A Christmas Kiss
Deeply in love, Michelle D’Artois runs away from her home in Vacherie, boards a steamboat and arrives in New Orleans on Christmas morning. Auguste Fabre has promised to meet her, but he is not at the dock. Terrified, she finds lodging and a job as a milliner’s assistant. Her heart is cold, but her stitches are straight. Soon she rises to manager of the shop.
Auguste Fabre, devastated by the circumstances that kept him from meeting Michelle, leads a lonely existence between his boarding house and the cotton brokerage where he’s chief accountant.
Three years later when Michelle and Fabre board the same packet boat to steam back to Vacherie for Christmas, sparks fly—and not just the traditional bonfires burning in full splendor along the river. Michelle is dressed as a man, the crew is intoxicated with Christmas ale, and the ship has insufficient coal to get them home. When a young child falls overboard, the two must unite to save him. Wet and cold, they traverse the swamps to get to Vacherie. But who is shooting at them?
Michelle D’Artois stared in disbelief at the contents of the envelope she’d ripped open just as she was biting into a warm, buttery biscuit. A steamer ticket. The eleven other working girls who lived in the boarding house went quiet over their breakfasts. A quick glance at the return address confirmed her worst suspicions: Mama. She was invited home for Christmas for the first time in three years.
“Dear Heavens,” her friend Fanny whispered. “You’ve gone pale. Bad news, is it?”
“No,” Michelle pushed back her chair and spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear, as she knew they would find out anyway. “I’m invited home for Christmas. How could that be bad news?” Everyone except Franny missed her sarcasm. She rose from the table, breakfast unfinished and, back stiff, headed out the door.
On the ten-minute walk to Deselle Millinery, she read the letter four times. During the morning she pulled it from her pocket and read it again and again. The shop’s owner, Renee Deselle Collins, was in Ireland for the holidays and had left Michelle in charge. But there was little to do today. Any woman with sense had ordered her custom-made hat in advance, so Michelle spent most of the morning adding red trim to preordered chapeaux. In fact, the shop would be closed for the next five days. She could travel home if she wished.
Eating her lunch of bread and cheese alone in the back workshop, she added a few coals to the stove and made a pot of tea. Her mind drifted to Christmas Eve three years ago, to the extra dram of punch she’d drunk, to the extra layer of clothes she’d worn, to the bobcat pelt from Auguste Fabre that she’d secretly stitched around the collar of her coat. She’d not been cold when she’d sneaked from her Vacherie home before dawn; if anything she’d felt tingly, overwarm with nerves and anticipation. She’d given Auguste the bulk of her savings to rent rooms for them. What remained she’d stitched into her skirt, the exact amount of money she needed to make it to New Orleans.
Memories of Auguste had kept her feet moving across the frosty ground in the darkness. She’d pictured his hands: delicate, long-fingered, both beautiful and masculine, not meant for handling cows or sugarcane. Meant for slowly unbuttoning the seed pearl buttons down the front of her dress, meant for feathering the skin at the top of her thighs, meant for skimming, playing over her body, gently teasing out a breast from her bodice and lightly pinching the taut nipple.
She’d concentrated on remembering Auguste’s smell, a mixture of talcum, bourbon, and brine. Many a night she’d fallen asleep in the crook of his shoulder, her fingers enmeshed in the surprisingly soft tufts of black hair that ran down his middle to his beltline. His arms were long and thin but sinewed with muscle; his chest was broad. Often times when he’d fallen asleep, she’d stayed awake waiting for the light to signal her need to depart, and she’d laid a soft hand on his ribs to feel him breathing.
She’d been apart from Auguste for two intolerable weeks when she arrived in New Orleans Christmas morning. Their separation had left no doubt in her mind. She couldn’t live without him. Yet his heart had changed in so short a time. He had not greeted her at the dock.
She would never forgive him for humiliating her and putting her in such danger. Only her wits and country upbringing enabled her to escape capture in a brothel.
A customer interrupted her angry thoughts. The afternoon involved a few adjustments to one hat or another, but she’d predicted all the problems—and gone over them with Renee a thousand times—so there were no complications. The only surprise of the day was the letter and the steamer ticket. Her father had died last June, her mother’s letter reported her brother Louis was acting up. What’s more, the oysters were scarce, the pecan crop was weak this year. Apparently, Mama needed her.
While supervising the loading of cotton onto a British shipper called the Moonstone, Auguste Fabre got his hand caught between two wooden crates. By the time he’d gotten the attention of the buffoons loading the ship, he knew at least two fingers were broken. Though the pulsing pain shot up his entire arm, only his hand had grown to twice its size. Damn it all. The accident was largely his fault; he’d been resting against the crate, hadn’t been paying attention to the pulley’s speed.
He had no business being on a dock today. Exhausted from running the Collins Factorage end-of-year numbers for the last 48 hours straight, the millions of bales of cotton that passed through the Factorage counted and counted again, he was dead on his feet. With William Collins taking off for Ireland and leaving him in charge, he’d been boned-tired, not thinking clearly, before he’d even begun to look at the numbers. Honestly, he hadn’t even noticed the pulley.
The dock workers stood in an awed circle, staring at his swollen hand, the red giving way to purple. With his good hand Fabre took a swig of rum someone passed him, then climbed in a cab for a ride to Charity Hospital.
He laughed at the horrified expressions of a series of nurses when they took sight of the distended purple-blackish mass attached to his right arm. In the way of hospitals, one nurse after another passed him along. Finally, he lay on a table where a man put a mask over his face, saying it would ease his pain.
When he woke in a dark room, he lay still, piecing the events back together. The doctor had said something about setting the bones. All he knew was his hand hurt worse now than when he’d arrived. He could feel the throb of it in his temples. He fumbled for his clothes—his hand hurt like hell—fashioned a sling out of his undershirt and threw his coat over his shoulders.
When he entered the dimly lit hallway, he took in the gleam of his bandaged hand with something like awe. They’d made it truly gigantic—and white. There were so many layers of cotton gauze over it, he thought himself a walking advertisement for Collins Cotton Factorage.
He groaned in dismay. He’d planned to spend Christmas with his cousin Gustav’s family, out in Chalmette. The place was maybe an hour away on horseback. He’d already used part of his Christmas bonus to buy toys for the children—dolls for the girls, tin soldiers for the boys—but there was no way in hell he could maneuver the reins of a rented horse with a hand in this condition.
On his way home, he bought a small bottle of gin for the pain, and it was that, plus his disappointment over his Christmas plans, plus the effects of whatever drug he’d breathed in, that made him take so long to notice the letter on his bureau, postmarked Vacherie, his hometown, and clearly opened and resealed at least once before it was sent.
Ordinarily, Fabre ignored his mother’s pleas for him to come home for Christmas; he hadn’t even opened her last two, so it was on a whim that he tore it open and read it. Much to his surprise, the letter was from his brother Luc; he should say Father Luc. Luc was a priest at Our Lady of Prompt Succor. His letter urged, no begged, Fabre to come home for Christmas.
Would he see Michelle D’Artois? Not likely. The successful designer, the assistant who ran Deselle Millinery now that the owner had twins occupying her time, wouldn’t dream of lowering herself by going to Vacherie for Christmas. He needn’t worry about running into her at Midnight Mass. He’d take the steamboat to Vacherie; his brother had thoughtfully included a steamer ticket.
“The hell with Michelle!” he thought, with a bitter chuckle. He wanted to taste his mama’s cooking. Apparently, his brother needed him.
© Ursula LeCoeur, Love in New Orleans Series
A Perfect Little Romance for the Holidays LeCoeur, Ursula. A Christmas Kiss. Royal Street. (Love in New Orleans, Bk. 2). 2014. 113p. ebk. ISBN
9780578155081. $2.99. HISTORICAL ROMANCE
Set in Louisiana in the 1880s, this sweet holiday novella is filled with Christmas traditions from the Big Easy. Michelle D’Artois came to New Orleans to build a life with her love Fabre. Unfortunately, he fell, lying unconscious for a week and leaving Michelle alone on the docks, by herself, on Christmas Day. For two years they have lived separate lives in the city, with Michelle dreaming of the man who left her waiting and Fabre frantically searching for his true love.
Michelle’s and Fabre’s mothers conspire to get them on the same steamer home to Vacherie for the holiday. Unfortunately, a child falls overboard, and Fabre plunges into the icy waters to save him, with Michelle, disguised as a man, not far behind.
Verdict Fans of holiday stories will enjoy Fabre and Michelle’s story, although the shining glory of this historical romance by LeCoeur (The Willing Widow) is the rich setting of the Big Easy in the late 19th century, complete with celebrations and local traditions. Take a quick trip back in time with this perfect little romance for the holidays.—Judy Garner, Strayer Univ., Glen Allen, VA