s sister-in-law and dearest friend, said from across their swaying carriage. She wore a lovely rose velvet dress edged in snowy-white ermine fur that perfectly framed her plump figure. “And Maximus always keeps his promises. Well”—Phoebe’s straight little nose scrunched up—“he almost always keeps his promises.”

Artemis sighed. “I’m being ridiculous, I know it. He has responsibilities, important issues of state to decide, and—“

“He has a wife,” Phoebe said stoutly, her loyalty to Artemis overcoming sisterly fidelity. “And it’s your first Christmas together. Perhaps he recently ran into a doorway and cracked his skull. That would explain a lot.”

Artemis shook her head, smiling slightly even though she knew Phoebe couldn’t see her expression. “Well, I’m determined to enjoy our Christmas festivities at the Home with the other Lady’s Syndicate members—with or without my absent husband.”

“As well you should,” Phoebe replied. “And Maximus does care for you very much, you know. Why, he sent a great big hulking bodyguard along to protect us from the dangers of small children and too much wassailing.”

The third occupant of the carriage, sitting on the same side as Phoebe, stirred himself. “I can hear you, my lady.”

“Oh, good,” Phoebe said brightly. “Because I’d begun to think you’d turned to stone there in the corner, which would be quite detrimental to your ability to fling yourself between us and any Christmas pudding.”

Captain James Trevillion frowned. “’Tisn’t my job to engage in conversation, my lady. I’m here to—“

“Protect me, I know.” Phoebe rolled her eyes.

“Phoebe,” Artemis gently chided, feeling embarrassed for the captain. Unlike her sister-in-law, Captain Trevillion’s eyesight was quite intact, and by the clenching of his jaw, he’d taken note of Phoebe’s expression. 

The former dragoon officer had met with a terrible accident several months ago which had broken his right leg quite badly. The injury had laid the soldier abed for weeks and had resulted in Captain Trevillion having to sell his commission and retire from the army. Only a week ago Maximus had abruptly declared that he’d hired Captain Trevillion to guard Phoebe. At first Artemis had wondered if a feeling of debt to the former soldier had prompted her husband’s action. Captain Trevillion had been injured whilst in the company of Maximus and now walked only with the help of a cane. Could a crippled man really protect Phoebe if she were imperiled?

But all doubts had been laid to rest the first time Captain Trevillion had reported for duty. He’d worn—as he wore now—two enormous pistols, strapped across his chest like some savage highwayman. The pistols together with the captain’s own stern visage and air of command made him a formidable guard. She had no doubt at all that he could keep Phoebe safe should the need arise.

Which, unfortunately, didn’t mean Phoebe herself was happy with the arrangement. 

“St. Giles is a dangerous area,” the captain said stiffly, “infested with robbers and those who would do you harm had they the opportunity, my lady.”

Phoebe snorted.

“We’re very glad to have you along, Captain,” Artemis hastily interjected. “Oh, look, there’s the home now.”

And indeed the carriage was drawing up in front of the brightly lit Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. Mr. Winter Makepeace, the manager of the home along with his wife Isabel, must’ve hired footmen for the occasion, for a brace of sturdy fellows were assisting the guests from several carriages. Artemis waited for her own footman to set the step before descending and turning to help Phoebe. 

“Darling, it’s almost beautiful,” she informed her sister-in-law as Phoebe stepped down. “The lights quite make the home glow and it’s begun to snow, just a little. Can you feel it?”

“Oh, yes.” Phoebe turned up her round face, beaming, as flakes lit on her pink cheeks.

Artemis blinked rapidly. Only last year Phoebe had worn spectacles to help her see a little. Now, however, she said they no longer made a difference so she left them off.

Artemis glanced to their carriage. Captain Trevillion was stepping down awkwardly. He was in severe black and rather resembled an ill-tempered crow. A single glare from under lowered dark brows made the footman drop his hand. Such a proud man. Was Maximus right to essentially make him Phoebe’s nursemaid? She bit her lip. Perhaps she ought to discuss the matter further with Maximus and find out if there was another way to keep Phoebe safe.

The thought of her husband sent a pang of longing through her breast. Artemis touched the center of her chest absently. Her emerald pendant usually hung there, but this morning she hadn’t been able to find it on her dressing table. She dearly hoped she hadn’t lost it, for if she had she’d never be able to tell Maximus: it’d once been part of his mother’s necklace, the fabled Wakefield emeralds.

“Your Grace.”

Artemis swung at the husky feminine voice. After more than a month of marriage, she still wasn’t quite used to her new title. An elegant dark-haired lady was picking her way over the cobblestones toward them.

“Mrs. Makepeace,” Artemis greeted her for Phoebe’s sake. “How lovely the home looks tonight.”

“Thank you.” Isabel Makepeace dipped into a graceful curtsy. “And I’d be most honored if you’d call me Isabel. Captain Trevillion.” She nodded at the former soldier. Her eyes widened at the sight of his pistols, but she didn’t make any comment. Maximus must’ve explained the captain’s purpose, then. Isabel turned to Phoebe and took her hand. “I’m so glad you came, Lady Phoebe.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Phoebe said, smiling. “I’m particularly looking forward to the children singing.”

“Are you?” Isabel coughed. The orphan’s recitals were always spirited but not reliably harmonious. She linked arms with both of them. “But do come inside, all of you, it’s too cold outside and everyone else is here. Well, except for Lady Margaret of course.”

“Oh, is there any news?” Artemis asked eagerly. Megs was very heavy with her first child and had been confined to her home as her time neared.

“Only that she’s grumpy,” Isabel said cheerfully. “A very good sign that the baby will come soon—or so I’m informed by your sister, Lady Phoebe.”

Phoebe grinned. “Hero was so out of sorts the day before Sweet William arrived. I wonder if she’ll be the same with this baby?”

“I expect we’ll find out in another month or so,” Artemis murmured. Lady Hero was due to deliver her second child sometime in late January or early February. 

They mounted the front steps companionably. Isabel’s butler, Butterman, held the door and bowed them inside, and then they were in the wide entrance hall. A little white terrier raced to greet them.

Phoebe bent to ruffle the dog’s ears. “How are you, Dodo?”

“He’s been a whirlwind of excitement all day,” Isabel said. “Come, we’re upstairs tonight.”

Isabel led them up the staircase, Dodo following close behind. 

A golden-haired boy met them on the first floor. “My lady, Mr. Makepeace says we shall begin soon.”

Isabel smiled down at her adopted son. “Thank you, Christopher.” 

She took his hand and ushered them all into the biggest classroom. On one side of the room the home’s children milled, chattering excitedly. Nell Jones, the home’s right hand woman, was attempting to bring some order to the children, but it seemed to be a losing battle. Opposite to the children, the members of the Lady’s Syndicate were assembled with their families. Artemis’s own sister-in-law and dear friend, Lady Hero, stood with her husband, Lord Griffin, who had a wry smile on his lips as he whispered in his wife’s ear. Next to Hero, a little boy with bright red hair lunged against his leading strings, held firmly in his father’s fist. Sweet William’s small brows were drawn together as he made a determined effort to get to the home’s resident cat, Soot. The feline sat by the fire, just out of reach of the toddler, watching him with superb distain. 

The elder Lady Caire, elegant and white-haired, stood with her daughter-in-law, Temperance, and her son, the rather intimidating Lord Caire. He was less intimidating than usual at the moment since he held his one-year-old daughter, Annalise, in his arms. The little girl wore a delicately trimmed lace cap and was already asleep against her father’s shoulder. Beside them, a lovely, dark-haired girl stood, shyly observing the Lady’s Syndicate members. It took a moment for Artemis to recognize Mary Whitsun, a former orphan at the home, and now a maidservant to Temperance. And beside them was…

“Oh, my goodness!” Artemis whispered to Phoebe. 

“What? What?” Phoebe asked at once.

“Silence is here.”

Phoebe’s pretty brown eyes widened. “And is he here as well?”

“Yes.” Artemis gulped and both ladies swung their heads toward Captain Trevillion.

The captain’s eyes were narrowed and fixed on the man who stood by the former Silence Hollingbrook with his hand resting protectively on her rounded belly. Rumor had it that Silence’s husband, the mysterious Mr. Rivers, had once been a bloodthirsty pirate, feared by all who knew him…although Artemis had to admit that rumor was a bit hard to credit at the moment. Mr. Rivers wore a sedate white wig, a gorgeous midnight blue coat, and a darling little girl leaned against his leg, the coat clutched in her fist. Her dark curls were very oddly cropped. 

“Oh, dear,” Isabel murmured. “I hadn’t thought.”

Winter Makepeace suddenly appeared before them. “Your Grace, my lady.” He bowed and turned to Captain Trevillion. “I hope, sir, that there will be no need to distress the ladies.”

The captain’s icy blue eyes flicked to his host and for a moment it seemed like everyone held their breaths.

Then Captain Trevillion inclined his head. “As it happens I no longer take the King’s coin.”

“Good.” Mr. Makepeace nodded toward a table. “I hope you’ll partake of our refreshments. The girls spent most of the afternoon cooking.”

“Oh, I hope there’s lemon curd tarts,” Phoebe said, sniffing the air. “I think their tarts were quite passible last we visited, don’t you, Artemis?”

Artemis was saved from having to answer by the sound of footsteps on the stairs behind them. Mr. Makepeace started forward with an intent expression, then stopped, his face going blank. Isabel placed a hand on her husband’s arm and murmured very low, “He’ll be here soon. Please don’t worry.”

Artemis turned to see Lady Penelope paused dramatically in the doorway. She wore an exquisite gold brocade gown with a scarlet underskirt and stomacher and scarlet ribbons on the sleeves and bodice. Beside her was the Duke of Scarborough, a genial man of over six decades and Penelope’s fiancé. 

Penelope smiled grandly at the gathering, but when she caught Artemis’s eye, her smile faltered. She’d attended Artemis’s wedding, naturally—they were cousins—but Penelope hadn’t really talked to Artemis since their dreadful falling out.

Now Penelope visibly swallowed and, at a nudge from the duke, stepped forward. “Your Grace.” She swept a low and quite proper curtsy and as she rose Artemis could see uncertainty in her eyes. “I…that is… Cousin, I’ve missed you.”

Artemis blinked. “And I, you, cousin,” she said sincerely.

And then Artemis was enveloped in a hug and she found herself blinking back tears at her cousin’s impulsive action. Perhaps Penelope had finally learned to look beyond her own nose.

Penelope pulled back, smiling, and noticed Phoebe, still standing beside Artemis. “Lady Phoebe!” she said in an overloud and slow voice. “How nice that Artemis has brought you to listen to the children sing!”

Artemis winced as Phoebe’s expression became strained. Some things obviously didn’t change.

Fortunately Winter Makepeace announced that the children were ready to sing before Penelope could say anything more. Artemis hastily led Phoebe to the double row of chairs arranged for the audience. They faced a cleared area of the schoolroom where the children stood in four ragged rows, the smallest toddlers in front and the eldest girls and boys of about nine or ten in back. Artemis sat with Phoebe on one side of her and Lady Hero on the other.

Her elder sister-in-law leaned close as everyone was getting settled and hissed, “Where is my brother?”

“Maximus said he had business to attend to,” Artemis said primly.

“Beast,” Hero murmured and turned to glare at her own husband, who raised an eyebrow back, looking puzzled.

Lord Griffin bent to Hero and whispered something in her ear that made her cheeks turn pink.

Artemis glanced away, smothering a sigh of envy.

The children abruptly burst into song. It was very loud and very exuberant.

After a few bars, Phoebe nudged Artemis. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, do you think?”

Artemis squinted. “Possibly.”

Hero leaned forward to address her sister around Artemis. “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

Phoebe looked shocked. “Surely not. Artemis?”

“I…” Artemis winced as someone screeched out a note. One of the smaller girls in the front row had given up singing entirely and was instead sucking her thumb while staring dreamily at the audience. “It’s rather an unusual arrangement.”

“Unusually bad,” a male voice drawled behind her and was immediately hushed in feminine tones.

“Nevertheless, I’m quite certain that—” Hero started when one of the older girls screamed.

Even for the performance thus far it was startling.

The girl—dark haired and with an olive complexion—broke rank and ran to the door.

Artemis, along with the rest of the company, rose to look.

The girl seemed to be attacking a young seaman, still in his uniform. He had a shock of red hair and a freckled face above his starched white color. He was grinning, though, as she near strangled him with her arms about his neck, Dodo the dog jumping up and down at his legs. The rest of the children rushed to surround them, trying to get to the youth, and then Winter Makepeace strode toward him and the children parted like the Red Sea before Moses.

He halted in front of the youth. “Joseph Tinbox.”

The boy pushed gently at the girl’s arms and came to attention. “Sir.”

Mr. Makepeace held out his hand. “Welcome home, Joseph.”

The boy grinned, and took the manager’s hand. “Thank you, sir. Merry Christmas, sir.”

Mr. Makepeace shook the boy’s hand and then drew him into a hard hug. The boy was nearly as tall as the man. “Indeed, Joseph. A very Merry Christmas.”

“Thank goodness,” someone whispered close to Artemis and she turned to see Isabel next to her. The other woman met her gaze and Artemis saw she had tears in her eyes. “Joseph has been away at sea for two years. We received a letter several months ago, saying he’d be home for Christmas, and then nothing. I’m afraid my husband has been beside himself with worry for the last week. I’m so glad Joseph Tinbox made it home safely.”

Artemis impulsively clasped Isabel’s hand. “I am, too.”

“Children!” Mr. Makepeace had stepped back from Joseph. “I believe we can continue with our concert now. Please take your places, and afterwards there will be plenty of gingerbread and punch before bedtime.” 

At that incentive, the children crowded back to their positions, though there was some confusion as they straightened themselves out once more.

Artemis watched the bustle with a wistful smile until she felt masculine hands on her arms and heard a deep voice. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

She turned to see Maximus, a snow-covered cloak still about his broad shoulders.

“As well you should be,” Hero said rather tartly.

He shot a glance at his sister before taking Artemis’s hand, “If you’ll spare me a moment, Your Grace?”

“Certainly, Your Grace,” she murmured, simply glad he was here with her.

She rose and followed him to the other side of the room where the fire and the table full of refreshments were.

He stood, holding her hands, and hesitated, frowning. “I know it was badly done of me, but I wanted you to wear it for Christmas.”

She brushed the melting snow off one shoulder. “What are you talking about?”

“This,” he said, and drew the Wakefield emeralds out of the pocket of his coat.

“Maximus,” she whispered, awed. “I thought the jeweler said it would be months yet to put it back together?” 

Her husband had initially hoped that the necklace would be ready for her to wear at their wedding, but the design had been too complicated, and Artemis had been loath to wait months to wed him.

“I told him my duchess should have it for Christmas,” he said, arrogant as always. “He finished it just an hour ago. I’ve ridden from the other side of London. Turn around.”

She did and felt the heavy stones drape her bosom as he fastened the necklace about her neck. “I wish I’d known. I would’ve worn my new scarlet dress. This blue is hardly the right foil for them.”

He turned her back around and looked down at her with dark sable eyes. “The emeralds are a foil for you, my Diana, my duchess, never forget that.”

“Oh, Maximus,” she breathed, her heart swelling. “I love you.”

He bent his head to hers and she accepted the hot possessive press of his lips even as the children’s voices rose once more in off-key song. Her entire being was vibrating with joy because he was here with her on Christmas.

And emeralds or no that was the best gift of all.