Mr. Harper and the Christmas Stocking
By Ginn Hale
A volley of frigid wind shook the roof and hurled sleet against the walls of the shack as if laying siege to the meager shelter. The planks of the boarded window shuddered and the low rafters groaned under the weight of snow. Harper eyed the drift blowing in from beneath the crack in the rickety door.
At this rate they’d all freeze to death long before anyone starved. So there at least was something to celebrate this Christmas morning.
Had Belimai been at his side he might have whispered as much to him and like as not drawn a smile out of him. But, thankfully, Belimai had remained at the Foster Estate, where Harper imagined he was safe, warm and most likely still sleeping. Or likelier still just dragging himself off to bed having rattled around the grounds all night amusing and scandalizing Mrs. Kately, Giles, and the rest of the staff with his gleefully devilish impersonations of Father Christmas.
He did look strikingly handsome against red velvet. Though Harper preferred to see him stretched out naked atop the cloth, than stitched up in it.
Harper frowned as his own drifting thoughts and wondered if the blow to his head hadn’t been worse than he’d first imagined. He touched the side of his skull and felt the hard mass of dried blood beneath his hair. The wound felt tender but not terribly swollen or inflamed.
Certainly, he stood in far better condition than the horses he’d been forced to put down with his pistol or the driver whose broken corpse he’d left on the riverbank along with their wrecked carriage.
Somehow, the blond widow, Mrs. Posey, and her exuberantly plump five-year-old son, Michael, had survived the wreck with little more than a few bruises and a pair of sodden breeches to show for their tumble from the icy road into a riverbank. Sergeant Beech, who ‘d climbed aboard the late carriage with his left arm in a sling and his leg swathed in plaster from the knee down, now lay in miserable condition on and floor. What good his city physician’s treatments might have done him, the tumble in a locked carriage had more than reversed. Splotches of blood seeped up through his plaster cast like scarlet poppies blooming across a field of snow. His arm hung, gray and twisted at his side.
“Don’t cut it off,” the sergeant had moaned against Harper’s back as he’d carried him through the storm blasted expanses of empty fields.
The sergeant drifted in and out of awareness, though Harper noted that he said less and less each time. Mrs. Posey and Harper had done what they could to keep him comfortable. Harper’s greatcoat served as the man’s blanket and the battered rag rug they’d found in the shack was his mattress, but without fuel to build a fire they were none of them warm.
“Is it past noon, do you think?” Mrs. Posey asked from where she knelt beside the unconscious, dark-haired sergeant. Only a foot away, her little son entertained himself peering into the barren hearth with Harper’s scarf bundled around him. The bruise below his right eye looked like it belonged on a bare-knuckle boxer, as did his gap-toothed grin. Despite the violent tumble of their carriage and the ensuing hard slog through the storm, the lad seemed largely unperturbed.
“Ten or so I’d guess from the light.” Harper replied. He would have liked it if a little less light, and thus less snow, leaked in through the aged planks that made up the bowed walls. Still it was better shelter than nothing and they’d been quite lucky that Harper happened to remember the shack from his fall hunt.
“They will have noticed that the carriage didn’t arrive by now,” Mrs. Posey said though she no longer looked to Harper. She pressed her bloodied kerchief to Sergeant Beech’s gashed cheek very lightly. “A doctor will be here very soon I’m sure.”
The sergeant gave a dull groan.
“Yes,” Mrs. Posey said brightly. “Any time now. Mr. Harper is a local gentleman of very good standing and his people are probably already searching for him.”
Harper gave the widow a tight smile when she glanced to him. In all truth, he descended from a lineage of noblemen, and held the title of Lord Foster. But that wasn’t information that he made widely known, particularly not when traveling by public carriage.
His people, with the exception of Belimai perhaps, hadn’t the faintest notion of when to expect him back from the capitol. He’d told no one his reason for leaving nor his plans for returning. To Belimai he’d only promised that he would bring him a gift to celebrate the season. He hadn’t wanted to raise Belimai’s hopes before he had the documents in hand.
Absently, he slid his hand into the pocket of his dress coat and felt the stiff resistance of carefully folded pages. Just a few stamped and sealed papers, but they’d cost him nearly a fifth of the Foster estate’s income and had required weeks of dogged effort, no end of flattery, and one brief but extremely violent encounter to secure.
He’d known the weather was turning but he’d been too delighted at the thought of delivering the writs to Belimai to heed his own instincts. He’d caught the first carriage he could…
Like a fool.
“Mother,” Michael called though he gaped up the chimney of the fireplace. ”Will he fit?”
“Come away from the hearth, my dear. It’s quite dirty. You’re getting soot all over Mr. Harper’s handsome scarf.” Mrs. Posey cast Harper an apologetic glance.
“It’s quite alright,” Harper assured her.
Michael seemed to take this as permission to remain where he was.
“Will he know that we’re here?” Michael squatted down and crawled a little farther into the cold fireplace to peer up the chimney.
“Father Christmas, you mean?” Harper guessed.
“Yes,” Michael spared Harper only a moment’s glance. “We were to be at Ross… Rossington Hall with Grandpapa. But we aren’t. Father Christmas might give my gift to Cousin George—who’s a turd–”
“Michael!” Mrs. Posey snapped at her son, her pale cheeks flushing.
“Turd-el,” Michael said gleefully. “I was just going to call him a turtle.”
Harper had to suppress a laugh.
“As I understand it, Father Christmas keeps very well informed,” Harper told the boy. “He’s probably just been delayed by the storm.”
Mrs. Posey shot Harper a rather reproachful glance but Harper ignored her. If thoughts of Father Christmas buoyed the child’s spirit then let him keep believing. What good would it do him to know that they were stranded here with Sergeant Beech dying slowly before their eyes?
“If only we had something for a fire,” Mrs. Posey whispered. Very gently she brushed a string of hair back from Sergeant Beech’s pallid face. “He feels so cold.”
Short of tearing the planks from the walls and setting them alight, Harper didn’t see what could be done but to wait. He hated waiting, but burning down their shelter certainly wasn’t an option. And while the idea of abandoning the shack to plunge blindly through the snowstorm to seek out help appealed, Harper knew it would be utter folly to go while the weather remained so bad. Harper could be foolish—particularly for Belimai’s sake, he wasn’t going to go out of his way to act like an idiot. He had to wait, at least another hour.
“There’s something up there,” Michael suddenly called out. Then he scrambled back from below the flue as a scattering of creosote and soot tumbled down. “Father Christmas has found us!”
“Come here at once, Michael.” Alarm showed starkly on Mrs. Posey’s face and her son tottered over to her. Harper quickly stepped forward to stand between the boy and the fireplace.
More soot flooded down onto the cold hearth. Something was certainly in the chimney. In all likelihood the wind had loosened the remains of a squirrel that had made the poor choice of nesting up the chimney before the previous occupants had stoked a roaring fire.
And here’s the Christmas roast, Harper thought to himself.
Then the angular, filthy figure, dressed all in red with white trim dropped down before them. His yellow eyes seemed to gleam against the coal marking his face. Mrs. Posey gripped her son to her and the boy gave a yelp.
At the same moment Harper’s heart seemed to leap in his chest, flooding him with heat and joy.
“Belimai.” Harper stepped forward and just kept himself from embracing the other man as he realized the danger of the situation. Not just that Belimai had ventured out into the storm, but that he’d left the security of the Foster estate. A Prodigal alone in the countryside without papers was as fair game for any natural born man to shoot as a fox.
“What on earth are you doing here?” Harper demanded.
“Looking for a fellow I seem to have mislaid. He goes by the name of William Harper. ” Belimai made an attempt at brushing some of the soot from his costume, but after scowling at his own filth hands he simply shrugged. “I would have knocked and announced myself like proper fellow but there’s about five feet of snow blocking the door, so it was down the chimney.”
“He… he’s a devil!” Mrs. Posey whispered.
Belimai cast the pretty woman a hard glance and then smiled, displaying his sharp white teeth.
“Belimai is a Prodigal,” Harper informed her quickly. “And a friend of mine.”
Mrs. Posey continued to watch Belimai with suspicion. Her young son, however studied Belimai with a kind of hopeful fascination as if still half convinced that a sack of toys might be forthcoming despite the sinister appearance of Belimai’s wild dark hair, long black fingernails and stringy build.
“Have you brought me a spyglass?” Michael asked.
Oddly, Belimai went very still and stared at the boy as if he’d said something extraordinary. Then after a moment he reached into the voluminous pocket of his filthy red coat and withdrew the brass toy spyglass that he’d won off Giles in a game of cards last summer. He’d bettered Harper as well, but that payment had been made in the privacy of his bedroom.
“I was pretending to look for you from the turret last night. When you hadn’t arrived this morning I started searching in earnest,” Belimai told Harper. Then he extended his hand and offered the glass to the boy. “Don’t say a devil never did anything for you.”
Michael accepted the gift with a dumbfounded expression, while Mrs. Posey seemed utterly at a loss. Harper imagined she wanted to knock the spyglass from her son’s hands but the modesty and meek manners ingrained by her proper upbringing left her looking to Harper for direction. He simply smiled at Belimai feeling relieved and amazed that he could have found them in this weather.
“You didn’t happen to bring a cord of firewood for my gift, did you?” Harper teased him.
“No, but I did leave a few lovely lumps of coal in one of your socks,” Belimai replied.
Harper laughed but then asked, “Did you really?”
“You shouldn’t have left your household for so long without sending word. We’d begun to fear the worst,” Belimai said.
Harper felt the slightest flush warm his face. Somehow he hadn’t thought that Belimai would fear for him in his absence. The knowledge, even expressed so coolly, touched him. Belimai held his gaze for just a moment then looked away.
“Is that fellow in the army uniform dead, or just very close to it?” Belimai asked with a nod to Sergeant Beech.
“He’s not dead,” Mrs. Posey stated firmly.
“But he is very badly injured.” Harper added. “We need to get him help as soon as we can.”
Harper scowled as another howl rose on the battering wind. Belimai cocked his head, studying the sergeant briefly.
“He might be the reason the sheriff and half a dozen armed men are out on the road…”
“They’re looking for us?” Mrs. Posey asked and for the first time she seemed able to look Belimai in the face, if only briefly.
“I believe so. I overheard them shouting to each other from my roost up in a tree. It sounded as though the soldiers summoned the sheriff and started searching after their comrade and his carriage failed to turn up. They can’t be far from here.” Belimai started towards the chimney then he glanced back to Harper. “I’ll bring them and a few shovels, as quickly as I can.”
“Wait,” Harper couldn’t keep himself from reaching out and catching Belimai’s arm. “You won’t be safe approaching them alone—“
“I can’t very well haul you or the lovely lady here up the chimney with me and even if I did the cold—“
“I’ll go!” Michael shouted suddenly. “You can take me on your sleigh!”
“Michael! You will do no such thing,” Mrs. Posey objected.
Belimai simply gave a laugh and shook his head at the flushed, fat child.
“I don’t think that toting a little boy around under my arm would impress the sheriff as to my good character.”
“At least take these.” Harper thrust the writs of free travel to him and Belimai accepted and read them with a growing expression of wonder.
“How…” He glanced briefly to Harper’s face, his eyes shining like gold. “This is why you were away so long.”
“Yes. I’m afraid my success made me rather cocksure about racing home when I knew the roads would be in ruins.”
“Will—” Belimai spoke his name softly but then cut himself off short. They weren’t alone and couldn’t afford to betray any but the most genial of intimacies. “Thank you. I’ll put them to good use.”
With that Belimai ducked back into the shadows of the hearth and bounded up out of sight.
Six hours later the great halls of the Foster estate echoed with the inebriated carols of half a dozen soldiers and accompanying piano provided by a bashful country doctor whom Harper suspected had become as besotted with Mrs. Posey as with his hard cider. His cheeks glowed nearly as red as the holly berries dotting the evergreen bowers, which decked the doorways and mantle of the hearth.
Harper added another log to fire, basking in the heat and admiring how the warm light seemed to cast Belimai’s skin in tones of burnished gold. A lieutenant kindly refilled Harper’s cup and he thanked the man, though the cider came from his own stores. A few feet from them, several of the soldiers did their best to lure the few women present to dance. The young housemaids remained coy but Harper’s white-haired cook leapt up at the opportunity. She soon revealed herself as a surprisingly spry woman. Harper never would have guessed.
Under most circumstances it would have been inappropriate for any of them to socialize in this manner.
But with all of them being snowed in together on the holiday, Harper felt they might as well make the best of the day that they could. Mrs. Kately deemed to relax her strict control of the housemaids and the kitchen women as well as the lanky footman Giles. Drinks, song and laughter flowed easily.
Eventually, Mrs. Posey retired to bed, taking her giddy son—Michael had nearly nodded off into his serving of pudding only to rally when Belimai agreed to fly to the top of the ballroom candelabra. The sight had inspired a rousing cheer from the soldiers.
Harper joined the men in their carols, danced with his cook and indulged in several rounds of toasts. But as the winter sun sank low he felt the long day wearing down on him. At last, he bid his guests, rescuers, and staff a very good evening.
He resisted the urge to peer into any of the ornately framed mirrors to see if Belimai had looked up from his hand at the card table. Belimai would join him when he could best slip away unnoticed. A number of the soldiers still edged around him, basking in the novelty of meeting a Prodigal, particularly one who commanded the winds to carry him in flight just like a character from their bible school days.
To the country-bred men a unicorn couldn’t have been more exotic. They stared at his glossy black nails and met his gaze with the excited fascination of children watching a lion at the zoo. The two men who hailed from the capitol seemed far more surprised by Belimai’s character. It was the rarest of Prodigals who hailed a party of armed kingsmen, looked them in the eyes as he offered them his aid, and then asked nothing in return.
It would do Belimai some good to be toasted and teased as their Christmas miracle. In truth his arrival most likely saved Sergeant Beech’s life and though neither Mrs. Posey, her son, nor any of these soldiers knew it, Belimai was hardly more immune to the cruelty of the storm than any natural man. Riding those frigid winds he ‘d risked freezing to death while on the ground, striding across the countryside without papers, he very well could have been shot.
Offering the occasional sharp observation and wicked smile from his nonchalant posture at the card table, Belimai betrayed nothing of the danger he’d endured. Knowing him, he likely thought nothing of it, though Harper suspected that before Belimai retired from the table he would have won himself a tidy compensation.
For his part Harper felt glad enough just to be home. He took the marble stairs with ease despite the growing gloom. From the far windows, stained glass angels watched over his progress to the quiet private chambers of the old fortress. He could have lit his way with just a touch to the gas lamps that now lined the stone walls but he knew the way to Belimai’s bed even in the dark.
He let himself into the comfortable room. The glow of white snow shone through the small round window and a fire burned low in the hearth. Harper quickly stripped. Out of long habit he folded his jacket and trousers over the chair where he’d already leaned his boots. Last he pulled the black kidskin glove from his scarred right hand and stretched his fingers.
Many of Belimai’s clothes lay scattered about the room along with his stacks of sketchbooks and collections of still life studies. Harper moved aside a bottle of sepia ink and rinsed himself with the orange scented water on the nightstand. His nightshirt, neatly pressed and folded, waited for him in the drawer of the dresser. Belimai took such absurd care of it in comparison to any of his own possessions.
As Harper fell back into the cool comfort of the bed he noted one of Belimai’s filthy socks hanging from the light fixture over head. He had no idea how he could find such a sight so charming and delightful but it brought a wide smile to his face. He drew the blankets around him and took in the sharp scent of Belimai’s body. Then he closed his eyes and dozed.
A little later, the sound of a door opening woke him. Belimai stepped in through the door that adjoined their two rooms—not from the hallway as Harper had expected. He looked amused as he caught sight of Harper already laying in his bed.
“See how we are.” Belimai shook his head and dropped down on the edge of the bed. “You come to my room and I go to yours. We have the makings of a theatric farce.”
Harper smiled and sat up to help Belimai out of his clothes. He had to admit that simply tossing the garments aside allowed him to have Belimai naked in remarkable time. He drew back the blankets and Belimai dived under to press his chilled body against Harper’s warm flesh. A rush of desire flooded Harper as he ran his hands over Belimai. He kissed him once but drew back.
“What is it?” Harper asked.
Belimai caught Harper’s hand before he withdrew it from his chest and simply held it. “Will, how much did those papers cost you?”
“Nothing more than I’d gladly have paid,” Harper replied and he meant it with all his heart. Belimai looked troubled and Harper knew why.
“How am I going to repay you?” Belimai asked.
“Repay me for a gift?” Harper demanded with quiet indignation. “What kind of man expects to be repaid for a Christmas present?”
“It’s more than a gift,” Belimai replied and Harper found the softness of his tone almost disturbing. He couldn’t know if it was tenderness or deep regret that he saw in Belimai’s expression.
“It’s my freedom. With those papers I could go anywhere. I could travel to the continent or even sail for the colonies,” Belimai said.
“You could,” Harper agreed. He reminded himself that he’d known from the very start that the writs for which he fought and paid dearly would allow Belimai to leave him. He’d hoped that Belimai would not do so. A sharp ache speared through his chest at the thought now.
“Will you?” Harper asked after a few moments of quiet.
“Not alone,” Belimai replied and a sudden look of knowing came over him. “Did you really think that I would?”
Harper met his bright eyes and shook his head. Belimai sighed and then flopped his head down on Harper’s shoulder. The two of them lay quietly together. Almost shyly Belimai kissed the line of Harper’s throat.
“You know I wouldn’t leave you,” Belimai told him. “And you know very well why.”
“Do I?” Harper feigned surprised but then Belimai kissed him deeply and he felt both his own yearning and Belimai’s in their embrace. What a hot mouth Belimai possessed, and so inviting, despite all those teeth.
As Belimai drew back just a little, to catch his breath Harper couldn’t keep from smiling.
“Are you gloating now?”
“Perhaps,” Harper admitted. This whole evening struck him as almost magical—Belimai most of all. He asked, “How did you know to come looking for me anyway?”
“That? It was because you’re so damned conscientious and you had promised to bring me back a gift for the holiday.” Belimai leaned up on an elbow and reached out to push a lock of Harper’s hair back from his face. “I knew you’d come regardless of the weather.”
“I’m so unsurprising, am I?”
“More predictable than a pocket watch.” Belimai nodded. To prove him a little wrong Harper knocked his elbow out from under him and rolled atop Belimai. Belimai grinned up at him with a pleased expression that told Harper that Belimai had expected just as much from him and wanted it as well. They kissed again and then Harper dropped back to lay his head next to Belimai’s on the pillow.
“Alright, but why dress as Father Christmas? You were hardly subtle.”
Harper wasn’t certain but he thought a slight flush colored Beliamai’s angular face.
“I had been planning to swoop down from the turret, take you by surprise, and–you know–offer to show you my naughty list, or some such thing. But then the carriage never came. And I started to fear it never would…”
Harper glimpsed the stark pain in Belimai’s expression.
Then Belimai wiped at his eyes in annoyance and pulled a weak smile. “To tell the truth I got so worried about the carriage that I forgot I was dressed like a right prat and just lit out to find you.”
“I’m happy as hell that you did,” Harper said. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure… and speaking of which,” Belimai cocked his head slightly. “Aren’t you ever going to ask what gift I have for you?”
“I hadn’t thought… “ Harper didn’t go on to point out Belimai’s poverty. “What is it?”
Belimai grinned. “Let’s just get it unwrapped and see, shall we?”
Belimai caught the hem of Harper’s nightshirt and began pulling it off him. In less then a breath Harper went from confusion to delighted comprehension. He all but tore his nightshirt off and hurled it aside. Where it fell he didn’t care in the slightest.
“Merry Christmas, Will,” Belimai whispered into Harper’s ear. Then he kissed, caressed and nipped his way down Harper’s flushed chest to his groin. He bowed his head and took Harper in a long and deep kiss.
Harper caressed Belimai’s wild hair, gazed up at the ceiling in ecstasy, and caught a glimpse of the overhanging sock. No wonder he liked the sight of the thing so much, he thought wryly. And then he thought of nothing at all, giving himself up to joy of the warmest welcome he could ever have wanted.