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Lady Ivy Plumthorne, elder daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Wythorpe, is a worry to her parents. Desiring only that she be as happily wed as her younger sister, they've spent the past year parading prospective suitors in front of her. When she finds none of the suitors… suitable, her parents despair she will ever find the perfect husband. With Christmas approaching, they find one more prospective suitor, the Duke of Greenbriar. Only problem is, Ivy's already met the man of her dreams… and he's a toymaker.
Noel Phillip Vincent Greenstone, the Twelfth Duke of Greenbriar, wasn't cut out to be a duke. He preferred crafting toys that made children happy. So that's just what he did. And as Phillip Green, he traveled freely about, visiting shops and orphanages, and making no child went without a toy of his or her own. But a few chance meetings with Lady Ivy and he knows he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. The problem is, she needs to marry a nobleman and she only knows him as Phillip the Toymaker. He needs a plan, and fast. The world needs to meet the reclusive Duke of Greenbriar, so Phillip plans his own coming out. But how will Ivy react when she learns the truth?
The sign was small and unassuming. Caroline's Antiques & Estate Liquidations. Angela didn't know what possessed her to pull into the parking lot. It was just another junk store, the kind that seemed to crop up around the Virginia countryside like weeds. She'd been to dozens in the last few weeks, for no other reason than she enjoyed seeing what people had kept through the ages that ended up needing liquidation when nothing was left but the estate.
Twin mutinous groans rose from the back seat as the SUV rolled to a stop, undoubtedly begun by twelve-year-old Kalie. She was just discovering the fine art of boy watching with girl pals at the mall and any stops along the way were potential life-altering emergencies. At only eight, Sam was still pretty agreeable as little boys went. As long as he got to his lacrosse and basketball games on time and had an assortment of junk food to choose from after school, he didn't complain too often. But he did try to be supportive of his sister's rebellions.
"Not another smelly store filled with junk." Kalie wrinkled her nose as she peered through the side window.
"We'll be quick, I promise." Angela switched off the ignition, opened the door, and slid to the ground below.
Fine limestone gravel crunched beneath her feet as she stepped away from the vehicle and shut the door. A gust of wind sent the light flurries that fell from the sky skittering across the windshield and stirred the bits of white that had already collected on the ground. They'd have to be quick or she'd be sweeping snow before they could drive again.
Behind her, Sam popped open his door and vaulted from the vehicle. With more exuberance than a lazy Saturday morning should allow, he turned and laid both hands against the door and shoved it closed with a mighty thump. When he stepped back, two sticky purple handprints had been added to the assortment of other such decorations on the champagne colored paint.
A soft clunk from the other side of the car signaled Kalie's more ladylike exit. As Angela and Sam met the slender girl at the front of the SUV, the chilly, almost-winter breeze fluffed the spray of hair spouting from the top of her head. Snowflakes clung to a single strand of chestnut hair that had escaped the arrangement and fallen across Kalie's forehead above her right eye.
"Ugh! What time is it?" she asked with a dramatic roll of her eyes. "We're going to be so late." She shivered. "Could it be any colder?"
Angela hid a smile. Could you be more dramatic?
"Yep!" Sam raced across the gravel, kicking up puffs of snow with each footfall. He made it to the shade of the overhang that ran across the front of the building and turned around with a cry of triumph. "It's thirty-one degrees. That's what the bank said. That's below freezing. But it'll be colder on Christmas!"
Kaylie scrunched up her nose as she picked her way across the limestone. "No one cares, squirt!" She kicked out with her left foot, chasing a pebble through the air with the toe of her fur-trimmed, suede boot.
"Uh-huh! You asked!" Sam chortled as he performed a robot-style victory dance.
Time for Mom to take control of the situation before it got out of hand. Angela cleared her throat. "All right, let's save it for later. Sam, where do your hands go?"
Instantly, her son reached deep into the pockets of his blue jeans.
"Good. Keep them there until we're outside again." Angela pointed to the single glass door at the far end of the cluttered porch. "It'll probably be heated inside."
"And stinky," muttered Kalie, stomping onto the wooden planks.
With a soft sigh, Angela pulled open the door. "You used to like going to these places with me, you know."
The near-teenager's face pinched into a frown. "Kim and Bridget are probably already at the mall, Mother!"
Right. The mall. That assortment of shops sporting shiny new fancies… and boys. Angela sighed. In Christmases past, Santa had been the only male Kalie had been interested in at the mall.
Despite her objections, though, it was Kalie who crossed the threshold first. No more than two steps inside, she twisted her head and sent Angela a wrinkled-nosed grimace over her shoulder. "Musty," she announced, but moved deeper into the building regardless.
It did smell of dust and disuse, conceded Angela. But the interior afforded relief from the brisk chill outside. She smiled at the four-foot plastic snowman standing guard over a cardboard box filled with multiple strands of Christmas lights to the left of the door.
What would Rob do if he came home from his deployment to Afghanistan to find that in their front yard? Angela pushed back the wave of loneliness and replaced it with practicality. He'd be home in the spring, so unless she left it up that long, the snowman would be a moot point.
A right turn put her at the start of an aisle lined on either side with breakables. Angela sent a quick glance over her shoulder to assure herself that Sam's hands remained safely in his pockets.
Chickens and cows, dogs and cats, daisies, fruit, a sun and moon set, sailing ships – all shapes and sizes of colorful salt and pepper shakers, some dating back to the 1940s or 50s. These yielded to milk china dinnerware and Blue Willow place settings. Fascinating to see what people from half a century earlier had once placed on their dinner tables. Rounding the corner at the end of the aisle, Angela was met by a wooden counter that ran all the way to the back of the store. Pile after pile of hand-crocheted doilies and embroidered dresser scarves had been arranged by color along the countertop. Who had meticulously stitched the lacy pieces? What rooms had they graced in their day?
"Mom, look!" In a typical moment of forgetfulness, Sam removed his hands from his pockets. He tugged on Angela's left arm and pointed with his chin. "Toys!"
Indeed, the entire rear wall was a delight of HO and O gauge trains, a handful of gas powered model airplanes, and a plethora of model cars made of tin. Squinting at the assortment, Angela could easily imagine the treasures filling out the shelves of a small-town mercantile in the early twentieth century.
She scanned the aisles, seeking Kalie, not surprised to find her standing next to a grouping of dolls. Those had always been her favorite. She held a life-sized baby doll that looked like it might have been crafted in the 1960s. Sporting a plastic head and limbs on a cloth-stuffed torso gave the doll the floppy look of a real newborn. The poor baby was naked, though, showing off a body of well-worn, white cotton. Here and there, seams had loosened, and the batting had begun to poke through.
Kalie glanced up at Angela's approach and smiled. "She's not in bad shape. Too bad I'm not into toys anymore." She laid the doll back into a carved wooden cradle and covered her with a tiny flannel blanket.
Angela suppressed a smile. So you say, kiddo. But I see the gleam in your eye. You're just itching to patch her up and dress her in something pretty.
She opened her mouth to make an offer when Sam popped up next to her again.
"What's this?" He held out what looked like a stack of skinny wooden blocks tied up with lengths of narrow ribbon. The colors had probably once been vivid, but time had stolen much of their vibrancy.
"Oh, wow! That looks like a Jacob's ladder toy," Angela murmured, accepting the toy. "It looks pretty old, too."
She stretched it out. The ribbons had been wound securely around the flat pieces of wood in a fairly elaborate fashion. When she pulled one block up, the rest spilled downward, giving the illusion of changing positions. She flipped the block around and one of the blocks below it poked outward and then adjusted, falling into place. Then the rest seemed to roll down in a slow tumble. She turned the top block over again and the process repeated.
"Cool!" breathed Sam, keeping his eyes on the toy. In his typically analytical way, he was most likely trying to figure out how it worked.
"Where did you find this?" asked Angela, as the thought occurred to her that perhaps other such treasures might be laying just feet away.
Sam pointed over his shoulder. "In a box back there." He sent his sister a sly glance. "I saw a doll in it."
Kalie's head popped up and her eyes lit on her brother with interest at the utterance of the magic word.
Angela smiled. Oh, no, you aren't into toys anymore. Much.
They followed Sam back along the aisle to where a sizeable wooden crate rested on the floor. Huh! She must have stepped right around it.
Sam bent and picked up a carved stick with a cup on one end. A fraying string connected to a small bead at the other end. "This is like those nickel toys at the fair!" He snapped his wrist and flipped the ball up into the cup.
"Where did you see the doll?" Peering into the crate, Kalie pushed a few carved wooden farm animals aside. Then she tossed a triumphant glance over her shoulder as a grin spread across her face. With gentle hands, she lifted a slender wooden doll from the box. "Mom, look at this."
No more than a dozen inches tall, the doll had definitely seen better days. Her tattered dress had possibly started out as a bold shade of harvest gold, but it had dulled with age. The sleeve of the white blouse had torn at the shoulder, giving a view of a complex joint construction using string that had been run through drilled holes. A babushka had been tied to the doll's head, but the edges of painted-on hair were easily visible. Probably once a chestnut brown but now chipped and fading, it reminded Angela of Kalie's hair, especially with the single dark curl falling over the doll's right eye.
"She's really old. Do you think they had dolls like this in Jane Austen's time?" whispered Kalie, fingering the soft muslin.
Angela suppressed yet another smile, for her daughter had claimed to be finished with all things Jane Austen just the week before. Tilting her head, Angela took a second look at the clothing. "Hmm… Her clothes look more German or Bavarian, I think. But she certainly looks at least two hundred years old." Had the doll been made that long ago or merely dressed to look as though she had been?
"I think she was a Christmas doll." Kalie slipped a finger beneath the hem of the skirt. "Look at this lace around the edges."
Angela bent to study the skirt. Almond colored lace rimmed the bottom edge, with only a bit of loosening in places. An intricate pattern of dark green holly leaves and red berries had been embroidered into the dark yellow skirt just above the lace.
"It does look kind of Christmassy, doesn't it?"
"That's a peg wooden doll." A petite woman with a gazillion wrinkles and snow white hair approached, hobbling slightly and leaning heavily on her cane. "That whole box came over from England — probably a hundred years ago. We just picked it up from the James Merrick estate, a family who traced its roots back to the seventeenth century." Offering a smile, she held out her free hand to Angela. "My name is Caroline Roberts."
Angela shook the proprietor's hand.
"What's a peg wooden doll?" asked Kalie.
Unable to stop them, Angela's lips tugged into a grin. Had her daughter actually forgotten her planned outing to the mall?
"Well, peg wood dolls started out in Germany and the Netherlands in about 1810, but they quickly grew popular and then became available in most countries across Europe." Ms. Roberts had apparently done her homework. Angela herself didn't know much about wooden dolls but she could imagine such a toy being popular a couple hundred years in the past.
"Mom…" Kalie chewed her lip as she lifted the doll toward her chest, her eyes pleading.
Sam still clutched the ball and cup toy, and with a start, Angela realized she still hung onto the Jacob's ladder toy. She stole a glance into the crate at their feet. It looked old. Really old. Who knew what historical riches it might contain in its dark reaches?
"How much do you want for the entire crate?" she asked, bringing her gaze up to settle on Ms. Roberts.
"Oh, well I don't know. There's not really much in there, and not much call for toys from England." Mrs. Roberts smiled. "How about twenty dollars for the lot?"
Angela's smile widened as she stooped to pick up the box. "Perfect. And I'll take that baby doll with the cradle, too." She nodded to the doll Kalie had spotted first. Who knew? If Kalie didn't do anything with her, maybe Angela would fix her up, give the toy another chance to make someone happy.
With the crate of goodies paid for and secured on the back seat of the SUV, the trio resumed their trip to the mall. The snow had stopped but the heavy gray clouds promised it wouldn’t hold off for long.
Occupying the front passenger seat this time, Kalie cradled the battered old doll. "Where do you suppose she came from? Who might have made her?"
Angela shook her head. "We'll probably never know, but it's kind of fun to dream and wonder, isn't it?"
From the corner of her eye, Angela caught her daughter's happy smile. "Yes," she said, her voice taking on a dreamy quality. "It kind of is."
Rustling from the back seat drew Angela's gaze to the rearview mirror. "What are you doing back there?"
Sam stopped rummaging through the crate and sent an engaging grin forward. One day he was going to break a lot of hearts. "I wanted to see what else was in here."
"Wait 'til we get home, squirt!" Kalie's voice took on a sharp tone. "We have to go through it together."
"Nah-a-ah! Mom didn't say."
Angela sighed. "You're right. I didn't. But how about I say it now, okay? We want to go through it carefully so nothing gets broken."
"Why does KK get to hold the stupid doll?"
Kalie twisted in her seat, straining against the seatbelt. "Stop calling me that!"
The shriek reverberated around the inside of Angela's skull until she was certain she'd end up with a migraine. "Stop fighting over it. Kalie, be quiet. Sam, you may choose one toy and hold it if you're very careful getting it out."
Sam made a rude noise and began rummaging again. "Hey, look at this!" He sneezed.
Angela chanced another fleeting look in the mirror. Sam clutched a battered book in one hand. The brown leather binding was dry to the point of cracking along the spine, and the edges had crumbled in places. About the shape and size of the leather-bound Bible on Angela's nightstand, it wasn't quite as thick. Yellowed pages had come loose and hung haphazardly, in danger of falling out.
"What's that?" asked Angela.
"Some diary." Sam turned the book over and opened the front. "It's got writing in it but it's hard to read."
"Let me see it," demanded Kalie.
With a hearty eye-roll, Sam passed the journal forward. Kalie opened the book and picked up a tattered and yellow piece of paper.
"Be careful with that," warned Angela, sending her daughter a sideways glance. "It looks like a bit of newspaper."
"What's Mrs. Peabody's Society Papers?" asked Kalie, wrinkling her nose.
Angela's heartbeat quickened. "A society page is a part of the newspaper devoted to reporting on the members of high society — like movie stars or rock musicians today. Does it have a date on it?"
"Is that like one of those gossip magazines Grandma likes?" Kalie brushed a finger across the top of the scrap of paper. "It says it's from… December 29, 1812. Wow! I mean that's really old."
"Ancient," agreed Angela. She knew they should examine the stuff at home so she could concentrate, but she opened her mouth and surprised herself with the words that tumbled out. "Can you read it? What's it about?"
Kalie cleared her throat and began to read, slowly at first but soon picking up momentum. "My, my, my, does my quill deceive me or was it the reclusive Duke of Greenbriar I saw at the annual Kringle Ball? Naturally, I was the only one privy to the man's true identity, after all, this author never forgets a roguish face. But dear readers, and I hate to say this, you know how I despise any sort of gossip, I do try to always tell the truth. After all, is that not my duty as a leader in this lovely city? It appears that Lady Ivy Plumthorne was seen making a very hasty retreat once she set eyes on the handsome devil. Now, it is not my place to say, truly it isn’t, but one cannot help but assume that the duke had everything to do with it. For he made no move, not even a breath escaped his lips, as he watched the very beautiful girl run away. Debutantes beware! Just because the man is mysterious, does not mean he isn’t dangerous. Stay tuned, dear readers, for this Christmas Season it seems everyone, and I do mean everyone, is coming out of the woodwork." Kalie scratched her neck and sniffed. "It's signed 'Mrs. Peabody.'"
Dukes and ladies! And the article was written in English! Maybe even a scandal sheet from London! And dated 1812. "Kalie, I think all this stuff is from the Regency period… like Jane Austen. Jane, herself might have read that paper!"
Sam snorted. "What does all that mean?"
"Nothing for kids like you, squirt." With a gentle sigh, Kalie tucked the article into the back of the book and then squinted at the writing on the yellowed page in front of her. Angela wanted nothing more than to pull the SUV to the side of the road right then and there so she could pore over the writing with her daughter.
"Oh! Listen to this!" Kalie began to read. "Nothing ever comes easily with Phillip. I should have known from the start he would turn my life upside down…"