The Lady’s Christmas Secret by Ella Edon
Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England
Eight-year-old Caroline White, the daughter of Baron Oakham, was lying wide awake in her tiny bed, tucked in with the blanket up to her chin, just like every other night. Her governess had put her to bed right after dinner, and her parents were in the drawing room entertaining their guests. But it was still Christmas Eve, and Caroline was too excited to sleep. She thought about her father’s stern words.
‘You are not to leave your room under any circumstances, or there will be no Christmas gifts for you.’
The warning was dire and clear, and Caroline did not want to risk losing her presents. Sighing in surrender, she closed her eyes, trying not to get distracted by the voices and laughter drifting up from the drawing room.
Thinking it unfair that she had to sleep when her parents and their guests were still having fun downstairs, her mind drifted as she stared at the intricate swirls of her bedroom’s ceiling. Making shapes out of the patterns adorning the surface, Caroline imagined her ceiling was a snowy field, beautiful and vast. Unable to keep still any longer, she jumped up out of her bed, landed on her bare feet, and went straight to her window. As she peered out of the pain of glass, frosted at the edges, Caroline gasped.
She could see that the snow had blanketed the back garden and her favourite pond, which was now covered with ice. The snow was still falling in small, swirling flakes. Feeling the awe and excitement welling up inside her, Caroline grabbed her wool mittens and coat from the armoire and snuck out of her room.
Taking one small step after the other, she swiftly made her way down the stairs, wincing every time the old steps creaked under her weight.
Caroline was thankful that no one had seen her, and that the unlocked back door through the kitchen opened with ease. Before long, Caroline could feel the cold night air on her flustered face. Hesitating for but a moment, Caroline took the first step outside, her little foot crunching into the thick layer of snow. She squealed with joy as she began to run, stumbling, and falling into the soft snow. On her back, she threw handfuls of the white powder into the air. The snow fell on her blonde curls in sprinkles, disappearing in seconds.
Twirling with her arms outstretched, Caroline suddenly fell, hitting something hard. She realized she had landed at the base of a tree. Looking at her surroundings, Caroline saw that she had drifted far from the back lawn of her house and into the clearing of the small forest behind it.
The forest had always seemed scary to Caroline, and her father never allowed her to go inside without him, or their trusted hound dog, Dottie. But tonight, the forest looked different. The snow blanketed everything, making it seem peaceful and beautiful.
Enticed by how the moonlight shone in the clearing, illuminating the dancing snowflakes, Caroline walked deeper into the forest. She giggled, thinking of herself as an enchanted princess from one of her favourite bedtime tales.
At that moment, she noticed she was not alone. Half-concealed by the shadows cast from the tall trees at the edge of the clearing, a lone figure crouched in the snow. Frozen into place and thinking she might have encountered a real creature of the forest, Caroline felt curiosity coursing through her and could not help but take a few steps closer. As she approached the mysterious figure, the moonlight illuminated the scene, and Caroline no longer felt scared.
It was not a forest creature but a young boy a few years older than her. He just sat there, in the snow, looking sad and unbearably lonely. When he raised his eyes to look at her, Caroline could see he had been crying, which broke her young heart. Wiping his tears on his sleeve defiantly, he sniffled his nose.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Caroline said.
The boy did not respond, still eyeing her under his long black lashes and the long dark curls that crowned his forehead. Caroline decided he did not look like any boy she had ever seen before.
“Here,” she reached into the pocket of her coat and handed him her handkerchief. My name is Caroline White, the daughter of George White, Baron Oakham.” She reminded herself to add a little curtsy at the end of her introduction.
Caroline had already started practicing her manners and knew that a proper lady, no matter how young, never forgot her manners.
“I’m Adam. Adam Seton, the Marquess of Derby,” he said, taking the offered handkerchief from her hand. “Thank you.”
Upon hearing the boy’s title, Caroline was glad she had remembered her manners.
“What are you doing here, Ad – my lord?” she corrected herself at the last minute.
“Please, call me Adam,” he said.
Caroline could see from the condition of his elegantly tailored clothes that he must have been sitting there for hours.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he added, without sounding hostile.
His eyes looked shy and kind, and Caroline felt that she could trust him.
“I’m not supposed to be outside. My father said I’d get no Christmas gifts.”
Inexplicably, Caroline noticed how Adam’s expression fell again at her words. He bit his trembling lower lip.
“Are you alright, Adam?”
“I’m fine, but it’s just that…” Adam’s voice trailed off, and he did not finish the sentence as a sob broke through his lips.
Caroline knelt near him instinctively, not sure what she could do.
“My mother got awfully sick last Christmas. Father said she would be alright by New Year’s Eve and that we should pray. I prayed, and I prayed, and I begged. But my mother passed away a few days later.” Adam’s voice cracked at the end, and Caroline put her little hand on his shoulder.
“I hate Christmas time. It reminds me my mother is never coming back.”
“I am so sorry,” Caroline said.
They stood for a few moments in silence.
“What if it’s not true?” she mused. Adam only looked at her curiously.
“What do you mean?”
“What if it’s not true that your mother is never coming back? What if she’s returning every Christmas as a snowflake? She is free and happy, swirling and dancing in the sky over you.”
Caroline prompted him to look around at the beautiful snow, which had slowed but was still falling in a steady rhythm.
Adam’s eyes lightened up in hope at her words. He looked around in awe as the last tears dried on his cheeks.
“I think I like your idea, Caroline.”
She gave him her brightest smile and saw him grin in return. Knowing that she had made him happy, Caroline felt a wave of warmth deep inside of her, despite the cold.
“Would you like to hear something else?” she asked with a mischievous expression on her face. She had thought of the perfect way to cheer him up.
“Alright,” he said reluctantly.
Instead of giving him an answer, Caroline formed a small snowball with both her hands and threw it gently in his direction. It crashed with a thud on his chest and dissolved in pieces on the ground. Adam looked at her in astonishment and broke into laughter.
“I hope you’re ready for war,” he let out and started forming snowballs with his hands.
Caroline gave a small shriek and started running, looking for the best hiding spot while preparing her next shot. Adam’s snowball hit her in the back, and she pretended to fall face-first into the snow.
“Caroline!” he cried out in worry.
Standing over her to see if she was hurt, Adam did not see the snowball she held in her right hand coming right at him. It nearly hit him in the face, and he fell back laughing in shock. Caroline joined in, giggling victoriously.
“Adam!” a piercing cry echoed through the trees, cutting their laughter short as they froze in place.
“Adam Seton, explain yourself right this instant!” A tall man, looking to be as old as her father, threaded through the snow, approaching them. Seeing the furious expression on his face, Caroline inched closer to Adam.
“Father, I’m sorry, I didn’t – ” Adam started to say.
This time, it was unmistakably Caroline’s father who shouted angrily in the distance. Caroline winced as she saw him making his way to them, their dog, Dottie, and a few of the servants following close behind.
“Caroline, what is the meaning of this? We’ve been looking all over for you, and all this time you’ve been with the Seton boy?! What were you thinking?” he shouted at her.
“I’m so sorry, Papa,” Caroline said.
“You can bid goodbye to your Christmas gifts, young lady,” her father said as he helped her get up. “Move away from him,” he spat out.
“Surely it is your daughter who dragged my boy into this mess!” Adam’s father introjected angrily.
“I wish you to leave my daughter out of this, Seton. You are trespassing on our property,” her father responded coldly.
Caroline was shocked; she had never seen her father so furious.
“Oh, I can assure you this won’t happen again!” Adam’s father was fuming as he yanked his son away. “Come on, son. We’ve got no business with the likes of them.”
Locking eyes with Adam one last time without a chance to say goodbye, Caroline followed her father back to the house in silence.
A little while later, having received a scolding from her father and disappointed looks from her mother, Caroline was clean and dry and back in her bed.
Before leaving her bedroom, her father stood at the door, looking at her sternly.
“You did something very foolish tonight, Caroline,” he said in an icy tone.
“I’m sorry, Papa. I just wanted to see the snow.”
“That is not what I speak of. Although that was foolish, and you could have hurt yourself out there.”
Caroline’s eyelids were growing heavy with the exhaustion and the excitement of the evening, but the words her father spoke next surprised her.
“You must never, ever, again go near the Setons, do you understand? They are bad people.”
“But Papa – ”
“No. You will do as I say,” the baron said as he left, shutting the door behind him.
With a heavy sigh, Caroline closed her eyes. This time, when she pictured herself dancing in the snow while trying to catch the snowflakes, she wasn’t dancing alone.