A Feel Good Holiday Tale
MISTER DARCY’S CHRISTMAS
Book 2 in the Mister Darcy series
By Barbara Silkstone
Christmas just became a lot more complicated for dog psychologist Lizzie Bennet and her sisters. While shopping in London they find little urchin Annie and her dog Sammy. As a fierce snowstorm takes over the city, the aloof but alluring Mister Darcy invites the girls, including Annie and Sammy, to spend the night at his penthouse. With the best of intentions Darcy asks Annie and her seven siblings to join the Bennet sisters for a quiet Christmas Eve celebration in his London fortress. The skullduggery begins when Caroline Bingley – the villainess Austen fans love to boo – shows up acting the part of the Grinch and Scrooge combined.
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One moment I was listening to my sisters Jane, Lydia, and Kitty sing out “On the seventh day of Christmas…” and the next I was yanked from the zebra crossing by a rather large, shaggy dog. A dark sedan smashed the side of one of my shopping bags as the driver skidded through the red light. The tosser was likely rushing from one holiday party to the next. He never stopped.
“Lizzie!” Jane’s scream hung in the icy air as I stumbled over the curb.
I collapsed on the snow-coated sidewalk, the dog releasing his bite on my sleeve. My sisters dropped their bags and fell to my side. Even my other sister, Mary, paused in her nattering monologue on the commercialism of Christmas to tend to me.
The dog sniffed my head and neck and then worked his way to my boots as if checking me for injuries. I patted his wooly head and hugged his smelly neck. He had saved my life.
“Lizzie, speak to me! Are you hurt?” Jane took off her glove and touched my chilled face with fingers that felt like frozen butterflies.
I took off my gloves, pocketed them, and took a quick inventory of my injuries. My toes were still in place although I could barely feel them for the cold. My bum ached from landing on it, but otherwise I was surprisingly in one piece.
Jane held my left arm and Mary, my right as they helped me to my feet. The disheveled hound stood by my side, gazing up through a mass of tangled white hair.
“I’m not hurt,” I said, “thanks to my new friend here.” I bent to check the dog’s neck for a collar. Nothing. I scanned the street for his owner, but saw no one. “This poor fellow must be lost.”
“We should bring him to the Animal Centre,” Mary said.
“You will do no such thing!”
I turned to follow the sound. It belonged to a little girl not more than six or seven. She was poorly dressed in a skimpy brown duster, the sleeves barely covering her wrists. Buttons were missing, and the coat popped open in places, exposing a stained pinkish dress. Her curly blonde hair, knotted in a dirty mass, formed a grubby halo. Her eyes were such a pale shade of blue they appeared almost colorless. She bore a red welt across her left cheek. A handprint.
I bent to speak to her.
The child drew herself up to her full height, which wasn’t much. “Kindly don’t stoop to speak to me. My hearing is quite good,” she said.
Allowing for her condition, she carried herself with great dignity.
I stood. “Is this your dog? He saved my life.”
“His name is Sammy.” With a flick of her hand the dog was at her side. He slurped her fingers and stood at attention.
I gave her my most gentle smile. “My name is Lizzie Bennet. These are my sisters, Jane, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.”
She nodded a greeting with a quick flash of her crystal eyes at each of the girls, and then refocused on me. I felt her sizing me up. Friend or foe?
“Are you lost, dear?” I asked.
She ignored my question and extended her hand. “Name’s Annie Jones.”
I shook her cold tiny hand.
“Let’s get you home, love,” I said. “The weather is turning foul. This is not a day for children or grownups to be about.”
“I’d rather not. Sammy and I have important business to attend to.”
“And what might that be?” I asked. The snow had become icicle rain. My sisters discreetly huddled around the child, trying to create a wall of warmth.
“We’re on our way to my auntie’s for tea,” she said, her voice sounding ever so grown up.
“Is it nearby? We can take you there by a cab,” Jane said.
Annie screwed up her face, appearing to fight back tears.
I seriously doubted there was an auntie waiting tea for the little ragamuffin and her dog.
“We’ll be on our way now.” She edged between our coats. Sammy followed
I tapped her shoulder. “Let us take you home. It’s no bother, really. Your parents are probably worried.”
The little urchin could easily freeze solid in the coming storm. Her nose was blue and running. I wanted to hold her close and share my warmth but feared I’d frighten her.
“Perhaps we’d best call the police,” Kitty said, adjusting her drooping shopping bags. “We will all soon turn to ice with the wind cutting through our winter coats.”
A look of terror passed over Annie’s face. “Okay. You can take us home.” Her breath came out in foggy droplets. Her bottom lip was cracked and bleeding. She ran her dirty sleeve under her leaky nose.
I stared at her shoes. They were torn through and her little toes poked out. She caught my eye and attempted to tuck one foot behind the other.
“Just so you don’t call them animal coppers. They’ll take Sammy and put him to sleep. So if you dare call ’em, we’ll only run away again.” She put her shaking fists on her hips. Her tiny hands were bluish-white.
I scooched down and opened my largest shopping bag. One of the packages had been wrapped in brown paper tied with heavy string. I untied the knot with my stiff fingers and then looped the string around Sammy’s neck, while leaving the end lose. It may not have been the classic tether, but it would fit the letter of the law. As a licensed dog psychologist, I could not risk disobeying the leash law.
Annie shot me a meek smile and nodded. “Sammy doesn’t have a paid-for license, so I hide him in a big box in the alley.”
The child was clearly a runaway, one with an angry welt across her cheek. What would we find at her home? I pulled my gloves from my pocket and put them on her little hands. They slipped off. I re-buttoned the cuff to the smallest wrist size and hoped they would stay in place.
Holding Annie’s hand with my right hand, I clung to Sammy’s string leash with my left. Jane and Lydia carried my shopping bags. Kitty and Mary brought up the rear as we trudged through the brutal wind that sliced at our faces and stung our eyes. I looked back to see tears leaking from Jane’s eyes and freezing on her eyelashes.
We turned a corner on Marley Street. The wind whipped into a fist and knocked us into one another like a clutch of wobbly dolls. We fought to keep our footing, clinging together to avoid a mass tumble-down.
The neighborhood quickly turned down-market. Two vagrants, one carrying an empty wine bottle, croaked out vulgar remarks at us as we trudged passed.
Mary turned on the hapless drunks. “How dare you?” She stepped toward the shorter man. “I shall report you to the police! What is your name? Do you have any identification?” My sister would have made an excellent truant officer.
The man swayed unsteadily, his eyes glassy orbs in a sunken, jaundiced face.
“Come away please. It’s too cold for reformation. Besides, the child needs our full attention,” I said.
Mary glanced from me to the man and back. She clutched her bags to her chest. “You are right, Sister dear.” She gave the man the benefit of her firmest look. “What would your mother say if she saw you, sir?”
She spun on her heels a tad too quickly. Kitty caught her before she fell and ruined her dramatic exit.
We continued our trek a half block more on streets icier than a skating pond. As we approached a cluster of row houses, Annie hesitated. “That’s Sammy’s alley and that’s his box.” She pointed to a slab of cardboard leaning against a crumbling brick wall. And that’s my house,” she said, her voice quavering as we confronted a turn-of-the-century row house.
The Dickensian plaque on the wall read TOT. The rest of the letters had been chipped away. In front of the word ARMS someone had painted an H. TOT HARMS.
I shivered at the possible coded plea for help. Were children being harmed?
Annie’s brows knit in a frown. Her eyes darted from me to Sammy. The dog inched back from the building, his fear palpable.
I stepped up to the door, looking for a knocker or a bell and jumped back at the sound of a shrieking female voice. It was a cry of anger, not pain. The torrent of foul words that followed and the sound of a smack told me Annie was not safe here. A social worker was needed. I stared at the door, wondering what cruelty lay on the other side. The sound of crashing glass suggested we move on.
Annie bolted. Sammy broke his string and ran after her.
I looked at my sisters. “Follow the child!”
Slipping on the ice and clinging to one another, we trailed after Annie with a chorus of “Wait! Wait!” I stepped on a trashed empty crisp bag made slick with sleet and struggled to keep my balance.
We caught up with Annie huddled against Sammy between two sorry looking townhouses. The alley was littered with bottles and smelled like the worst of the tube stations.
“Come, child.” I scooped her and the dog against me, hugging them.
We were now officially late for Darcy’s invitation to tea after shopping. This was the very first time my client had invited us, and now we were guilty of a social faux pas. I imagined his uppity-ship looking down on my soggy sisters and huffing an attitude.
With frozen fingers, I pulled the phone from my pocket and dialed his cell. He picked up on the first ring. “We won’t be at One Snyde Park for a bit,” I said, trying to control my chattering teeth.
His silence worried me. I didn’t care what he thought, but… I cared what he thought.
When he finally spoke, his voice was all warm and melty like a cup of hot chocolate. “I was concerned something had happened to you ladies,” his said.
I told him of Sammy saving me, at which eavesdropping Annie beamed. I smiled down at her as I spoke to Darcy. “His owner is a charming young lady standing right next to me. I’ll call the P-O-L-I-C-E, and we’ll hope to–”
“No-o-o-o!” Annie howled. Sammy joined her.
With love & laughter!