A Sprinkling of Christmas Magic

Chapter One

The Reverend Alex Martindale looked down at the innocent babe in his practised arms and braced for the inevitable storm. Red-faced, eyes scrunched up against the holy water dripping into them, the Honourable Philip Martindale, heir to considerable estates and, far more importantly, apple of his parents’ doting eyes, roared his displeasure.

Having baptised every infant in the parish for the past two years, Alex was used to the noise. Nevertheless he shot a look over the aristocratic squaller to its father, Viscount Alderley. ‘Takes after you, Dominic—temper and all.’

The Viscount grinned. ‘Not me, cousin.’ He glanced at his wife. ‘Must be Pippa.’

Alex snorted and continued blessing his little cousin, the child who—thank God from whom all blessings flow—had displaced him as Dominic’s heir. There was a tug at his surplice and he glanced down.

His goddaughter, the Honourable Philip’s elder sister, looked up at him solemnly. ‘You got water in his eyes, Uncle Alets,’ she explained. ‘Mama or Nurse better give him his next bath.’

‘Ah. Was that it?’ he said, preserving a clerical straight face. ‘Thank you, Emma.’

* * *

The christening party in the Great Hall at Alderley was a rowdy and cheerful affair. It was conspicuous for the absence of the guest of honour and his sister, both of whom had retired early to the nursery in the company of their nurse.

Alex toasted the heir to Alderley with as much, if not more, enthusiasm as the next man. He gazed around the Hall, noting that the party, attended by many of Dominic’s tenants, was winding down. A far less boisterous gathering of the local gentry, including himself, had been entertained in the drawing room, but Alex suspected that Dominic and Pippa, having seen the last of those guests off in their carriages, were just as happy mingling with the tenantry.

He made his way across to them. Dominic laid a friendly hand on Farmer Willet’s broad shoulder and shook his hand in farewell, saying, ‘I’ll find out about that bull’, and turned to Alex with a grin.

‘Staying to supper?’

Tempting, but— ‘No, thank you. Mrs Judd would kill me.’ His housekeeper was the sort of benevolent tyrant it was unwise to offend. Staying out to supper without notice would ensure his breakfast eggs were boiled, not poached, for a week.

Dominic snorted. ‘Why the devil didn’t you just tell her you’d be supping here? You must have known one of us would ask you.’

He had, of course. Dominic was his cousin and closest friend, but he preferred not to take his welcome for granted.

Pippa smiled at him, her oddly penetrating gaze suggesting that she knew precisely how he felt, and understood. ‘Tomorrow, then?’ she suggested. ‘We do need to talk about this village school you’re starting.’

He returned her smile. ‘Tomorrow. And perhaps you’ll return the favour next week.’

‘That will be lovely,’ said Pippa cheerfully.

‘Do you want the carriage, Alex?’ asked Dominic.

‘Thank you, but no. I’ll enjoy the walk.’

* * *

He did enjoy the solitary walk. Twilight had closed in and a rising moon glimmered on the frost crunching under his boots. Another year was nearly gone, four weeks until Christmas; tomorrow would be Advent Sunday and he should have been thinking about his sermon, but instead gave himself up to the crisp, cold moonlight that spilled over the fields he was crossing. The familiar path ran clear before him, an ancient right of way. Sometimes he wondered about all the people who had used this path before him, the ancestors of men and women he now served as their rector. Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans: all of them coming as invaders, but being tamed by this land until they all belonged to it under God, as much as it belonged to them.

Not for the first time he thanked God that he had been called to serve Him in such a place. A place he had known and loved all his life. The place that had been his home since his father’s early death. His uncle, Dominic’s father, had taken him in, along with his mother, and educated him as a younger son, making little distinction between his own sons and an orphaned nephew. Except that he had understood that his bookish nephew would do far better being schooled by Mr Rutherford, the rector, and had not sent him off to Eton with his cousins.

He had been very, very lucky. Blessed. And his widowed mother had been able to live out her days in safety and peace. He knew of other women, bereft of family