Relatively Festive (by Claire)

Summary:   Joseph’s first Christmas–what could possibly go wrong?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  5771


 

“Joseph’s first Christmas!” Marie sighed happily, snuggling into Ben’s warm embrace and stretching out her toes towards the fire. “There is something very special about having a baby in the house for Christmas, isn’t there?”

Looking at the clothes horse, draped in wet diapers and steaming gently before the heat of the fire, Ben agreed whole-heartedly that things were very different from last year. He was only too aware that a certain amount of prevarication was necessary if harmonious relations were to be maintained.

“We should make everything extra-special this year, don’t you think? Have a real family Christmas?” Marie wheedled, her lips close to his ear, so that each breath sent a shiver of delicious expectation down Ben’s spine.

“Of course.” His hand moved towards the nape of her neck and stealthily began to remove the pins that confined the thick golden coils of her hair. “That’s a wonderful idea. What would you like to do?” Ben asked distractedly, mesmerized by the way the light from the fire spun amber rays onto her face, so that her eyes seemed to dance with love. He would give her anything, anything in the world, just to prolong this moment, to have his wife gaze at him with such adoration.

Marie leaned towards him, giving her head a little shake, so that her hair tumbled down in a fragrant profusion around her shoulders and smiled bewitchingly into his eyes. “I have one or two ideas…” she confided, allowing her fingers to toy with the top button of his shirt, before undoing it and sliding her hand inwards.

“So do I,” Ben agreed hoarsely, drawing her closer, burying his head amongst the tremulous softness of her breasts and then allowing his lips to rove downwards. “So do I!”

It looks as if this is going to be a very special Christmas indeed, he thought happily, eying the rug in front of the fireplace speculatively. And there was nothing quite like spending time with the ones you loved. Nothing quite like it at all…

*****

“What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas, Pa?” Hoss asking, consuming a steaming bowl of oatmeal with considerable gusto.

“I was rather thinking of asking him for a bearskin rug,” Ben answered blandly, giving Marie a wicked look out of the corner of his eye and stifling a laugh when she refused to meet his gaze. “Something soft and warm to put in front of the hearth. The old rug is getting rather thin and threadbare.”

“That would be lovely! I think we’d all enjoy that,” Marie agreed fervently.

“Have you been a good boy, then?” Adam teased, certain that some private joke was underway and desperate to join in.

“Oh yes!” Marie said, in fervent tones. “He’s been a very good boy indeed – I can vouch for that!” She smirked happily as Ben choked on a mouthful of coffee. “All my boys have been good this year,” she continued innocently.

Hoss gave Joe a baleful look. “All but one!” he muttered, watching Joe contentedly stick his fingers into his bowl and then noisily suck the oatmeal off them, with all too audible relish. “I can’t see Santa leaving him anything but a switch in his stocking!”

Adam looked at his youngest brother and laughed. “He’s still small enough to fit in a stocking, far less hang one up!” Stretching out a hand, Adam tousled Joe’s curls, receiving a beatific smile in response.

Hoss scraped the last remaining scraps of oatmeal out of his bowl and smiled at Hop Sing ingratiatingly. “Any more?” he asked hopefully.

“All gone!” Hop Sing said, wondering where the child put all that food.

Leaning out of his highchair, Joe helpfully started to edge his own bowl towards his older brother. He was already bored with breakfast, having quickly determined that oatmeal looked a good deal more exciting than it actually tasted.

“Joseph!” Marie said in warning tones and Joe shot back into his seat, his hands inadvertently giving the bowl one final push, so that it toppled off the tray and spilt its contents all over the tablecloth.

“See? He can’t even eat his breakfast without causing trouble!” Hoss said angrily, wiping blobs of cereal off his shirt with a napkin. “You’re just a menace, that’s what you are!”

Joe’s bottom lip began to give a familiar quiver and his eyes filled with tears.

“There is nothing quite like a lovely, family Christmas, is there?” Ben asked Marie wryly.

“Absolutely nothing!” she agreed, raising her voice to be heard above the disconsolate wails of the baby. Marie scooped Joe out of his highchair and began to soothe him.

Life is so very simple when you are young, she thought, cuddling the baby to her and murmuring softly to him, feeling the small body begin to relax and sag against her as the tension eased. There are few things that a little loving can’t sort out. Now, if only I could smooth Hoss’ ruffled feathers as easily as I can calm Joseph.

There were times when Marie detected a vague thawing in Hoss’ attitude towards his baby brother, but in general these were still few and far between.

“I have to go into town to pick up some packages,” Ben announced. “Who wants to come with me?”

“Me! Me!” Hoss bounced up and down in his seat with glee, his earlier sulks quickly forgotten. “You coming, Adam?”

“Guess so.” Adam anxiously fingered the coins in his pocket, hoping that he had saved enough money to buy presents for his family.

“I have a list, upstairs on my bureau.” Marie’s voice was soft, for Joe was on the verge of sleep, his breathing slow and regular, long eyelashes sweeping down onto rosy cheeks. “Just a few things I need…” She dimpled roguishly at Ben, who shook his head in mock-sternness, knowing full-well that the list undoubtedly covered at least two sides of paper, but he willingly rose to collect it.

Ben stopped halfway upstairs and looked at the scene below: Adam and Hoss in eager conversation, their heads close together as they whispered secrets about Christmas presents to one another; Marie seated before the fire, their sleeping baby securely cradled in her arms; the first fall of snow outside the windows casting a pure and vibrant radiance over everything.

“A real, family Christmas,” he thought, rubbing his chin reflectively. “That sounds perfect to me.”

*****

“Hear that?” Marie said, walking to the door. “That’s your Papa, and Adam and Hoss, come back from town.”

Joe clapped his hands together in excitement and made a headlong lunge forward as his father came inside, bringing the chill of a winter’s day with him. Luckily, Ben was used to his youngest son’s impetuous nature and fielded the child neatly before he tumbled onto the floor.

“Did you get all the shopping?” Marie asked anxiously.

Ben gave her a sheepish look. “All the packages – and some extras as well…” She noticed that he was unable to meet her eyes and that his voice tailed off miserably, but before Marie could enquire any further, Ben was pushed firmly to one side.

“For heavens sake, Benjamin, do you have to stand around, cluttering up the place?” A small, determined woman bustled forward and smiled ferociously at Marie. She looked rather like a Yorkshire terrier in a bonnet — all spiky determination, beady eyes, piercing yap and painful bite.

“Cousin Clarissa – what a surprise!” Marie said, honesty getting the better of her. “We had no idea you were coming, did we?” She gave her husband a penetrating stare.

Ben shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “None at all,” he confirmed. If he had even the faintest inkling that his cousin was intending to bestow her presence upon them, Ben would have whisked his family as far away as possible. To the Sandwich Islands, if necessary. Previous encounters had given Ben Cartwright a hearty fear of his formidable relative.

“I always think Christmas is a time for families, don’t you?” Clarissa said smugly, bustling forward to warm her hands at the fire. “And isn’t anyone even going to offer me a dish of tea?” She tilted her head to one side and saw Ben meekly trot off to the kitchen. The sight gave her considerable satisfaction and it was only with great difficulty that she managed to subdue a giggle. “You can put my luggage in my usual room,” she announced as Adam struggled in with a large and heavy suitcase.

The boy nodded briefly, being too out of breath to actually speak and turned dutifully towards the downstairs bedroom, thankful that he didn’t have to lug the confounded thing upstairs. Judging by the weight, Cousin Clarissa was planning on a long stay. Adam sighed softly at this unpleasant prospect and then trudged dutifully back outside to deal with the rest of her belongings.

“You should see all the boxes Cousin Clarissa brought!” Hoss confided, leaning contentedly against Marie’s knee. Joe reached forward and patted him on the head, cooing happily as his small fingers tangled amongst the soft hair. Too excited to scold, Hoss turned around and smiled at his little brother. “There might even be something in there for you, Little Joe!”

Joe babbled happily in response and nearly bounced off his mother’s knee. Luckily, Marie was well-accustomed to her child’s rambunctious nature and had a tight hold of him.

“I always say it is better to give than to receive,” Clarissa said primly. “Of course, in my position, it is difficult for me to give appropriate gifts, but I do feel it is my bounden duty to visit my relations. That is the least I can do. Of course, it is highly inconvenient for me, but still, where one’s family is concerned, I am willing to sacrifice my own needs and desires.”

“How very kind and selfless of you,” Ben said, forcing a smile onto his face. It sat oddly, wreathed in insincerity, but Clarissa did not seem to notice.

“I try, Benjamin. I do try,” she assured him.

But it is not easy, Clarissa thought, watching as the family gathered together and began to exchange news of their respective days. It is not easy to always be the outsider, never to have anyone who really belongs to you. Hereon the Ponderosa, although I am apart and distinct from you, I am also a part of you all. In some small way, I belong with you. How could I spend Christmas anywhere else? You are my family and everyone needs to feel part of a family at Christmastime.

She smiled at Joe and when he reached out, Clarissa took the plump baby-hand in her own, marveling in its softness. For just one fleeting moment a look of pure happiness spun across her face, but just as quickly she dismissed it and schooled her features into impassivity, seasoned lightly with a vinegar-dressing. To expose oneself was the first step on the road to disaster and Clarissa had only herself. She was only too aware there was no-one to defend her, to shield her from hurt or to curl up against on a cold winter’s night. Still, she had the Cartwrights, in some small measure. And she was determined to make the most of her time with them.

*****

“So, you two met in New Orleans?” Clarissa enquired, taking a genteel sip of port after dinner. She had been absurdly gratified to see the table laid with the red and white china she had bestowed upon the family on an earlier visit. Such a good, serviceable choice! Pedestrian and sturdy in execution, but ideal for careless boys…and while the pattern was slightly smudgy and indistinct in places, why one couldn’t have everything, could one?

Adam watched her intently, still amazed at the different faces his cousin was able to assume. He still had difficulty in reconciling this genteel lady with the demon poker-player he knew dwelt beneath the prim and proper exterior. He had a sneaking suspicion there was more to Cousin Clarissa than met the eye, but he still wary of her and tended to keep his distance.

Ben reached across the table and took Marie’s hand in his own, raised it to his lips and kissed it fervently. “We did indeed meet in New Orleans. And that was where we fell in love. I fell in love with Marie the first time I saw her, riding down the street with her head held high and fire burning in her eyes. I’d never seen a more beautiful woman!”

Marie felt her cheeks burn and was aware of Hoss wriggling in embarrassment beside her.

Clarissa slapped his thigh firmly. “Don’t squirm, dear — people will think you have worms. And that only results in the most embarrassing course of medical treatment. Believe me on that.”

Lost for words, Hoss nodded speechlessly.

Clarissa turned her gaze back to the adults and remarked “Handsome is as handsome does!” in a tart tone of voice.

Ben momentarily diverted his eyes from gazing at his wife. “Marie does me handsomely!” he said passionately and was gratified to see Adam chuckle. He winked solemnly at his son.

“How do you know when you’re in love?” Adam asked. He had been pondering this question for some time, ever since Lucinda Patterson had put her hair up and her skirts down. All of a sudden she appeared quite different and Adam felt a lump in his throat that made it difficult to speak if she even smiled at him. Was this love? Then again, there was a strange new girl at school who kept fluttering her eyelashes at him and pursing her lips in a most disconcerting manner. What if she were in love with him? Were you allowed not to be in love with someone, even if they loved you? Did you have to love them back, or could you just say “no, thank you very much”? Adam found the whole business of growing up to be very confusing indeed.

“It’s different for everyone,” Ben said. “I grew up with your mother, Adam — and out of our friendship grew love. Elizabeth was my first love. And then, when I met Inger, falling in love was the last thing on my mind.”

The memories no longer hurt, Ben realized. For the first time he found himself wanting to talk about his first two wives and to share his memories of them. “There was just something about Inger, such a deep beauty within her, that one day I realized I was in love with her. Sometimes love is always there, sometimes love just creeps up on you, when you least expect it. And at other times love comes galloping around the corner and straight into your heart!” He smiled to see how hard Adam was concentrating and suspected the boy had an ulterior motive. How fast his sons were growing up!

“It’s different for everyone,” Marie added. “But when you are really in love, you know you cannot live without the person. You have to be with them in order to be whole. And you know you would do anything to keep them from harm.” She looked at the four men in her life: Ben, Adam, Hoss and Joe and knew that there was no price too high to keep them safe.

“I loved each one of you boys from the moment you were born,” Ben said. “And no matter what happens, I’ll always love you.”

Hoss looked perplexed and highly dubious. “Even Joe? When his diaper needs changed?” He could think of nothing worse.

“Even Joe!” Ben laughed, looking contentedly at his youngest son, who had managed to smear a good amount of mashed potato into his hair and was now sitting contentedly squishing another handful between his palms and watching it ooze out between his chubby fingers. “And don’t worry Hoss, Joe will grow up soon enough. But not too soon, I hope. I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to my baby boy just yet.”

Sometimes Hoss wondered about his father. Imagine wanting to keep a messy, smelly baby! And then it suddenly struck him –Little Joe was annoying enough right now, and he was still only just a baby! How much worse would he be when he got older? Hoss looked up in consternation and Clarissa gave him a sympathetic smile.

At least someone understands, Hoss thought. If only she didn’t have to go away! How wonderful it would be if Cousin Clarissa could stay here for ever and ever…

He sat quietly mulling the thoughts in his head. Cousin Clarissa made him feel special, not just the boy in the middle but someone unique and valued.

It’s no fun being stuck in the middle! There ain’t even a special word for it, like oldest or youngest – I’m just lumped there, in the middle of nothing. And half the time I’m told I’m too young to do the things that Adam does and the other half I’m told not to behave like a baby! I sure wish they’d make up their minds! It ain’t fair! Hoss slumped down in his chair in disgust.

“You want to sing some carols?” Adam suggested, seeing the black expression on his younger brother’s normally sunny countenance. After months of being so embarrassed by the weird croaking noises that came out of his throat whenever he tried to sing, Adam was fairly sure that his voice had settled into a new, deeper register and he was keen to see how it sounded.

Marie picked up Joe, who had slumped forwards, lying across the tray of his high chair in a contended sleep. “Just let me put this little Cartwright to bed and then come down and join you.”

The strains of “Good King Wenceslas” accompanied her upstairs, with Clarissa providing a surprisingly powerful contralto that sent the centre light swaying back and forth. Hoss joined in the carol with considerable enthusiasm and a tremulous, sharp treble; Adam was absurdly gratified to find he was now the proud possessor of a baritone voice, while Ben did sterling service on the bass. Luckily, Joe was a sound sleeper and did not stir as the loud singing reverberated throughout the house. He continued to slumber peacefully as his mother ran a damp cloth through his curls, removing most of the mashed potato in the process.

Shutting the bedroom door behind her, Marie ran downstairs, joining in the next carol gleefully.

“Adeste fideles,

Laeti triumphantes

Venite, venite…”

Her voice rang out, clear, pure and high and the carolers down below smiled up in admiration. All except one.

“That ain’t right!” Hoss protested. “Don’t you know the right words, Ma? I thought everyone knew them words!”

Adam started to protest, but Marie laid a finger against her lips, murmured her apologies to the little boy and almost managed to keep a straight face as she started singing again, in English this time.

*****

“What are we havin’ for Christmas dinner?” Hoss asked.

“Hop Sing have plenty big goose.” He held his hands far apart. “So big, maybe not fit in oven!”

Hoss’ eyes grew round with surprise. “That big?” he said in awe.

Hop Sing nodded contentedly.

“Big enough for all of us and a guest?” Hoss asked ingenuously.

“And exactly who were you planning on inviting?” Ben asked, appearing suddenly from the dining room with Joe in his arms.

“No one,” Hoss muttered, eyeing up the stove dubiously. It certainly looked big enough, but then, Hop Sing knew what he was talking about, didn’t he? He was the best cook in Nevada, after all. But this goose sounded enormous! Hoss felt hungry just thinking about it.

“Hoss — look at me,” Ben commanded gently. There was enough going on in the house without his boy starting to keep secrets from him.

Hoss raised cornflower-blue eyes up towards his father and gulped slightly as he met the firm gaze. “I just though it would be nice to ask Sheriff Coffee for Christmas dinner,” he explained. “He ain’t got no-one else and I thought he might be lonely.”

Ben reached out an arm and hugged his son to him. “That’s a lovely thought son. I’m very proud of you. How about we ride into town and invite Roy to join us on Christmas Day?”

Hoss skipped happily, basking in the praise. “Thanks, Pa! Just you an’ me though – we don’t have to take Joe with us, do we?”

“Just you and me,” Ben agreed readily. “I think we deserve a little time together, just us men, don’t you?”

Puffing out his chest, Hoss nodded in agreement. As his father turned to ask Hop Sing if any additional supplies were needed from town, Hoss stuck his tongue out at the baby, who looked intrigued at the accomplishment and poked his own tongue out speculatively, before grabbing it with his fingers.

“Don’t do that!” Ben chided, pulling Joe’s hand down automatically and totally missing the triumphant smile on Hoss’ face. Supremely unconcerned, Joe merely stuffed his fingers into his mouth and pulled out his tongue again.

“And don’t forget to pick up that gold braining I ordered from the Mercantile!” Marie called out.

Clarissa arched one eyebrow elegantly as Adam watched enviously. He had spent many long hours before a mirror trying to emulate her sophisticated gesture, but had made little progress. Still, he was determined to persevere.

“The church is putting on a Nativity Play on Christmas Eve and Adam is going to be one of the Three Wise Men,” Marie explained. She pulled a dark crimson robe from her sewing basket. “I’ve almost finished his costume and just need to add some gold braid to make it extra special.”

“Very nice,” Clarissa sniffed contemptuously. “Don’t let it go to your head!” she warned Adam, who felt a little of the joy seep out of him.

Marie hastened to pout oil on troubled waters. “And Hoss is going to play one of the cows in the stable,” she informed her guest.

“I’d rather be a chicken!” Hoss yelled from the kitchen and Clarissa dug her fingernails sharply into the palm of her hand.

“I do a real good chicken,” he continued, coming back into the living room. “You should see it, Cousin Clarissa!” He gave her a conspiratorial smile. On an earlier visit, Clarissa had shared a well-guarded secret with the little boy: her inimitable impersonation of a hen about to lay an egg. Clarissa had perfected the skill in her youth and had passed the secret down to Hoss, vowing him to secrecy in the process.

“What an extraordinary accomplishment,” Clarissa agreed, somehow managing to compose her features into something approaching serenity. She pulled a half-dollar out of her reticule and whispered in the little boy’s ear, being careful not to be observed by anyone else.

“And guess who Joseph is going to be?” Ben announced proudly.

Clarissa sat back in her chair, a look of extreme horror on her face. “Surely not?” she managed in an unsteady voice, shaking her head in disbelief.

Ben and Marie nodded proudly and Joe seemed to sense he was the topic of conversation, for he squeaked loudly with exuberant delight.

“The Baby Jesus!” Adam confirmed.

“That child already has far too great a sense of his own importance,” Clarissa warned in stentorian tones. “I can only see this leading to trouble. It would be much more suitable to wait until he is older and can portray his namesake – and just stand there, not doing a thing and keeping perfectly quiet!”

Hoss smiled up at her. “He sure is a noisy little thing, ain’t he?”

Clarissa nodded in agreement. “And most inconsiderate to make such a cacophony of noise before a visitor. Shocking bad manners, even in one so young.” She took hold of Hoss’ hand and the pair marched outside.

Adam took Joe into his arms and joggled him consolingly. “Don’t you listen to a word she says! “he advised. “You’re going to be a perfect Baby Jesus, aren’t you?”

Joe had not long finished eating, which no doubt accounted for the hearty burp he punctuated his brother’s query with. Luckily, Clarissa was not within earshot at the time.

*****

“Can you come? Please, Roy – please?” Hoss begged.

The Sheriff tugged reflectively at his moustache, highly flattered to have been asked, yet not wanting to appear too eager. “Well, I don’t rightly know, young lad…” he started.

Hoss looked desolate. “But why not? You ain’t doing nothing, are you?” He looked around the empty jail house, where the only sign of activity was a half-finished game of checkers sitting on a table. It did not look as if the Sheriff was exactly rushed off his feet. “You can play checkers with us,” Hoss offered generously. “I’m real good, but Adam’s even better.”

“It’s a mighty tempting offer,” Roy conceded. “But in this here line of work, I can’t tell what might happen and I don’t like to keep promises I can’t keep. A man’s word is his bond, don’t you know?” He struggled not to appear too keen, but in truth he was desperate to accept. Christmas dinner on the Ponderosa! It was a dream come true for a lonely man like Roy, who had come to rely not only on his own company but on his own cooking. And after fifty years he was pretty sick of both of them.

Hoss had absolutely no idea what Roy was talking about, but he could see his dreams dissolving. He gave his father a despairing look. “Pa…” he wheedled.

“We really would love to have you join us,” Ben said. “Hop Sing will be roasting a goose and he’s planning on making bread sauce to go with it. And roast potatoes too,” he added. “Plus gravy. And maybe even figgy pudding…” He smiled temptingly at the Sheriff.

Roy could feel his mouth starting to water. “Well, I do hates to disappoint a youngun’,” he admitted. “And if there ain’t no emergencies, I’ll be mighty proud to join you for Christmas dinner.”

Wreathed in smiles, Hoss skipped out to begin his Christmas shopping. It seemed that this was going to be the very best Christmas ever! Looking carefully in both directions, he scampered across the street to the Mercantile, where he carefully surveyed all the delights on offer before carefully making his purchases.

“Should I bring anything?” Roy asked anxiously. While social occasions were not his forte, it was well-nigh impossible to resist the pleading eyes of young Hoss Cartwright!

“Nothing at all!” Ben replied smoothly, well accustomed to hosting far larger events. “Hop Sing will have everything under control. All we ask for is the pleasure of your company.”

Roy laughed nervously. “I ain’t never been described in such fancy terms before,” he confessed. “But I’m not afraid to admit that I gets powerful lonely at this time of year and I thank you gladly.”

His heartfelt words seemed to hit Ben right in the solar plexus. It was so very easy to take all his gifts for granted and just to assume that everyone enjoyed such a happy and fulfilling life. The spark kindled in the Sheriff’s eyes awoke a resonance deep inside his own soul and Ben strode out into Virginia City, determined to spread some more cheer around. It was the obvious thing to do at Christmas, wasn’t it? Surveying the street in both directions, Ben felt a warm glow spread throughout his body. Life felt very sweet indeed. To have a son with such sensibilities – his lessons had obviously gone deep into the young boy’s soul. It was a deep feeling of pride that he followed Hoss across the street.

“Good morning, Mrs. Jones, Miss Jones!”

Ben doffed his hat politely at the mother and daughter, not long arrived in town and still struggling to settle in. It was at this point that a wonderful idea struck him…

******

Hoss stood before the fireplace and surveyed the tree with a critical eye. “It ain’t bad, Adam, but…”

His elder brother gave him an old fashioned look. “But what?” he responded caustically, trying with all his might and main to remain calm and collected. Despite his best efforts, Adam could not quite manage to crook his eyebrow in the approved fashion. In fact, he was getting a searing pain across his forehead.

“There’s something missing,” Hoss said slowly, just as the door to the downstairs bedroom opened and Clarissa glided forward. Without saying a word, she handed Adam a small package, wrapped in white paper.

Slowly, with fumbling fingers, the young boy unwrapped the parcel to reveal two dozen slim wax tapers, made of purest wax, gleaming with a clear white purity. His face reflected his inner joy as he carefully clipped each slender candle to a branch of the tree and then, leaning towards the fire, dipped a taper into the flames and lit each tiny wick in turn, until the tree was ablaze with flame, sparkling with an elemental glory and sending beams of light shooting across the room. The boys turned to Clarissa, the fire reflected in their eyes, and hugged her. For just a moment, they were all incapable of speech.

“Merry Christmas!” Clarissa broke the uncanny silence and kissed the young faces upturned towards her own. For the first time in so many years, she felt a sense of peace, love and understanding. The tiny lights seemed to chase away all the dark shadows that haunted her. She knew they were only a transient effect, but vowed to enjoy the day fully. It was a family Christmas after all, and she was a part of this family. Nothing could change that.

Roy approached the Ponderosa for his Christmas lunch with a certain degree of trepidation, anxiously pulling at his starched shirt collar and gulping several times in quick succession. Tales of the formidable Cousin Clarissa had already spread around town and he had almost wished for a bank robbery or a hold-up in the stagecoach line that might provide a handy means of escape from this social engagement. However, no such merciful release had been forthcoming, so Roy steeled his soul, summoned every ounce of courage and gingerly knocked on the door.

“Come in!” Ben’s hearty voice was clearly audible, as was the pitter patter of footsteps. As the door opened, Roy took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Welcome.”

It was a cool, crisp voice, he realized. Emanating from a petite figure.

This Cousin Clarissa ain’t half as scary as folks make out, Roy thought. He smiled ingratiatingly and allowed himself to be led meekly into the lions den. Although he was unaware of it, his modest demeanor and unassuming personality made him a perfect sacrificial victim to be chewed up and spat out by the formidable Cousin Clarissa.

*****

One Year Later

“We certainly can’t invite Roy again, can we?” Ben stated. “The poor fellow was just about frightened out of a whole year’s growth. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my whole life.”

Hoss shuddered quietly. “I thought he and Cousin Clarissa would get on real well,” he offered. “I thought they might get married and then she would stay here for ever!”

Ben shook his head in disbelief. “What on earth made you think that?” He did not like to think about the rather dreadful events at the dinner table. Suffice to say that Clarissa had stalked off in utter mortification after Roy’s heavy-handed attempts at gallantry. And that Roy would never be able to look at a Brussels Sprout without wincing. It had been highly embarrassing.

“They’re both lonely?” Hoss offered feebly. “I thought they might keep one another company. An’ it was you that said that love sometimes creeps up on, all unawares like.”

Ben occupied himself filling his pipe. It had taken Roy a long time to recover from his ordeal and he was still inclined to play nervously with his watch chain in moments of tension. “It is best to prepare people fully, before introducing them to Cousin Clarissa,” he ventured tentatively. “And to make sure they have a clear means of escape.”

Adam glared at his father. “It was the worst Christmas ever! Why on earth did you invite the Widow Jones and her peculiar daughter, Abigail?”

“Christmas is a time when we should extend a hand of friendship,” Ben said, trying to sound firm and certain. They certainly were a strange pair of females, he reflected.

“I think there’s something wrong with that Abigail creature!” Adam fumed. The memory was seared into his soul. “She never stopped simpering at me all day, and then she nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to pull me underneath the mistletoe! What on earth possessed you, Pa? Of all the people – why did you have to invite them?”

Ben exchanged sympathetic glances with Hoss. “I thought they were lonely and wanted to stretch out a hand of kindness.”

Adam grunted in acknowledgement. “At least we’ll be spared that particular pleasure this year.” He was still haunted by memories of the exceptionally plain Abigail Jones, who managed to combine freckles, a gawky figure and protruding teeth, along with an incredibly tenacious personality.

“Don’t worry son,” Ben soothed. “I’m sure Abigail will forget all about you soon.”

Adam just cocked one eyebrow skeptically. At least he had learned one thing over the last twelve months. Now, if only he could blot the vision of Abigail pursuing him around the living room — gosh, she could run fast! And hurdle too! If only he hadn’t tripped over that new fur rug Pa had bought, falling literally into her arms… Adam still felt quite nauseous at the very thought of what had transpired with Abigail Jones. She still leered unattractively at him each time they met…

Ben eyed the bearskin rug that lay before the stone hearth and exchanged passionate glances with Marie. He remembering how her skin gleamed against the fur as she luxuriated before the fire late at night on Christmas Day, once all the boys were safely tucked away upstairs and Cousin Clarissa had retired to bed. There really was nothing quite like a log fire — and it was always good to start a new Christmas tradition, to add to the old ones.

All in all, last Christmas had been pretty memorable, Ben thought. Still, he wouldn’t say no to a nice, quiet, family Christmas this year.

***End***

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