Under the Mistletoe (The Lady’s Yuletide Wish) – Excerpt

Chapter One

Hackney, East End of London, Monday, 1 December 1856

The thick fog, a classic London pea-souper, had begun to disperse revealing an iron-grey sky overhead. A sulphurous tang stung the back of his throat, overlaid with the sickly-sweet smell of decay from the detritus that flowed sluggishly in the gutters. Flakes of soot like black snow floated listlessly downwards from the plumes of smoke puffing from every factory chimney.

Eugene shivered, pulling his muffler up to cover his nose, and took shelter under the awning of a shop selling second-hand clothes. Several pairs of boots were lined up at the front of the window display, though when he looked more closely he saw that at least two of them were mis-matched. An array of hats, caps, mittens and shabby bonnets was piled higgledy-piggledy behind them. It was hardly the height of elegance, but that wouldn’t concern the people who shopped here. Inside, stacked on shelves, would be the mainstay of the shop’s business, much-darned clothing that hadn’t become too threadbare from years of washing. Acutely conscious of his own plain but well-tailored black suit and his thick woollen coat, Eugene hunched his shoulders, turning away as the shop door opened. His starched shirt collar and cuffs would be smudged with grime, but they had started the day brilliant white.

Across the road lay his destination, a maze of narrow streets. Not a place for the faint-hearted or unwary, but sadly familiar, given the slum conditions he had publicly exposed over the years. This time however, he was not in pursuit of a story to publish, but on a much more personal quest. He had made little progress in the last six weeks, yet his instincts told him he was getting closer, and his instincts were usually sound. Somewhere in the warren of alleys across the road lay the key to the mystery.

He dodged the late-afternoon traffic and headed down the first street. Cramped and dark, it was lined with brick-built houses three stories high which soared far into the gloom. The frontages were flat with mean windows, the bricks soot-blackened and crumbling. As he walked on, the silence began to envelop him, for the streets were too narrow for through traffic. He had the eerie sense of being watched, though the few people he passed averted their gaze. He felt every inch the outsider.  

He turned, found himself in a courtyard that was a dead end, retraced his steps, then turned into another street, the walls so close together that he could almost have touched both sides with his arms spread. His usually reliable sense of direction failed him. He had no idea where he was, or how to locate the church where he hoped to find the breakthrough. At a cross-roads he hesitated. Each street stretched straight and decrepit, and all looked horribly similar, but one looked slightly broader than the others. He followed it, his hopes rising as he spotted light emanating from the windows of a large building that looked like it might be a church or mission hall. Two shallow steps led up to a battered door. Hugely relieved, Eugene turned the handle and stepped quietly inside.

He found himself in a small square foyer and from behind the door ahead of him came a subdued, contented murmur and a delicious smell that made his mouth water. He eased the door open just enough to peer through. The hall was not large, but the ceiling was double height, giving it a spacious feel. Gas sconces flared at regular intervals along the freshly-painted walls, and a fire blazed in the hearth at the far side of the room. Three rows of trestle tables took up most of the space, and around each table sat a very eclectic mix of diners, men, women and children of all ages. Some wore rags, others working clothes, and he spotted a number of soldiers in tattered uniforms, though the war in the Crimea had ended in March. Dinner was well underway, with tin bowls filled with a fragrant stew, plates stacked high with bread, and mugs filled with milk and ale. He was unobserved, as everyone was concentrating on their food.

Then he saw her. Petite, with a wild tumble of curly black hair pinned up in a top knot, clad in a dark dress with a white apron tied over the voluminous skirt. He told himself that it was merely the resemblance to a nurse’s uniform that made him think it could be her, but his instant reaction was too visceral for him to be mistaken. He would never forget that one, fleeting memorable night. He remembered the silky, springy texture of her hair when it tumbled loose over her shoulders. He remembered the olive tone of her skin, the voluptuous curves of her body, the full breasts, the flare of her hips. He remembered the roughness of her calloused hands on his skin. The tangle of their limbs, slick with sweat. The scent of their love-making mingling with the all-pervading smell of battlefield mud. The soft, muffled cry she made when she climaxed. He remembered the flickering oil lamp in the makeshift wooden hut. The course sheets and inadequate blanket on the small bed. The open trunk, half-packed with her belongings. He could vividly recall his last glimpse of her sitting up in the bed, the sheet clutched around her, as he picked up his clothing from the floor in the grey light of dawn. And that last, lingering kiss goodbye.

All this flashed through his mind in those seconds as he stood rooted to the spot, both entranced and shocked. He had never thought to see her again, though their passionate night still haunted his dreams, nine months later. What the hell was she doing here? He had barely formulated the question when she turned. Heart-shaped face. Huge brown eyes under fierce brows. Full mouth which formed into an ‘oh’ of shock when she saw him. She stood perfectly still, absurdly rooted to the spot just as he was, the colour draining from her cheeks, before returning, colouring them bright red, as she hurried towards him, pushing him out of the door and back into the entranceway.

‘Hello, Isabella,’ he said, as if there was any doubt.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’

 ‘I had no idea I would find you here. I swear I did not come looking for you.’

Her mouth firmed. ‘What then, are you in search of a story? Did Father Turner send you snooping in an attempt to find an excuse to shut us down? I’m sorry to disappoint you but as you can see, there is nothing untoward going on, simply wholesome food being served without the supplementary sermon he insists upon dishing up. I would very much appreciate it if you would remind him we are not in competition. God knows, these people need all the help they can get.’

‘Isabella, I am looking for Father Turner, but I’m not here at his behest.’

She folded her arms, glaring at him. ‘His church is about five minutes walk from here. Don’t let me detain you.’

She wanted him to leave, but eating at the tables in the hall were precisely the kind of people he needed to speak to, and if Isabella had their trust. Besides, he didn’t want to leave, not like this, without a parting word, just exactly as before. ‘I am investigating a story, but it’s a personal one,’ Eugene said, ‘and I think you might be able to help me a great deal more than Father Turner. Will you let me explain?’

‘I’m in the midst of serving dinner.’

‘Then what can I do to assist?’ He took off his hat and gloves as he spoke, a manoeuvre that had proved extremely effective in the past. Presume that you’re welcome, and basic good manners would make it more difficult for you to be rebuffed. He unbuttoned his coat. ‘At the very least, you must need help with the washing up?’

Isabella remained where she was, though she didn’t re-issue his marching orders. ‘Are you honestly saying that your being here is a coincidence?’

‘I swear, I had no idea. When I saw you I was dumbfounded.’

Her mouth softened a fraction. ‘The feeling was mutual. I thought – I don’t know what I thought. I still don’t know what to think.’

‘Fate?’ Eugene suggested wryly. ‘Let me stay, help with the dishes, and hear me out afterwards. Though if you’d rather I left now I would understand. I’ll go and ask for Father Turner’s help as planned, and I won’t trouble you ever again,’ he added.

She pondered this long enough for him to wonder whether he’d be able to act on such a promise, walk away without knowing anything more about her than he already did. Then, slowly, she nodded. ‘Very well. If you were serious about helping with the dishes…’

‘Lead me to the scullery,’ Eugene said, smiling with relief. He followed her back into the hall and through a door at the rear into a well-equipped and obviously new kitchen, where an amply proportioned woman was removing huge basins of steamed pudding from the top of a stove.

‘Maisy,’ Isabella said, ‘this is Mr…’

‘Eugene.’ Now was not the time for formal introductions, he decided, smiling at the cook. ‘That smells absolutely delicious.’

‘Course it does,’ Maisy said, failing to be charmed. ‘My spotted dick is famous in these parts.’

‘And if you do a good job with the dishes,’ Isabella said, ‘you might even earn yourself a slice. Maisy also makes excellent custard.’

‘There won’t be any of that left. Never is. Excuse me,’ Maisy said, pushing Eugene to the side. ‘Scullery’s in there.’

The room contained nothing but two sinks and several drying racks. ‘We are fortunate enough to have the water supply switched on every day here,’ Isabella informed him. ‘You can hang up your coat and jacket on the peg there. The hot water comes from the kettle on the range, we haven’t managed to have a boiler installed yet.’

Seeing him look with dismay at the stack of dirty crockery, pots and tin plates, she took pity on him. ‘One for washing, one for rinsing, and then they go on the rack there. Start with the soup bowls. You’ll be joined by two of the ladies when they’ve had their pudding.’

Her voice was low, cultivated, her plain clothes like his, deceptively expensive. He guessed her to be twenty-five or so, five or six years younger than himself. She had gone to the Crimea at the start of the war back in ’53, and left the day after they met, at the end of hostilities in March. She had been unmarried at the time, and still wore no wedding ring. That was the sum total of what he knew about her. Eugene’s innate curiosity, both his Achilles heel and his driving force, was aroused, but he needed to keep it in check. He couldn’t afford to be distracted from the task in hand. He began to pump water into the first of the basins. ‘I’ll get on then, shall I.’

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