Here on unseasonably balmy Cape Cod, I haven’t even put on my winter jacket and snow still seems far away. It’s hard to remember it’s mid-December and almost Christmas when I’m walking Sippewissett wearing a sweater, but that’s okay by me. Sippewissett feels differently, since she loves snow, and the more the better. But we deserve the weather break after the winter we had last year!
That winter, when we got a remarkable 92 inches of snow, I was putting the finishing touches on my latest book, Alone with Mr. Darcy. It was only appropriate since the first third of the book takes place during a blizzard which strands Elizabeth and Darcy together in a laborer’s cottage. At least those two can generate their own heat! But there was a third party in their cottage with them, a half-frozen kitten named Snowball.
Snowball was, of course, based on my own Christmas miracle kitten, Snowdrop. You can read the story of Snowdrop’s miraculous Christmas here (caution: tearjerker, contains cute kitten pictures). She is now about to spend her third Christmas with us, which doesn’t sound all that impressive unless you know she was only expected to live a couple of weeks when we brought her home. She’s a constellation of congenital problems – 5 major heart defects, underdeveloped kidneys, abnormally sized bones, a short gut, and I could go on. But she takes so much joy in living that it’s a lesson to the rest of us. And, of course, she’s adorably beautiful.
So here’s my gift to you for for the 12 Days of Jane Austen Christmas: ebook copies of Alone with Mr. Darcy for two lucky commenters (international), a smaller version of Snowdrop’s Pride & Prejudice peacock cover fleece blanket (US only, sorry!), and for everyone, the excerpt from Alone with Mr. Darcy where Darcy finds the kitten. And then there’s one more surprise giveaway I’ll tell you about after the excerpt!
Elizabeth jumped up from the hearth when Mr. Darcy entered in a blast of wind, his arms full of wood and his head covered with snow. He took great care in setting the logs in a neat stack, then returned outside. Just leaving the door open that long had lowered the temperature inside the cottage substantially. If he had to make several trips, perhaps she should open and close the door for him to preserve what little heat they had.
He thanked her coldly for her assistance. After adding a third armload of wood to the pile, he stumbled and had to catch his balance on the mantel. Elizabeth started to hold out her hand to stop him from taking another trip, but she drew it back, not daring to point out he should not undertaking such exercise.
But this time when he went out, he did not return immediately. Elizabeth waited by the door, peeking out to see if he was waiting for her to open it, but he was not, and the swirls of white covered everything beyond the doorstep.
Had he fallen in the slippery snow? Or lost consciousness? A sharp piece of ice seemed to pierce her deep inside. Oh, why had she allowed him to go outside again? He had clearly been in no condition for it!
Without giving herself a chance to reconsider, she opened the door and stepped out into the fierce wind. But how could she find him when she could not see even a few feet away? “Mr. Darcy!” she called.
“Yes?” His muffled voice came from her left.
Relief flowed through her as she made out slightly darker shape. “Is anything the matter?”
Her breath caught on something halfway between a laugh and a sob. “Which is it?”
“If you could assist me here…” Strain sounded in his voice.
If Mr. Darcy was actually asking for assistance, it must be something terrible. Perhaps he was trapped by a falling log. She pushed her way through the blinding snow till she found him on his knees, digging with both hands in a snowdrift, pieces of wood scattered around him. “What should I do?” she half-shouted over the wind.
“Could you remove the logs leaning on my arm?” he grunted.
“Of course.” She hardly even noticed the snow stinging her fingertips as she hurried to move them aside. “Should I take more?”
“No, that should be….” He bent down into the hole he had made, tugging at something, then suddenly straightened with a lump of snow in his hands. “…enough. Thank you.”
“Are you injured?”
Was he waiting for her to go first? Suddenly aware of the ridiculousness of trying to converse when every word had to be shouted, she trudged back to the door. Her shaking hands struggled with the latch for a moment before it lifted.
She had to lean on the door to close it behind Mr. Darcy. It was blessedly still inside despite the constant sound of wind whistling over the chimney. She could not have been out there for more than three minutes, but it had seemed like an eternity. She shook off snow from her dress and shivered.
Mr. Darcy knelt in front of the hearth, examining his odd discovery. “Would you be so kind as to place another log on the fire, Miss Elizabeth?”
His formality reminded her of how angry he had been when he first went in search of wood, so after doing as he asked, she retreated to the far side of the hearth. The fire burned higher with the new wood, revealing more of the lump of snow Mr. Darcy was busily rubbing. Elizabeth blinked. Was it moving?
Forgetting her attempt to keep her distance, she leaned toward him and peered at it. Yes, it was alive! “What is it?”
“A cat. She was hiding in the woodpile.” He lifted the animal and held it against his chest, murmuring something inaudible to it.
Now she could make out the tail and the ears. “Trying to find a warm spot, I suppose. It is a miracle he made it through the night.”
“It may be too late already, if he has frostbite on his paws.”
“I hope not. I would rather have a miracle.” Elizabeth realized the animal was not so much covered with snow as mostly white. A few buff-colored patches dotted his head. “Actually, two miracles. Only you, Mr. Darcy, could find a white cat in a blizzard! I thought he was a snowball.”
He raised his head. “Snowballs rarely meow and bite people.”
Elizabeth could not stop herself from dissolving into laughter. “Did he really bite you?”
“Not badly. I was disturbing his hiding place, after all.”
Another new side of Mr. Darcy! That he would go to the trouble of rescuing a stray cat in the storm was surprising enough for a gentleman, but to do so after he had been bitten, and then to warm it himself? “You are covered in snow. Should I hold him so you can remove it before it melts?”
He looked down at his arms in surprise. “I suppose so.” He detached the cat, who apparently was clinging to his shirt with his claws, and gingerly held it out to her.
The cat made no effort to escape, curling immediately into Elizabeth’s arms. “Why, you are barely half grown! I can feel your ribs.” Scooting closer to the fire, she turned so as much heat as possible would reach the shivering animal. Would its fur be soft if it were not so wet and cold?
She fluffed up the fur to help it dry, then felt along the cat’s body to see if it might be injured. No, it was only the cold, and most likely hunger. There could have been no hunting in this storm. “You poor thing,” she crooned. “You will be warm soon.” There was little they could do for the cat’s hunger unless it had a taste for raw onions. The last of the venison had been eaten that morning.
Mr. Darcy crouched down beside her. “How is he?”
“Oh. How is she, then?” He reached out to stroke the cat’s head.
It felt oddly intimate for him to be so close, both of them touching the cat. “Still alive.”
The cat picked her head up and sniffed at Mr. Darcy’s fingers, then stood up in Elizabeth’s lap and stretched. Delicately picking her way across to his legs, she curled up against his body and began to purr.
Elizabeth smiled at his surprised expression, feeling warmer than she had in some time. “You seem to have made a friend. She knows who saved her.”
Awkwardly he reached down to pet the cat. “Are you certain she is female?”
“I believe so. I take it you do not have much experience with cats?”
He suddenly seemed to withdraw inside himself. “Very little.”
His taciturnity reminded her of his earlier comments. Her concern first for his well-being and that of the cat had distracted her, but it still made her nervous. She hardly knew which interpretation of them she preferred – that he was mocking her or that he truly admired her. Either one was excessively embarrassing, especially after waking in his arms. Her skin prickled at the memory of his body pressed against hers.
How could she be so drawn to him when she had such a dislike for him before? She dropped her eyes and discovered the sleeves of his coat were peppered with splinters. Without thinking, she tugged one of the larger ones free. “I hope your valet is not the disapproving sort. Your attire may never be the same.”
He looked down and began picking at the splinters. “Showing disapproval would be beneath Crewe’s dignity. He will not say a word, simply spirit it away and I will never see it again.”
“Why am I not surprised you would have a silent and dignified valet?”
Darcy tossed a handful of splinters into the fire where they sizzled and popped. “Dignified, yes. But sometimes he is anything but silent.”
“Oh?” Surely speaking of his valet was safer than talking about his past.
“The only time Crewe speaks more than a few words is when he thinks I am about to make a serious mistake. Then he quite carefully explains to me precisely what I am doing wrong and how I should correct it.” He furrowed his brow. “Is something the matter?”
“No, I am simply astonished you would choose a servant who criticizes you.”
“I know I am not perfect. Crewe is a special case, though. He served my father before me, and on his deathbed my father told me to keep Crewe with me and always listen to him. So he is permitted liberties other servants would be dismissed for.”
“And do you always listen to him?”
His eyes looked hooded. “Yes,” he said shortly. “I have little choice.”
“To honor your father’s wishes?”
“No. Because he is always right.” His lower lip jutted in an expression which was almost a pout.
Elizabeth laughed. “What a very annoying trait! I should not like at all having someone who pointed out my mistakes and was always right.”
“And it is always when I least expect it.” Somehow his aggrieved look was oddly appealing.
“And now you will have to explain why you have white cat hair on your trousers as well.”
“Do not remind me!”
As if on cue, the cat jumped off his lap and sat on the hearth, carefully washing herself. Darcy took advantage of his new freedom to poke at the fire, sending the flames higher.
I hope you enjoyed this little visit with Darcy, Elizabeth, and Snowdrop. Just a reminder – leave a comment if you would like to win either an ebook of Alone with Mr. Darcy or the Pride & Prejudice fleece blanket. And for a very special Christmas giveaway, the first 20 people who request it in a comment will receive an ebook copy of my novella, The Darcys of Derbyshire. Yes, that’s the first TWENTY people! I hope you have a miraculous and warm holiday season. Snowdrop, of course, sends her best purrs.