“Professor Pennypacker is wise, kind, cheerful, and witty. Why shouldn’t I loathe him?” Patience Friendly’s honest question met with smirks from her dearest friends in all the world, though she’d spoken the plain, seasonally inappropriate truth.
“You don’t loathe the professor,” Elizabeth Windham said. “You have a genteel difference of opinion with him from time to time, such as educated people occasionally do. More tea?”
Patience paid regular visits to the four Windham sisters because they were excellent company, though their lavish tea tray figured prominently in her affections as well.
“Half a cup, and then I must be going.”
Elizabeth obliged, her idea of a half portion coming nearly to the cup’s brim.
“It’s the first Monday of the month. Does Dreadful Dougal demand your time, again?” Charlotte Windham asked around a mouthful of stollen.
“Mr. MacHugh is my publisher. I ought not call him that.” In her thoughts, Patience called him much worse. “He might be lacking in polish, but Dougal P. MacHugh ensures my little scribblings find their way into many hands.”
Dougal referred to Patience’s advice columns as little scribblings, but the coin her writing earned was not so little to a spinster without means.
“Your advice to that boy who bashed his sister’s dolly was lovely,” Megan Windham said. Unlike her sisters, she wasn’t embroidering (Elizabeth), knitting (Anwen), or devouring tea cakes (Charlotte). Megan had a quiet about her that soothed, though Patience suspected that quiet hid a lively imagination.
All four sisters shared Patience’s red hair, but they were from a ducal family. If they’d gone swimming in the Serpentine, that would have become the latest rage. Their red hair made them striking, while Patience’s earned her frequent admonitions from her publisher to control her temper.
“I’ll take you up with me in the carriage,” Anwen said. “I’m to read to the boys this afternoon, and one wants to be punctual when setting an example for children.”
“You’re passionate about that orphanage,” Patience said. “I wish Dread—Mr. MacHugh permitted me to write about the plight of poor children in winter, instead of limiting me to an advice column.”
Nothing in all of creation compared to the pleasure of a good, strong cup of black tea on a cold December day, unless it was the same cup of tea shared with friends. Without the company of these four young women, Patience would likely have been reduced to rash acts.
Marriage to the curate, for example.
As Anwen put away her knitting and Charlotte wrapped up the stollen—most of the loaf for the orphans, but two slices for Patience—snow flurries danced outside the parlor window. A brisk breeze pushed them in all directions, and the gray sky threatened a proper snowfall.
Mr. MacHugh would call it a braw, bonnie day, but he was Scottish, and his view of life paid little heed to tea cakes, cozy parlors, or mornings spent with friends. He was all business all the time, the opposite of the company Patience treasured most dearly.
“You’ll come by the Wednesday before Christmas to see how we’re progressing with our holiday baking, won’t you?” Elizabeth asked as Patience accepted a cloak and scarf from the Windham butler. “We still use your mama’s recipe for lemon cake.”
A woman who lived alone didn’t bother with the expense of holiday baking. “I’ll see you on baking day, just as I do every year, and I’ll try to get Mr. MacHugh to publish a piece on Anwen’s urchins. If people won’t contribute to charity at Yuletide, then we’ve become a hopeless species indeed.”
The prospect of persuading Mr. MacHugh to do an article on Anwen’s favorite orphanage was daunting, and as Patience bundled into the Windham coach, a predictable melancholy settled over her, as heavy and familiar as the woolen lap robes.
How many more years would pass in this same pattern? Writing at all hours, battling with Dougal MacHugh over the content of the columns, envying friends their holiday luxuries, and hoping the winter was mild?
The problem wasn’t entirely poverty. Many families with little means found joy in one another’s company and celebrated the holidays cheerfully.
The problem was Patience’s life, and no advice columnist in the realm—not even her kindly, wise, dratted competitor, Professor Pennypacker—could tell her how to repair an existence that felt as bleak and barren as the winter sky.
“I have never met a female more inappropriately named than Patience Friendly,” Dougal MacHugh muttered. “If I ask her to meet me on the hour, she’s fifteen minutes early, and if our meeting requires an hour of her time, she’s pacing my office thirty minutes on. Send her in.”
“Shall I put the kettle on, Dougal?”
Harry MacHugh was a good lad, but he was a cousin—most of Dougal’s employees were cousins of some sort—and thus he presumed from time to time where prudent men would not.
“She’ll not take tea with me, Harry. Ours is a business relationship.” A lucrative one too. But for that signal fact, Miss Friendly would doubtless have ejected Dougal from her life as briskly as she dispatched her readers’ problems.
“Even business associates can share a cup in honor of the season,” Harry said. “I’ll just—”
“You’ll just show the lady in, and then dash off a note to your mum and da. It’s Monday.”
Oh, the martyrdom a fifteen-year-old could put into two words and a heavy sigh. Over the past year, as Harry had shot up several inches in height, his penmanship had improved, as had his vocabulary and grammar. Dougal had the boy review the ledgers too, and purposely made the occasional error to test Harry’s skill with figures.
Harry clomped out of Dougal’s office as the clock on the mantel struck a quarter till the hour. Miss Patience Un-Friendly whisked through the open door a moment later.
Once a month, Dougal endured the disruption of her presence in his office. Discontent accompanied her everywhere, a discontent she channeled into repairing the lives of readers without the sense to solve their own problems—bless their troubled hearts. Even the rhythm of her footfalls—rapid, percussive, confident—spoke of a woman determined on her own ends.
And the damned female had the audacity to be lovely. She wasn’t simply pretty—pretty was for daffodils and landscapes—she was…all wrong.
A woman dispensing advice as the practical, blunt Mrs. Horner ought not to have a full mouth made for kisses and smiles. She ought not to have features that bore the serene grace of a Christmas angel, and she had no business having a figure that put Dougal in mind of cozy Highland winters and a wee dram shared before bed.
He’d hoisted an occasional wee dram to Miss Friendly’s beauty, and many more to her blazing intelligence and nimble pen.
“Miss Friendly, good day. Perhaps your watch is running a bit fast.”
“Mr. MacHugh, greetings.” She pulled off her gloves and tossed them onto the mantel. “Sooner begun is sooner done. Shall we get to work?”
She usually remarked on how much Harry was growing, and how fat the office cat—King George—had become.
“Are you in a hurry, madam? We can reschedule this meeting if you’d like, but I’ve a special project to discuss with you.”
“No time like the present, Mr. MacHugh. Let’s be about it.” She took her customary seat at Dougal’s worktable, a battered, scarred article that had been in the MacHugh family since Robert the Bruce had been in nappies.
“Shall I build up the fire, Miss Friendly?”
“Why would you do that? Coal is dear, Mr. MacHugh, as you well know.”
From her twitchy movements and the bleak quality in her gaze, Dougal knew something was bothering her—more than the usual weight of the world she carried on behalf of her readers. The daft woman took her job seriously, considering her replies to each letter as if the fate of entire neighborhoods might rest on whether she could solve the reader’s dilemma.
Dougal added half a scoop of coal to the fire in the hearth. “You’re still wearing your cloak. I thought you might be cold.”
She shot to her feet and plucked at the buttons marching down the front of her cape. “You’re absolutely right. How silly of me. My mind is on this month’s stack of letters, and—”
Miss Friendly fell silent, her expression disgruntled as she fussed with the fastenings at her throat. In the clerk’s office, she would have had a mirror to aid her, but Dougal had no need to examine his own features.
“Allow me,” he said, brushing her hands aside. She’d knotted the strings more tightly rather than loosening the bow, and Dougal took a small eternity to get her free. In those moments, Miss Friendly stared over his shoulder as if he were a physician taking medically necessary liberties, while Dougal tormented himself with stolen impressions.
She smelled of damp wool, for the day had turned snowy, but also of lemons and spice. Clove, cinnamon, he wasn’t sure what all went into her fragrance, but it put him in mind of Christmas cakes, cloved oranges, and blazing Yule logs.
The backs of his fingers brushed against her skin, which was surprisingly warm, given the inclement weather. Also soft. For a moment, her pulse beat against his knuckles, and then the strings came free.
“There ye go.” His burr showed up at the worst moments, when he was angry or tense.
“My thanks.” Miss Friendly stepped away to draw the cloak from her own shoulders. She hung it over a hook on the back of the door and started fishing in the pockets.
Her hems were damp, and her boots were likely soaked. Dougal discreetly moved her chair closer to the fire and waited for the lady to take her seat.
“Are you looking for something?” he asked when she’d searched both pockets thoroughly.
“I’ve misplaced my glasses, or forgotten them. Without them—”
“Use mine,” he said, plucking the spectacles from his nose. “You’ll be able to see halfway to the Highlands with them.”
Her gaze went from the eyeglasses in his hand—plain gold wire and a bit of curved glass—to his face, back to the glasses.
“I couldn’t take your spectacles, Mr. MacHugh.”
Because he’d worn them on his person? “We’ll get nothing done if you can’t see the letters to read them. I have a spare pair.”
He retrieved the second pair from his desk and donned them, though the earpieces were a trifle snug and the magnification wasn’t as great.
“So you do. Well.” Miss Friendly was practical, if nothing else. She put the glasses on and took her seat. “Let’s get to it. The holidays bring all manner of problems, and I’m sure I can offer some useful advice in at least a few instances.”
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Dougal said, settling into the chair across from her.
Always across from her, for two reasons. First, so he could torment himself with the sight of her, sorting and considering, losing herself in her work; and second, so no accidental brush of hands, arms, or shoulders occurred.
“I do not care for your tone, Mr. MacHugh,” she said, taking off the spectacles and polishing them on her sleeve. “I always do my best for my readers. If you imply something to the contrary, we shall have words.”
“I’m a-tremble with dread, Miss Friendly,” he said, passing her a wrinkled handkerchief. He loved having words with her. She hurled arguments like thunderbolts, didn’t give an inch, and was very often right—and proud of it.
“What is this?” she asked, peering at the embroidery in the corner. “Is this a unicorn?”
“Wreathed in thistles. My cousins Edana and Rhona MacHugh do them for me. Winters are long in Perthshire, and Edana and Rhona like to stay busy.”
Eddie and Ronnie had a small business, about which their brothers probably knew nothing. They and the ladies of their Perthshire neighborhood embroidered various Scottish themes on handkerchiefs, gloves, bonnet ribbons and so forth, and shipped them to Dougal. He distributed the merchandise to London shops and fetched much higher prices for the goods than the women could have earned in Scotland.
“It’s quite pretty,” Miss Friendly said, passing the handkerchief back. “More of a lady’s article than a gentleman’s though, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps, but it reminds me of home and family, and fashion is hardly foremost in my mind.”
“One could surmise as much.” She gave him a perusal that said his plain attire was not among the problems she was motivated to solve, then picked up the first letter in the stack.
This was Dougal’s favorite part of the meeting, when he could simply watch Patience at work. She read each letter, word for word, considered each person’s problems and woes as if they were her own, then listed and discarded various possible solutions to the challenge at hand. By the time she left, she’d have a month’s worth of worries put at ease, a month’s worth of difficulties made manageable for some poor souls she’d never meet.
“We’ll have to work quickly today,” Dougal said before she’d reached the end of the first letter.
“Because of the weather?”
The snow was coming down in earnest now, though it could easily let up in the next five minutes.
“Because I’ve got wind of a scheme Pennypacker’s publisher has devised to take advantage of the holidays. You said it yourself: The holidays bring problems, and old Pennypacker isn’t about to leave his readers without solutions.”
“It’s unchristian of me, but I dislike that man.”
“No, you do not.” Dougal hoped she did not or the poor professor was doomed to a very bad end.
“The professor takes issue with my advice at least once a month, and directs people into the most inane situations. Why he’s become so popular is beyond me, though I’ll grant you, the man can write.”
Ever fair, that was Miss Friendly. “He can make you a good deal of coin too.” Dougal rose to retrieve a ledger from the blotter on his desk. “These are your circulation figures from last November and from this November.”
She studied the numbers, which Dougal had checked three times. “We’re doing better. We’re doing appreciably better.”
That news ought to have earned Dougal a smile at least, but the lady looked puzzled. “I’m not doing anything differently,” she said. “Mrs. Horner’s Corner dispenses kindly, commonsense advice and responds to reader pleas for assistance with domestic problems. What’s changed?”
Exactly the question a shrewd woman should ask. Dougal passed her another sheaf of figures.
“Take a look at August and then September. The numbers begin to climb, and the trend continues into October and then last month. The increase isn’t great between any two months, but the direction is encouraging.”
The rims of Dougal’s spectacles glinted in the firelight as Miss Friendly ran a slender, ink-stained finger down a column of figures. The picture she made was intelligent, studious, and damnably adorable.
“That man, that dreadful awful man,” she murmured, setting the papers aside. “Pennypacker began writing his column in August. You think the readers are comparing my advice to his?”
“I’m nearly certain of it,” Dougal said. “All too often, Pennypacker deals with at least one situation that’s remarkably similar to the situations you address, and his advice is often contrary to yours. In the next column, you’ll elaborate on your previous suggestions, annihilate his maunderings, and further explicate your own wisdom. He returns similar fire, and in a few weeks, we have a bare-knuckle match over the proper method for quieting a querulous child at Sunday services.”
“Gracious, I’m a pugilist in the arena of domestic common sense.”
Now she smiled. Now she beamed at the flames dancing in the hearth as if Dougal had handed her the Freedom of the City and a pair of fur-lined boots.
“Pugilists have to defend their titles, Miss Friendly, and if we let this opportunity slip by us, the crown will go to Pennypacker.”
She glowered over the spectacles. “He’s a posing, prosy, pontificating man, Mr. MacHugh. Why on earth his opinions of household management should signify, I do not know. The professor has likely never rocked a baby to sleep or kneaded a loaf of bread, if he’s even a professor.”
Had the prim Miss Friendly ever tended a baby? Did she long for an infant of her own, or even a family complete with adoring husband? Self-preservation suggested Dougal ask that question at another time.
“You might think gender alone disqualifies Pennypacker from having anything useful to say,” Dougal replied, removing his spare glasses before they gave him a headache. “But his publisher intends to let him natter on for twelve consecutive days as we lead up to Christmas. Yuletide special editions they’re calling them, the publisher’s holiday gift to the masses, though the gift won’t be free.”
Miss Friendly drew off the spectacles and covered her face with her hands. The gesture was weary, but when she dropped her hands, sat back, and squared her shoulders, the light of battle shone in her blue eyes.
“Twelve consecutive days? That means answering dozens of letters.”
“Sundays off, I’m assuming, but yes. At least three dozen letters answered in less than two weeks. I know it’s a challenge when your friends will be expecting you to socialize and exchange calls.”
Her shoulders slumped. “They will. It’s baking season. Drat.”