Grieving widower Lord Matthias of Havensbeck Manor sends messages in a bottle to his lost wife and child, never knowing they are being found and read by spirited vicar’s ward Bernadette Goodrich!
It’s been six years since Matthias lost his family to a Christmas Eve fire at the manor. Still grieving, he secludes himself there every year, unable to bear the holiday celebrations of others. And every year, he sends his love and his broken dreams off in a series of letters tossed into the river.
Every holiday season, orphaned Bernadette looks for the dramatic and beautiful letters to arrive at her riverside vicarage. Will anyone ever love her the way the mysterious letter-writer loved? And who is the author of the heart-stopping letters she treasures so much?
A Christmas Ball brings the two together in a conspiracy by a mischievous little brother and an interfering butler. By turns heartfelt and hilarious, Sleepless in Staffordshire is a charming Regency historical take on the romantic Nora Ephron film “Sleepless in Seattle.”
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Preview Chapter 1 of Sleepless in Staffordshire!
LORD MATTHIAS WATERFORD ENTERED HIS fine country manor of Havensbeck in county Staffordshire, removed his hat and was promptly greeted by his butler, Jasper. The stout man looked dignified as usual in his dark blue livery.
Jasper bowed. “How was your ride, my lord?”
“Cold.” Matthias shrugged out of his snow-dusted greatcoat and unwound his woolen scarf. Something caught his eye as he looked up. “Jasper, what is that hideous growth that is even now strangling my banister?"
Jasper wasn’t the slightest bit near-sighted, being no older than Matthias’s own thirty-two years. Yet he squinted up at the stair railing as if barely able to see what his master referred to. "Oh, that? That is a garland, my lord. A braided strand of winter greenery used to impart a sense of the season."
"Yes, I know what a garland is. Why is a garland allowed to infest my house?"
Jasper beamed at Matthias innocently. "Some people consider them very becoming decorations, my lord."
"Some people may, but not I. Take it down."
"Absolutely. Hideous thing. I shall banish it at once, my lord." The butler bowed so obsequiously low that Matthias could see the top of his ginger-haired head. Sarcasm, in his own house.
Matthias handed his black leather riding gloves to Jasper with an admonishing glare. Then he turned toward his study and the bottle of brandy that awaited him there.
Garlands. Blast it! Christmas just kept coming, every year, again and again, no matter how fast he rode or how far he traveled. So he retreated to this place, Havensbeck, deep in the Staffordshire valley, where the icy cold kept everyone indoors and the heavy snow muffled the sounds of their celebrations. And he still walked in on blasted garlands.
Matthias sighed and turned to face his most faithful and trusted and annoying retainer. "Out with it, Jasper."
"The Haven assembly rooms are under repair, my lord. Recall that storm last October? The roof leaked most abominably."
"I don’t believe a word of it."
Jasper nodded solemnly. "It is quite true, my lord. Mildew everywhere. The blue velvet chair cushions are positively green with stuff growing on them."
"And yet you drape my house with green growing stuff?"
"That’s different, my lord." Jasper’s tone was starchy. "That’s traditional."
Matthias sighed. "Mildew, eh?"
"It is most unrefined, my lord. The ladies will never sit down all night. You will be forced to dance with every single one, at least three times. That is, you would if you still danced."
Pity tinged the butler’s voice. Matthias flinched from it, parting his lips to reprimand Jasper. However, those black days of shouting at his devoted servants were long past. “Inform whomever is arranging this event that I will buy new chairs for the hall.”
Jasper blinked. “Ah. Yes. That is most generous, of course, my lord. But with only three weeks until Christmas?“
“Ah, you were hoping I would volunteer the manor for the celebrations?”
"Oh, it isn’t I, my lord. It’s the staff, you see. I’m simply the elected spokesperson." Jasper spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. "I’m fully against it, myself. I loathe people. I despise celebrations. So messy. Dreadful nuisance, guests. If it were up to me, my lord, I would keep the house dark and cold and serve only dry toast and brandy for the next three weeks, just as you prefer. Now, that’s my sort of Christmas."
Irony, from his own butler. Matthias grunted as he turned away. "Just top off the brandy, Jasper. The dry toast is all yours this evening."
MATTHIAS LEANED BACK IN HIS fireside chair and cupped his snifter in both hands. His study remained quite satisfactorily dark, but it wasn’t cold. Jasper would never allow that. A cheery flame traced blue and gold over the coals in the fireplace. From his high-backed chair, Matthias watched it numbly until its merry dance seemed to mock his misery. He closed his eyes against its optimistic flare.
Another Christmas. Another year without Marianna, without his jolly little Simon, without his family. No happy singing of carols, no giddy hiding of gifts, just this bloody great echoing house and another snowy anniversary of that horrible fiery night.
His eyes opened and his gaze slid to the blotter on his desk. Jasper had left out a stack of foolscap and a filled inkwell. Next to the blotter stood a washed, dried wine bottle and a cork at the ready.
Matthias looked away. He didn’t know why he bothered. The letters never helped. The entire process was maudlin and unwise and useless. If anyone but Jasper ever learned of it, they would certainly think him mad.
So why did the next moment find him seated at his desk, sharpening a quill? Why did his fingertips grasp the pen, dip it into the ready ink and begin to write?
My dearest Simon,
He wouldn’t write to Marianna this time. But a man could pen a letter to his own son, could he not?
The snow is falling on the lawn and I think of you chortling away as your mama tried to show you how to make a snow angel. She moved your little arms and legs and you thought she meant to tickle you. And when she lifted you into her arms and pointed at what you made together, you clapped your hands and shouted "Doggie!" That’s when she began to call them snow doggies instead and we made them all over the lawn for you to see the next morning when you awoke.
The coals had gone to gray ash and the house was silent by the time he finished the letter. The pages, when rolled, scarcely fit through the neck of the bottle.
“You are a man of few words, my love,” she had told him once with a little laugh in her voice, “but when you take up a pen, you write volumes!
"Only about you," Matthias whispered now. "Only about him."
He corked the bottle tightly and stood, weaving just slightly. He’d been at the desk so long the brandy had nearly worn off, or it would have, if he’d taken the toast. He would have an aching head on him in the morning for his carelessness.
No matter. His step was steady as he left the study and the house. It wasn’t a far walk to the stone bridge over the river. His woolen surcoat and weskit would keep him warm enough, even in the snowfall.
The clouds held a glow, for the village was still alight with lanterns and the first round of celebrations. The people of Haven loved a fête, that was for certain. Marianna had adored throwing parties for them all. From baptisms to weddings, she had turned her considerable imagination to pleasing his people. Matthias had always held their respect, but it was Marianna they had loved.
His chest hurt. The hollow pain of loss and helpless fury that smoldered in his heart burned with a special, piercing ache as Christmas Eve approached every year.
The manor had long been repaired. Looking back at it now, no sign remained of the fire damage that had burned the heart right out of its master. Tonight, as the snow fell so peacefully and silently, muffling the faint sounds of fiddle music coming from the village, one would think that nothing bad could ever happen in a place so beautiful.
One would be wrong.
Marianna had loved the river. It was known as the River Churnet, a name so old no one remembered what it meant any longer. “Mundane,” she had stated, and renamed it the River Celadon and declared it chock full of naiads or dryads or whatever spirits haunted running water. Even now, in the harshest of winters, the swift running water had refused to freeze entirely, leaving a rushing stream down the center of the encroaching ice on both banks.
Matthias leaned his elbows on the sturdy stone railing of the bridge and pressed the freezing glass bottle to his flushed forehead. It was a silly thing to do, writing these letters.
"Stupid. Useless." He held the bottle to his cheek and squeezed his eyes closed. "I love you both. I miss you. Merry Christmas."
And he let the bottle fall into the hissing, rushing water yet again.
BERNIE GOODRICH WRAPPED ONE FIST in the back of her brother’s thick winter jacket and held tight to the leafless branch over her head with the other. Beneath them, the ice-edged water of the River Churnet swirled gray and white.
"Just a bit more."
"I haven’t any more, Simon. Do you want to take a dousing in the ice water and cause Aunt Sarah to carry on about you taking a chill? She’ll boil you alive in the tub until you’re the color of a cooked lobster!"
"Got it!" Eight-year-old Simon held the bottle aloft like a trophy, brandishing it in triumph.
Bernie pulled him back to the bank with a mighty heave. "Heavens, you’re growing. I won’t be able to do that for much longer." She set him on his feet and then brushed her fallen hair back into her knitted hat so she could better examine their prize.
"It’s a different label than last time," Simon pointed out. "Look, there’s a waterwheel on this one."
Bernie tilted her head. "I think it’s one of those Dutch inventions. A windmill." She held the greenish-brown bottle to the wintry gray daylight and tried to peer through it. "This one looks chock full of paper!"
"Bernadette Goodrich! What on earth are you doing on the riverbank on such a terrible day?"
Bernie tucked the bottle away into the folds of her skirt as she straightened. "Nothing, Aunt Sarah!" She called back up the bank.
Her aunt gazed down at her from the path above the Churnet, her work-worn fists plunked onto her angular hips. Her brow held the permanent furrows of confusion that Bernie and Simon seemed to inspire in their childless aunt and uncle.
"Are we late for something?" Simon whispered as they clambered up the bank. The grassy slope was covered in a thick fall of snow. They left a trail of footprints, one set small and the other not much larger, in the pristine bank.
It was a good question. "I don’t think so, but perhaps?"
It seemed to Bernie that she was usually in the wrong for one thing or another. Tardiness was her usual sin, although according to Aunt Sarah she was also accomplished in Laggardliness and Inattention. In the six years since she and Simon had been sent away from the epidemic that had taken their parents, they had lived in the vicarage of Green Dell and had done their best to adapt. Simon had only been two years of age, so the crumbling house and poor village was all he knew. Bernie, on the other hand, had been fourteen, old enough to recall every moment of another life.
A life very different from this one. "Let’s see. We fed the chickens, filled the coal scuttles and turned down the beds."
"I fluffed the pillows!"
"And a fine job you did of it, too." Bernie counted off on the fingers of her woolen gloves. "Chickens, coal, beds, wood-box, and the dough is rising."
"We didn’t dust the parlor!"
"Oh, Christmas Bells on a Stick!" Bernie swore. It was Wednesday and the village Ladies League met in the vicarage parlor every week. "Scurry home and get the cloths from the linen basket. I’ll put the bread in the oven and meet you in the parlor. Go on! Run!"
Simon bounced ahead of her. If her aunt wasn’t lurking watchfully about, Bernie would pick up her skirts and race him home. But the prospect of a lecture on decorum along with the usual one on duty made her head ache just a little bit.
She didn’t mean to be a slackard. It wasn’t that she minded the constant work, for Aunt Sarah was thrice as industrious herself. None of the chores she’d been set were terribly arduous, at least not now that she was fully grown. It was just that there were so bloody many of them!
And now she’d said bloody in her head, which had to count as some sort of sin. Bernie sighed. It was so easy to sin, living at the vicarage. When Mama and Papa were alive, she’d hardly seemed to sin at all!
The paper-stuffed wine bottle tucked deep into her coat pocket banged against her knee at every step. It was the first one they’d seen this year! Excitement simmered within her, fighting with the frustration that threatened to boil over.
With the Ladies’ League gathering at the vicarage today, she and Simon wouldn’t have a moment to examine their find until bedtime!
Christmas Bells!Close Preview
Under the covers…
Sometimes when you have an idea burning in your imagination, but it doesn’t work with your current series, there’s only one thing you can do.
Start another series!
The Haven Holiday books are my new Christmas series. Every holiday season, I’ll publish another story set in the village of Haven in Staffordshire. Snowfall, sleigh rides, hot tea and fireside cuddles–all my favorite things about English Country Christmas!
My other favorite thing about Christmas? Holiday movies! So I thought I’d look to my favorite romantic holiday films for inspiration in capturing that perfect Christmas love story. I give you Sleepless in Staffordshire, starring the sorrowful Lord Matthias and the irrepressible Bernadette!
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