Eight-year-old Rhoda blew out one of the bayberry candles that stood amid a bed of laurel leaves and a scattering of red winterberries on the windowsill. She inhaled deeply, and then touched the smoking wick to the flame of another candle to relight it.
“What are you doing?”
The girl turned at the sound of her mother’s voice. “Bayberry smells best right after the flame is snuffed out.”
“So it does. Come back to the party, love.” Anna Asbury Stone shifted nine-month-old William to her hip as Rhoda put the taper back in its pewter candlestick. She put her free arm around her daughter’s shoulders to draw her into the parlor where Aunt Jean played the pianoforte. Anna’s cousins, Mollie, Sarah, and Nancy, and her younger sister, Eleanor, danced and laughed, their feet thumping merrily on the polished wood floor.
Rhoda sighed as she watched the brightly colored skirts swirl through the figures of a reel. “There’s no one to dance with me.”
Anna stepped around her middle child, two-year-old Elijah, who was playing with his blocks on the floor, and settled into the wing chair beside her mother’s. Uncle William stood near the crackling fire, a cut-glass cup of rum punch in hand. He presided over the celebration in a manner befitting the patriarch of a household full of women, children and servants.
Rhoda leaned on the arm of Anna’s chair, chin on her hands. “There’s no one to dance with you, either, Mother. All the men are off to war!”
Anna rescued the end of her kerchief from the baby’s grasp and stood him up on her lap. “You’d like to dance, wouldn’t you, William?” The chubby baby churned his legs and squealed.
Rhoda frowned. “Elijah and William are too young.”
“Come, Rhoda—I’ll be your partner!” Seventeen-year-old Nancy came over to their corner, bowed, and extended her hand. Rhoda giggled as she dropped a curtsey and then skipped into the center of the room. Anna bounced the baby in time to the music while Elijah, at her feet, beat one of his blocks on the floor.
A sudden blast of wintry air swept through the room, and Anna looked toward the front hall. She gasped and rose to her feet as a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man shed his cloak and handed it and his tricorn to King, the Asbury family’s butler.
Aunt Jean heard her exclaim and stopped playing. Everyone’s eyes followed Anna’s toward the front hall as the man turned.
“Uncle Thomas!” Rhoda dodged through the other dancers and flung her arms around his waist as he came into the parlor.
Anna and her brother-in-law locked eyes for a moment, and she handed off the baby to her mother. “We weren’t expecting you, Thomas. When did you get home? How is…everyone?”
He ignored her questions. “I thought I saw someone signaling ‘one if by land’ from the front window.”
Rhoda giggled. “That was me. I like the smell of the bayberry tapers.”
He knelt down to Rhoda’s level. “You’re shooting up like a weed, Rhoda Stone, and you favor your pretty mother more every time I see you. Before long we’ll be beating off your suitors with a stick.” He tweaked her nose, making her giggle.
Uncle William harrumphed and set down his cup. “What are you lads playing at this autumn? Last year, Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the Hessians at Trenton—but his performance of late has people calling for his replacement. Two defeats in as many months! He should have surrendered after the embarrassment at the battle of Germantown.”
Thomas rose to his full height, towering over the older man. “Well, he hasn’t—and we Continentals have still got plenty of fight left in us, Mr. Asbury.”
“On furlough, are you?”
“Something like that, sir.”
He harrumphed again. “Seems as though they could have sent your brother home for a spell. He enlisted long before you, didn’t he?”
Anna broke in. “Thomas, would you like a drink to warm you up? Some hot cider, or rum punch?”
“Cider would be welcome.” Anna hurried to fill a mug, and he took a sip. “I didn’t know I’d be interrupting your Christmastide celebration. Please, continue. Anna, may I have a word?”
“Yes, of course.” She managed to lead the way out of the room and across the front hall as though no dread clutched at her insides.
Aunt Jean and the pianoforte launched into the opening strains of The First Noel as Anna shut the door of her uncle’s study behind Thomas. “What news? Is it Benjamin? Tell me quickly.”
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