England, December 1813
"Oh, there's no mistake, Mr. Sinclair. We've examined the terms of the Colonel's will quite carefully, I can assure you. It's very clear he intended to leave his daughter in your very capable hands."
The well-shaped lips of Ian Sinclair, former major with His Majesty's forces in Portugal, tightened to prevent another expression of disbelief. It was possible, he supposed, that George Darlington had named him as his daughter's guardian. That was almost as easy to believe as the fact that Darlington had fathered a daughter.
"And the child?" Ian asked.
After all, she should be his first concern. The little girl had lost her father, the only parent she had ever known.
Of course, knowing Darlington's history, Ian Wondered exactly how often the child could have seen him, much less how well she had known him.
"She is in a very fine school in the north. The location is a bit remote, but I believe the family has ties to the region."
"And relations there, perhaps?" Ian asked, feeling the first dawn of hope since he had begun this interview with George Darlington's solicitor, who had come from London to apprise Ian of the terms of his late client's will.
"Not to my knowledge. Of course, you may know more of the family's connections than we are privy to."
"Actually, I knew very little about Colonel Darlington," Ian said. "Other than his military endeavours, of course."
"Comrades in arms," the solicitor said heartily.
Ian thought how far from the reality of his and Darlington's relationship that phrase fell, but he said nothing.
Whatever the Colonel's failings as an officer, and in Ian's opinion they were many, he would not speak ill of the dead.
Not even ill of a man who had, without warning, saddled him with a child Ian never even met. A child whose existence he had been unaware of until this afternoon.
"Well," the solicitor said, his tone verging on euphoric, "I have taken up quite enough of your time. And I believe that all of the particulars have now been taken care of to everyone's satisfaction."
Ian Wondered if the man were really that obtuse, or if he were simply relieved that he hadn't been shown the door when he'd revealed the reason for his visit. In truth, he was probably glad to have this poor child off his hands and someone else's responsibility.
"Here is the address of the school. I believe the girl's fees are paid to the end of the term."
"Which should be soon," Ian realized, reaching to take the neatly lettered paper from the lawyer's hand. "If I remember my own school days correctly. And I confess those ended long enough ago that the details are beginning to blur. I do remember being at home for Christmas."
The solicitor's thin lips pursed briefly before he said, "No doubt your memory is excellent, Mr. Sinclair."
Underlying that quite unexceptional statement had been some nuance of tone Ian couldn't read.
He studied the man's rather pasty face, trying to decide what had bothered him about it.
"If there are no relations," Ian asked, "then where has this child spent holidays during the year her father has been posted abroad?"
"As far as I'm aware, Mr. Sinclair, she has remained at school. There are always a few who do, you know. For one reason or another."
That had been true enough of his own school, Ian remembered. He had a memory of two or three winter-pale faces pressed against the front windows, watching as their fellow students departed to be conveyed home through the snow-shrouded English landscape.
"I see," Ian said, thinking also about the boisterous excitement of those long-ago Sinclair Christmases. And thinking, despite himself, of a lonely little girl who had perhaps never known a real country Yuletide. At least not in the last few war-torn years of her existence.
"Oh, don't bother to see me out," Darlington's representative said cheerfully as Ian began to push himself out of his chair. "I understand that you're still recovering from your wounds, and I certainly have no desire..."
The solicitor's voice stopped in mid-sentence. That was undoubtedly the result of the same look Ian had once successfully employed to correct any breach of military discipline among his troops.
It involved a leveling at his intended victim of what he had always considered to be quite unremarkable hazel eyes. He was surprised to find the look apparently as effective as it had always been with his subordinates, despite the fact that he hadn't had cause to use it in more than a year.
Totally ignoring the solicitor's broken sentence, Ian said pleasantly, "I shall be delighted to see you out."
The day had been both wet and bitterly cold, with the threat of snow hovering in the dark, overcast December sky since dawn. Weather such as this always made the lingering effects of his injuries more pronounced, but Ian ignored them as much as he possibly could. As did his staff and his family, of course.
That was a lesson both had learned early in his convalescence. He could hardly blame his visitor, however, for not being aware of his sensitivity to any reference to his health.
"Are you certain I can't convince you to postpone your return?" Ian continued, leading the way towards the door.
"I should hate to think of you benighted on the road."
"No, indeed, Mr. Sinclair, although i thank you for being your kind offer of hospitality."
"Then I shall wish you Godspeed, Mr. Smythe. And a safe journey home."
When they reached the hall, Ian watched as his Butler helped his visitor into his greatcoat.
Mr. Smythe then placed his tall beaver hat over sparse, iron-grey hair.
He ducked his shoulder almost defensively when the wide front doors opened, letting in the sharp, wet chill of the December wind.
"Not a fit day for man nor beast," Williams said, closing the door very quickly behind his master's departing guest.
"I tried to persuade him to stay the night, but he was eager to be off."
"Perhaps he has holiday entertainments awaiting him in London," the Butler said. "Anxious to get back to his family, no doubt."
"No doubt," Ian echoed, thinking that this would be the first Christmas he had spent at home without any member of his own family with whom to celebrate.
The youngest Sinclair brother was still with Wellington, fighting French on the Iberian Peninsula. And, having spent three years in those same circumstances, Ian knew exactly how Sebastian would keep Christmas.
There would be wine, if the Beau could possibly manage to procure it. And perhaps a couple of scrawny chickens, stewed until they were almost edible. After dinner, the officers would gather around the fireplace of whatever building Wellington had commandeered as his headquarters to sing carols. They would probably be forced to wear their woollen uniform capes against the damp that relentlessly seeped in through the stones and chilled to the bone.
Ian realized that in remembering those deprivations he was smiling. The warmth of the camaraderie those men shared would help them endure. And at least Sebastian wouldn't be spending Christmas alone.
Nor would Val, of course. Ian's smile widened, although he refused to allow himself to imagine exactly how his older brother would be engaged during this holiday season. Ensconced in the Sinclair hunting lodge, Dare and his countess seemed determined to stretch their honeymoon to the full year such milestone had once encompassed.
And Ian would be the last person to begrudge his brother that newfound happiness. Dare had more than earned it in his behind-the-scenes effort to defeat the same enemy Ian and Sebastian had fought by more conventional means.
Still, he thought, limping back to the welcome blaze of the library fire, it would be a lonely Christmas here.
And unbidden came the nearly forgotten image of those small, pale faces pressed longingly against the windows of Harrow so long ago.
'A damnably lonely Christmas'
I decided to complete this chapter...^_^
This story centers more on Ian and Annie so please don't get it wrong...
There's no back story of George Darlington or the reason Ian got his injuries...
There's no story backing Sebastian up in war or so...(so please don't expect much)
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