Vivian spoke—and thought—in italics.
"Oh, fudge!" Lady Barbara crammed a wad of newsprint back into a cardboard box and brushed back her silver-blond hair with a forearm. "We may as well give up, Viv. She's simply not here."
Vivian clambered to her feet, sending an old shoebox hurtling across the room and almost toppling the anglepoise lamp on the side table. "Impossible. I packed her myself."
"But where, dear?"
"That's just it." Vivian began rummaging through a carton she'd already searched twice. Tissue paper floated up perilously close to the fire in the hearth. "I can't remember exactly where, but she's bound to be here someplace."
The two old friends had been searching for the angel that had topped the Finchley Hall Christmas tree every year since young Queen Victoria's reign. Time had taken its toll on the froth of silk netting, silver tinsel, and creamy ostrich feathers. The angel's gauzy white dress had turned a dingy shade of gray. Her halo was tarnished and hopelessly crimped. Her spreading wings had lost half their feathers. Worst of all, the angel's lovely papier-mâché face had cracked, and the tip of her nose was missing. Beside the point, thought Vivian. At Finchley Hall, traditions marched on through royal scandals, currency devaluation, and Labour governments.
"I can't imagine Christmas without her.” Lady Barbara's hands flew up to cover her face. " Oh, Viv. Everything's changing. It's too much. It's just too—" She cleared her throat to mask a sob.
Vivian brushed away a tear. Lady Barbara had grown decidedly thinner these past weeks. The shock of what the press was calling "The Finchley Hall Murders" had deepened the creases on her brow and taken the roses from her cheeks. But in the end, it had been the demise of the Hall's internship program—and the revenue stream it provided—that convinced her she could no longer cope with the rising damp, the dodgy electrics, the crumbling plaster friezes, and the ancient boiler that had been on life support for at least three decades. With the ringing of the bells on January first, the Elizabethan manor house, home to the Finchleys for almost five hundred years, would belong to the National Trust.
Lady Barbara wouldn't be chucked out, of course. She would continue to occupy her private rooms in the east wing, but the change in ownership would put an end to the old Christmases. No more villagers gathering in the Great Hall for eggnog and figgy pudding after Christmas Eve service at St. Æthelric's. No more carols sung 'round the tall Nordmann fir in the gravel courtyard. No more angel gazing down benignly on the portraits of Finchleys Past.
It was all just too tragic.
"We've overlooked her is all." Vivian tried to sound cheerful and positive. "Or maybe Francie forgot to bring one of the boxes up from the cellar. Shall we find out?"
"Not now." Lady Barbara closed her eyes and massaged her forehead. "I'm getting one of my headaches."
Lady Barbara's headaches were becoming more frequent. The diagnosis, corneal dystrophy, a genetic condition common in the Finchley family, would never leave her completely blind, but it was incurable and progressive.
"Tomorrow, then." Vivian snagged her olive raincoat and wide-brimmed hat from the sofa. "We'll find her tomorrow."
"Tomorrow I'm opening the Christmas Craft Market for the Ladies' Auxiliary."
All right, then, the day after tomorrow—Wednesday."
"Sorry, Viv. That won't work either. Mr. Millbank is coming from the National Trust. Decisions to make, you know. I'm giving him lunch. Then we're taking a tour of the estate. Could be hours."
"Then I'll search myself. Don't worry. I know the angel's here somewhere," Vivian lied. "I can feel it."
Vivian's torch bounced along the path as she made her way toward her thatched bungalow on the far side of Blackwater Lake. The sky was inky black. Light from a near-full moon turned the layer of snow on the tree branches to diamond dust.
Had the angel really been misplaced—or, more likely, had she been discarded when the drains clogged last spring, flooding the cellar? Vivian pictured the soggy mess Francie had carted to the incinerator in an old laundry basket.
She felt sick.
Poor Barb. She'd accepted her progressive loss of vision with courage. Then to lose the Finchley estate as well—and to suffer the deprivation with such dignity and grace. Everyone said Lady Barbara had a core of steel, but even steel has a breaking point. Would the loss of the Christmas angel be the final blow, sending her into a downward spiral?
Something had to be done—but what?
Vivian pictured Lady Barbara squinting at the box of old photographs they'd found amongst the holiday decorations. Such a pity. To no longer see the faces of departed loved ones, to lose sight of—
Vivian stopped in her tracks. The answer was staring her in the face. With Lady Barbara's failing eyesight, perception was all that mattered, surely. And feelings.
Back at Rose Cottage, Vivian raced to her favorite chair and picked up the telephone receiver. Fergus, her elderly pug, snorted as he hopped on his hind legs, begging to be picked up. "Give Mummy a minute." She punched in a number she knew well.
"I'm sorry. We're closed now," came the familiar voice of Ivor Tweedy. "Open in the morning at ten."
Ivor, proprietor of The Cabinet of Curiosities, Long Barston's antiquities shop near St. Æthelric's on the High Street, was Vivian's old school chum. She couldn't help smiling.
He'd had a bit of a thing for her in the Fourth Form. She suspected he still did.
"Ivor, it's me—Vivian. Listen, I know Victoriana isn't your thing, but I'm wondering if you know where I can put my hands on one of those old-fashioned Christmas tree angels. You know the kind of thing. White dress, silver halo, feathered wings. About twelve inches high."
"I might do. Christmas gift? Not much time. If you'd asked sooner, I could have..."
"Never mind that." The words came out more sharply than she'd intended. She softened her tone. "The angel at the Hall has gone missing, and Lady Barbara's in a bit of muddle over it. Been in the family for generations. She won't admit it, of course, but she's quite emotional—this being her last Christmas and all."
There was a sharp intake of breath. "She's dying?"
"Of course not. She's losing her home. End of an era. I'm sure she sees the loss of the angel as a kind of omen."
"Lady Barbara's not the superstitious type. Never has been."
"The point is—" Vivian enunciated carefully, as she did when Fergus pretended not to understand her instructions. "I want this Christmas to be a real send-off. Revive all the old traditions. Pull out all the stops. And that means that angel must be at the top of the tree—right where she belongs."
"But she's missing."
"And yet she must be there."
"I think I see what you're getting at," Ivor said slowly. "You're planning to replace the missing angel with a substitute. Lovely thought."
"No!" Was the man purposely trying to be obtuse? "I'm not replacing the angel. I'm finding her—so to speak."
There was a brief silence. "Don't tell me you're going to try to pass off a new angel as the old one."
"You make it sound like a crime. And the new one won't be new. It will be old. With Lady Barbara's vision, she'll never notice the difference. 'What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over'—isn't that how the saying goes? Anyway, nothing is going to spoil Lady Barbara's last Christmas as Lady of the Manor if I can help it."
"Oh, all right. How long do I have?"
"We're trimming the tree on Wednesday."
"Wednesday?" Ivor screeched. "That's only two days away."
"Wednesday evening. Bags of time."
Wednesday dawned wet and mild. Overnight, the temperature had inched up a few degrees, turning Long Barston's layer of snow to slush. Christmas shoppers on their lunch breaks scurried along the High Street under black umbrellas as a Salvation Army bell ringer brazened it out in the shelter of the Chinese take-away.
The shop bell rang as Vivian Bunn bustled into The Cabinet of Curiosities. Raindrops ran in rivulets down the front window. She wrinkled her nose. The dampness outside intensified the musty smell of old wood and even older dust.
Ivor Tweedy stood at the sales counter, examining an ivory celluloid box. He looked up. "Located her in a shop in Bury. Lucky for you, the fellow was driving down to Sudbury this morning for a granddaughter's school Christmas pageant."
"Ivor, you're a miracle worker." Vivian peered at the angel nestled in wads of cotton wool. "Spitting image of the real one. A bit clean."
Ivor winced. "Don't tell me you're going to bang her against the wall a few times or drag her through the mud. She's a valuable antique."
"I'm not going to damage her, if that's what you're afraid of. Just tone down the white dress a bit. Maybe pluck a feather or two. Anyway," she rushed on before Ivor could protest, "all I have to do is tell Lady Barbara I found her—then have Francie get the ladder and install her at the top of the tree. Just in time for Christmas Eve." Vivian tucked the box into her tote bag and handed Ivor a check.
"And you really believe Lady Barbara won't notice the difference?"
"From twenty feet in the air? Not a chance."
"Well, good luck."
"Thanks, Ivor. You'll be there, of course, after the service."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world."
bells of St. Æthelric's were still pealing out Angels We Have Heard On High as Vivian,
Lady Barbara, and a line of villagers picked their way through the brick-walled Elizabethan garden and along the flagged pathway into the gravel courtyard of Finchley Hall.
The Nordmann fir had been hung with lights, giant silver balls, and sparkly flocked snowflakes. Candles gleamed in the Hall's mullioned windows. An enormous wreath hung on the oaken door, which was opened by Francie Jewell, looking uncharacteristically Dickensian in a trim black dress with a frilly white apron and cap.
"Welcome, lords and ladies." Francie grinned and a bobbed a curtsey. "Coats in the library, if you please. Refreshments in the Great Hall."
Vivian handed her olive raincoat to Francie and helped Lady Barbara out of her ancient silver fox jacket.
The Great Hall had never looked lovelier. Twin green velvet serpentine-back sofas flanked the roaring fire. Candles on the mantelpiece illuminated the Finchley coat of arms molded in plaster pargeting. A thousand fairy lights winked on the Christmas tree, set up near the full-length portrait of Sir Giles Finchley, who'd built the house in 1588.
"This is it, Viv." Lady Barbara squeezed her friend's hand. "The final Christmas."
"Not final, dear. Just different."
"This time next year we'll have tourists lining up for hot chocolate and Christmas cakes in the Archives building. Did I mention they're thinking about turning it into a café and shop? And children visiting Father Christmas in the Stables."
"Will that be so bad?"
"Not at all." Lady Barbara smiled. "I'll enjoy watching the festivities—what I can see of them, anyway. But tonight everything is exactly as it should be—exactly as it always has been." Her eyes glistened. "Look at the tree, Viv. Just like the ones I remember as a child."
Vivian's eyes moved to the top of the tree. "The angel!"
"Yes," Lady Barbara said. "Isn't she perfect?"
A man in a plaid jumper took Lady Barbara's arm. "Come, say hello to my daughter and her kiddies," he said. "Visiting from Australia."
Vivian's eyes were glued to the top of the tree.
The fairy lights seemed to swim together. Her breath came in shallow puffs. She grabbed the edge of a Hepplewhite table. How could this be?
Ivor Tweedy took a sip of his eggnog. "I have to hand it to you, Vivian. You pulled it off. Congratulations."
"No, I—" She struggled to get the words out. "The angel. Look at the angel."
Even from a height of twenty feet, the cracked face and missing nose were clearly visible.
"But that's...it's...." Ivor's words trailed off.
"It's a miracle," Vivian said slowly. "A real Christmas miracle."
"I need my glasses."
"I need a drink." Vivian cleared her throat and headed for the bar set up in the entrance hall.
Ivor stood alone, contemplating friendship and love and miracles.
Lady Barbara threaded her hand through his arm. "Like the angel?" She raised one eyebrow. Her mouth twisted in a smile.
"I'm not totally blind. And I'm not a complete fool."
"Where did you find her?"
"In an old shoebox—got shoved under the sofa somehow."
"Shall we tell her?"
Together they watched Vivian take a long swig of something amber-colored. She pulled a face and blew out a breath.
"No. Look at her." Lady Barbara leaned close and whispered in Ivor's ear.
"Why spoil the miracle?"