Miss Angelica Parker’s quick, competent fingers secured the next amethyst in its delicate setting with deliberate, precise movements.
Everything Angelica did was deliberate and precise. The items on display in the front windows were at varying heights, depending on whether the intended wearer was a child or an adult. Because the fireplace was on the left side of her shop, comfortable chairs had been arranged on the right, with artfully placed hand mirrors atop each side table for admiring one’s reflection.
The two-foot counter that separated Angelica from the customers contained her primary work area on the left—the same side as the fireplace—and a curated display of higher priced items on the right—the same side as the customers. The most valuable jewelry was kept under lock and key, to be brought out from a private room by special request.
Every item in the shop was categorized and displayed just so. Every tool in her working area kept in perfect condition, waiting on its assigned hook or labeled drawer at exactly the right distance from where she’d be most likely to need it.
This winter, she was busier than was comfortable, but that was a good thing, a wonderful thing. She was blessed to have so much business. That her shop’s seasonal success kept her from the large, loud, loving Parker family reunion taking place two hundred yards up the road was a disappointment she’d simply have to weather.
There would be time for family, after. Time for Christmas, after. Time for Angelica, after.
Matching necklaces for the Cruz sisters were to be completed today, followed by several other commissioned pieces that needed to be hung in stockings before Christmas came a fortnight from now.
Angelica longed for the comforting chaos of the Parker clan. A few took turns staying home to mind the family jewelry shop, but the rest came every year. Knowing so many family members were here in Cressmouth, having a marvelous time in a guest suite with a gorgeous view on the fourth floor of the castle, a stone’s throw from her workshop, was both a comfort and torture.
Nothing rejuvenated her like her brother’s booming laugh, the smiles and chatter of her nieces and nephews, her aunts’ and cousins’ diverting commentary about the food served in the dining area and the dances in the castle ballroom.
They were making merry, at least. That was the important part. If it was difficult to think so in this small, silent, empty shop without her family’s laughter and noisy chatter surrounding her like a warm blanket, well, Angelica would simply have to keep going, like she always did.
As soon as she finished her work, she would join them. It might only be for an hour or two a night, but at least she would have them for a little while.
Perhaps this time when they returned home to London, they would be convinced of Angelica’s talent and potential. They would understand why she had come here to Cressmouth, why it was worth it, what she’d accomplished. Perhaps this time, they would be proud of her.
The tinkle of the bell broke her concentration. She glanced up from the necklace to find a well-dressed gentleman in her doorway, his tall form and broad shoulders blocking the late-afternoon light.
Swiftly, she folded the black velvet over the necklace and its accoutrements, and pasted a welcoming smile onto her face.
“May I help you?”
“Mayhap,” came a low, rich voice, with a droll undercurrent. “Probably not, to be honest, which is no reflection on you, but rather my own peculiarities.”
Scottish? The burr was not as strong as some she’d heard, but undeniably present. It felt like a tickle beneath her skin.
“But one never knows, does one?” he continued. “Walking through this door could spark the biggest adventure of my life. Which would say quite a lot, given the ones I’ve had so far. Or perhaps we’ve begun the greatest adventure of yours! Why hadn’t I thought of that? Perhaps I’m to be your spark, rather than you mine. Shall we see?”
And with that, he stepped fully into the shop, flinging his arms wide into a dramatic pose as the door tinkled closed behind him.
Angelica did not say anything.
This was not an unusual occurrence. Her quiet reserve, that was, not this oddly compelling stranger. Angelica only felt comfortable when speaking about jewelry or when surrounded by family.
The stranger, however, seemed impossibly comfortable, maintaining both his expansive voilà! pose and an encouraging smile, as if he fully expected her to strike some complementary stance like two dancers at the start of a tragic opera.
“May I help you?” she said again, hoping the familiar words would turn this situation into something she knew how to deal with.
“I am Jonathan MacLean.” He whipped his hat from his head and made an impressive leg. “At your service.”
“I don’t… require your services?”
Oh, why had the statement come out like a question? She did not rely on anyone but herself, and she’d never heard of Jonathan MacLean. He was not a person one was likely to forget.
He stepped further into her shop, which took him out of silhouette and cast his face into light.
Angelica’s breath caught.
Could he tell that her silence was because he’d stolen her words?
She should not find a gregarious, presumptuous Scot this attractive. His eyes were a crystalline blue, his lips thin, his jaw strong, his cheekbones stolen from a statue, his skin the same moonstone pinkish-white as the lords and ladies who attended parties like the Duke of Nottingvale’s.
And yet the sum of these features was greater than any one part. He was tall as a footman, broad-shouldered as a farmer, as winsome as Beau le Duc. His eyes glittered like sapphires of a thousand facets, above a bone-melting smile that had yet to falter despite her cool reception.
His dramatic entrance didn’t make him look ridiculous at all, but heart-stoppingly magnetic. He seemed made for the stage, the sort of larger-than-life charisma and razor-sharp beauty that would draw crowds the likes of which Drury Lane had never seen. Was he an actor? Was he practicing a role, here, with her?
If so, she did not have time for it or him, no matter how unsettlingly handsome he was. There was no space in her life for distractions. Especially tall, broad-shouldered distractions with eyes like jewels and a smile that melted knees.
“Ask me anything,” he said. “Give it your best. Try to surprise me.”
Angelica rolled back her shoulders. She had a question, all right. One he was refusing to answer.
“May I help you?” she said again, more pointedly this time, each syllable as sharp as his cheekbones.
He beamed at her as though she had passed a test.
“Very good.” His burr was as rich as melted chocolate. “I was expecting ‘Who are you?’ or ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ All of which, I might add, have easier answers.”
“This is Cressmouth,” she found herself explaining. “Strangers are the least mysterious thing that blows into town. We wouldn’t be a Christmas village without tourists.”
Something flickered in his eyes. He turned from her, as if not wanting her to witness the smile slipping out of place.
He was just as attractive in profile. More so. Or perhaps the lack of dazzling smile allowed her to better see the rest of him. From this angle, he seemed less impossibly cheerful and more… Hmm. Brooding wasn’t it. Not quite sad, not quite wistful. Determined, and a little self-deprecating. As though the show hadn’t been for her benefit at all, but rather for his. An audience of one, and a script perhaps no one but him would understand.
Her cousins would laugh themselves into fits if they could see Angelica studying some dashing Scotsman as though he were an uncut diamond brought to her for appraisal.
We told you to find a man, they would say, but not that one. Auntie has picked out just the gentleman for you, though your brother thinks you’d be better matched with—
No. Shutting out their noisy, nosy opinions on how she should live her life was one of the principal reasons Angelica maintained a strict no-relatives-in-the-jewelry-shop policy.
Once she received the recognition she craved, then and only then would she entertain the notion of marrying a husband of her own choosing, thank you very much. She welcomed her family’s home cooking, but not their ham-fisted attempts at matchmaking.
She did not need or want a man to make her life complete. Angelica was enough, all on her own. She would prove it.
She opened her mouth to politely enquire for the fourth time whether she could be of service—oh, how she wished she could be rude without causing risk to her livelihood!—when Mr. MacLean spun to face her.
“This is a jeweler’s shop!” Obvious delight lit his eyes. “I adore jewelry.”
She scowled at him before she remembered only to assume neutral expressions. Why the dickens had the man burst through the door if he did not know what kind of shop this was?
She crossed her arms over her chest in preparation for the next inevitable question.
“The owner—” he began.
Here it came. The assumption every single person without fail had made once they crossed the threshold and discovered her on the other side. No one saw beyond her bosom or the tiger’s-eye brown of her skin.
“—and designer of all this beauty is standing right before me.” He beamed at her. “It’s true, isn’t it? You created these pieces yourself?”
Her arms fell limply down to her sides. He hadn’t assumed she was an employee? Or a servant? Or property? In England, it was no longer legal to sell or purchase new slaves, but plenty of the wealthy kept the ones they had. She stared at him. “But… I’m…”
“Breathtakingly bonny? I did notice. Horrid manners for you to bring it up yourself, one might add. Aye, you outshine all these jewels, but they sparkle in their own way. Like this set…”
He wandered away to gaze closer at a collection of brooches at the far corner of the counter.
She stared after him speechlessly.
Breathtakingly bonny, he’d said. And then turned away. As though his words had not been empty flirtatious banter, pretty words designed to weaken a woman’s defenses, but a simple statement of fact.
He assumed this was her shop. A Black woman. He’d assumed the pieces were her handiwork. Complimented them. Thought her talented. Believed her intricate creations to be far more remarkable and noteworthy than the fact that Angelica owned and designed them. Her lungs filled with hope.
He made everything she’d worked for all these years seem possible.
Despite his claim to the contrary, Angelica was uncomfortably aware that she was the least eye-catching thing in the room.
All her time and energy was devoted to her shop. Which meant everything else in her life was as plain and simple as possible, so she needn’t waste precious time dithering. The pale-pink day dress she wore was identical to six others in her wardrobe. She could grab any item without thinking and it would all match because she’d designed her living quarters to be as easy as possible. She saved her brain for things that mattered. Her shop was her world. Her looks should be irrelevant.
A maxim she’d repeated to herself for seven long years, only for today—today!—for it to finally feel true.
Angelica looked like a business owner. She looked like a jeweler. Like a skilled artisan. She looked like she belonged here, in this space. In the shop she’d carved out of blood, sweat, tears, and pure unadulterated stubbornness.
All by herself.
Mostly by herself. In any case, she was on her own now. Independent and proud of it.
“Tell me about all the pieces,” commanded the distractingly handsome Scotsman. “Start at the beginning. Which was the first one you made? The first one you sold? Why that one? When did you open the shop? Are most of your clients tourists? Who was the first customer? Are you charging enough for your work? Which stones are your favorites to work with? Is gold better than silver? How do you come up with such compelling designs?”
Angelica stared at him.
Usually she didn’t know what to say, but he’d given her too much to respond to. Asked better questions in one minute than all her other customers combined.
She didn’t have time to explain how she became a jeweler, what her first piece was, why a bejeweled vinaigrette bottle had been the first item she’d sold. Much less give the hours-long—months-long?—explanation of which materials she preferred for which purposes and why, and the mechanics behind each design. He would have to apprentice her for a year.
“Och aye, I like this one,” he breathed, seemingly unperturbed by her lack of answers. “May I touch?”
She nodded jerkily. The piece was a deceptively simple pendant; an orb within an orb, the interior world turning independently of the delicate golden cage that bound it.
Even though Mr. MacLean had asked permission to touch, received permission, wanted to touch, he brought his knuckle ever so close to the side of the tiny globe-within-a-globe and did not make contact.
Angelica was two yards away and could feel that light presence as though his knuckle was not next to her gold pendant, but rather beside her cheek. Close enough to feel his warmth, yet not quite touching. Close enough to lean into, were she to dip her head. Close enough to smell, to taste.
But it was not her he was looking at with such fascination. It was not even the gold pendant. Already he had moved to the next sparkling object, and the next, and the next. At this rate, he would lay eyes on every piece faster than she would have been able to rattle off their names.
When he reached the final piece, he stood just across the counter from Angelica. He could reach out and not-quite-touch her the way he’d not-quite-touched her gold pendant.
The thought made her want to wrench open the wooden door behind her, fling herself into her private adjoining cottage, and shut the door tight behind her.
She wouldn’t, of course. She couldn’t. Her shop didn’t close for hours, and she needed every scrap of success she could find.
“I’ll take them,” the Scot announced.
She blinked at him. “Take what?”
“Whichever ones you want to sell me,” he replied, as though it was obvious. As though people wandered in off the street every day willing to pay exorbitant prices for expensive jewelry they didn’t bother to pick out for themselves.
He hadn’t even asked about cost.
“What would you do with fifteen hair clips?” she managed.
“Is that what you’d sell me?” He appeared delighted by this absurdity. “I’d wear them, all at once, just to say that I did, and then I’d give them away to fifteen ladies who could better appreciate their value.”
She stared at his neatly trimmed golden brown hair, the color of well-polished amber. It didn’t even graze his ears. “You couldn’t fit fifteen clips in your hair.”
He grinned at her. “But I would try, which is what would make it such a comical tale. Shall I purchase them, then? You can be my witness. I’ll tell everyone I meet, ‘If you don’t believe me, there’s a lovely jeweler up in Cressmouth who saw the whole thing. Her name is…’” He leaned forward expectantly.
Now he was definitely close enough to touch. If she lifted herself on her toes, she could brush noses with him. Their proximity was appallingly improper.
Yet she didn’t pull away.
“Miss Parker,” she said instead.
She could have said “Miss Angelica Parker.” Her Christian name was no secret. Despite living in the shadow of a castle, the village of Cressmouth didn’t stand much on pomp and propriety. Many of those who lived here year-round first-named each other as though they were cousins who had grown up together since birth.
It felt like that sometimes. At once cloying and protective. An entire village of big brothers and big sisters, full of unsolicited opinions and unconditional love. Their livelihoods might depend on tourists, but their loyalties were to one another.
Mr. MacLean was an outsider.
He would leave just as suddenly—and likely as dramatically—as he’d arrived. He did not need to know her given name.
“Miss Parker,” he said, as though tasting the syllables and finding them unexpectedly delicious. “It suits you.”
It did? What was that supposed to mean? That she looked like a Miss rather than a Mrs., or that she seemed like a Parker, whatever that was?
“‘MacLean’ suits you,” she shot back.
His sapphire eyes widened. “Does it? What does that mean?”
She swallowed. This was why she didn’t like to talk to people she didn’t know or speak on subjects she didn’t command. She was bound to say the wrong thing.
“Your burr,” she mumbled, waving a hand without meeting his eyes. “You sound Scottish.”
“I am Scottish,” he agreed. “For better or for worse. Your accent, on the other hand, is poor indeed. You sound…”
“…English,” he whispered, and gave an exaggerated shudder.
“I am English,” she managed.
“Pity,” he sighed. “All jewels have their flaws, don’t they? That is, not yours, obviously; your pieces are exquisite, even the hair combs. I would not be at all ashamed to wear them, all at once or otherwise. But English, now, there’s a challenge. A man must set limits. Although I admit I find you a delight.”
Strangers tended to find Angelica prickly and taciturn, not a delight. Even not-so-strangers. Two aunts and a distant cousin had independently informed Angelica she’d be married by now if she hadn’t the general demeanor of a startled hedgehog. Adorable, but untouchable.
Armor was smart. Armor kept her protected. Armor let her do her job… which had been woefully neglected ever since Lord Rakish McChatterbox swept into her shop like a knight prancing before his maiden.
She had no time for men or idle chatter. Even if his nonsense had managed to settle her nerves in much the same way the noise of her family reunions did. If she didn’t have a rule of not working in front of a client, she rather suspected she’d finish the Cruz necklace faster with Mr. MacLean prattling in the background than she would left alone to her own thoughts.
Nonetheless, there was no room in her life for anything but work until she’d reached her goals. No exceptions, not even for handsome Scots.
“No offense meant,” she began, then cleared her throat and started anew.
He was less than an arm’s width from her, which should make it easy to be heard, yet her words had been little more than a squeak.
“No offense meant, sir, but if you aren’t going to make a purchase, I must get back to work.” Was that offensive? It was probably offensive. He looked baffled. “It’s not you,” she added quickly, although it was definitely him. “It’s that I’m untenably busy. My relatives are here and I can’t see them until I’ve finished these pieces, which at this rate—”
What was wrong with her? Now she was babbling just like Mr. MacLean.
“Who said I wasn’t going to buy the hair combs?” he asked. “I’ll take the bracelets, as well, if that helps. And the earrings. You can charge me double for taking so much of your time. I only meant to—”
The door tinkled open and Noelle Ward, Duchess of Silkridge, dashed inside.
“Angelica! There you are.”
“Where else would I be?” Angelica muttered, acutely conscious that Mr. MacLean now knew her Christian name. “I’m always here.”
“And a good thing, too. We’re in dire need of your help.”
“‘We’ the Duke and Duchess of Silkridge? Or ‘we’ the castle counting-house?”
This question likely made no sense to Mr. MacLean. Before marrying a duke, Noelle had spent her days high in the castle’s tallest tower, overseeing the counting-house.
From the look on Mr. MacLean’s face, he could sense a fascinating story and was dying to ask a hundred impertinent questions.
“‘We’ the entire village of Christmas,” Noelle said dramatically, which likely pleased Mr. MacLean just as much. “For the grand Yuletide ball, we’re erecting a large yew tree in the ballroom and we need you to help us decorate it.”
Angelica raised her brows. “Why?”
“You’re the most talented artist in Christmas. The adornments must be the most beautiful objects our guests have ever seen—”
“Not why would you ask me to design the adornments,” Angelica explained patiently. “Why would you put a tree indoors?”
Angelica shook her head. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“A new tradition,” Noelle admitted. “It’s the first annual Marlowe Castle Yuletide Indoor Evergreen—yes, I know that’s a mouthful; we’re working on a better name—and it absolutely has royal precedence. Queen Charlotte first decorated a large yew tree with fruits and baubles fourteen years ago, at Queen’s Lodge in Windsor. All the beau monde is thinking of doing it.”
“So… the plan is to copy High Society?” Angelica said doubtfully.
“Exactly. What does our village stand for, if not for making perquisites associated with aristocrats available to the general public? The castle is open at all hours with every manner of entertainment… And now a tree!”
“And now a tree,” Angelica repeated. Exactly what she needed. There was already not enough time to finish all her work and still see her family, not to mention she was expecting a visit from a friend… How was she supposed to do it all? It was impossible. “What do you need?”
“Mr. Thompson has authorized me to commission ten gold adornments.” Noelle lowered her voice. “And if he hadn’t, I would have paid for it myself. Charge whatever you like, Angelica. I want this to be worth it for you. This will change people’s lives.”
Mr. Thompson was the solicitor managing the castle trust. Charge whatever you like was a convincing argument.
“How will decorating an indoor tree change people’s lives?” she asked instead.
“Not everyone in Cressmouth is in a position to reap the rewards of tourism. Until now! We have endless hills of evergreens. What could be a better souvenir than a tree from the village of Christmas? Mr. Thompson has signed a document granting all year-round residents the right to sell a generous quantity of evergreens from five percent of the castle woods, to be replanted every spring. Not everyone will take advantage, but those who wish to… can.”
It was a worthy cause. Angelica had no time to take on another project, but saying no would be admitting to weakness—and letting her neighbors down. The ball was held the Wednesday before Christmas, making it only five days hence. If she didn’t already have so much else to do…
“If we can pull this off,” Noelle continued, “which we will, with your help—everyone will know you were the one to design the golden mistletoe sprigs with red-jeweled berries.’” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “All the wealthy tourists will want to take home adornments of their own, designed by the same artist. You, Angelica! They’ll brag to all their friends and your name will be on everyone’s lips.”
Angelica’s name on everyone’s lips.
This was what she wanted. What she had worked so hard for, and for so long. She wanted recognition. She wanted tourists to flock to her door not because she was the only jeweler for miles, but because she was the only jeweler they wished to do business with.
“Eve will put it on the front page of the Cressmouth Gazette,” Noelle was saying.
The rest of her words sounded as though they were muffled by water. Cressmouth’s population might be small, but the gazette reached thousands of homes outside the village. Everyone who visited subscribed, as did countless more who took their Yuletide holidays vicariously through the antics printed in the monthly broadsheet. It might be on a small scale, but Angelica’s name would be known nationwide.
All she’d have to do was give up her chance to be with her family.
She straightened her spine. There would be more Christmases in the future. Angelica would have enough money to take the entire clan on holiday thrice in a year anywhere they wished.
“All right,” she said. “Golden mistletoe with jeweled berries. The most beautiful—and expensive—Yuletide adornments ever created.”
Noelle squealed and clapped her hands together. “I’ll pick them up for the grand ball on Tuesday. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This will be marvelous.”
She dashed from the shop before Angelica could say another word.
The interior filled with silence.
Mr. MacLean arched a golden brow. “If you didn’t have time to sell me a bucketful of hair combs…”
“I know,” Angelica said. “I know.”
How was she meant to explain it to him?
She took a deep breath. “This may sound conceited, but I work hard because I know how talented I am. Seven years ago, I vowed to create a name for myself at any cost. This is part of that cost, and my chance. Once my designs are respected all over the land, I’ll have earned the right to relax, to be proud of myself, to do as I please. But until that day… I have work to do.”
She expected him to launch into a thousand questions. Why the vow? What cost? Why seven years?
Instead, he surprised her by giving her an unsettlingly serious stare, followed by a short, decisive nod.
“I have no use for Christmas,” he said slowly, “but I understand vows and ambition. I’ll leave you to it.”
He strode out of the exit just as abruptly as Noelle, pausing only to give Angelica a little bow before disappearing through the door and into the falling snow.
She stared after him for far too long before she remembered the half-finished necklace. Angelica tried to return to her task. There would be no eating or sleeping until the Cruz pieces were finished and delivered, and she was free to start on the adornments for the castle tree.
But the shop felt empty without Mr. MacLean in it. As though when he’d left, he’d taken all the air with him. It was just Angelica now, alone, with no sounds to accompany her but the pounding of her heart.
She wished he’d stayed.
She was glad he left.
How could she miss a total stranger? She couldn’t. It was impossible. She would shove him from her mind. No more thoughts of Mr. MacLean until after Christmas.
By then, he would be long gone.