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by Victorial Alexander
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"That was truly wonderful." Behind her, her younger sister, Juliana, sighed with heartfelt satisfaction.
"I knew you would like it," Lizzie said absently and stared at the sheet of white velum lying on the desk in front of her in the sitting room she shared with Jules.
"It was so ... so ..." Jules thought for a moment. "Wonderful."
"Quite," Lizzie murmured and wrote With Sincere Best Wishes, Lady Elizabeth Effington.
"No, more than wonderful. I daresay it's the best story about Christmas -- no -- the best story about anything I have ever read."
That wasn't right either. With Sincere Best Wishes had an obligatory ring, as if one were writing to an elderly relative one didn't particularly like but was required to be pleasant to nonetheless. Besides, while Lizzie might be too personal, Lady Elizabeth Effington was far and away too formal for her purposes. She slashed a pen stroke through the bothersome phrase.
"In point of fact," Jules continued in a tone that sounded far more like a literary critic than a mere girl of sixteen years, "I think it's quite the best story Mr. Dickens has written. Of those I've read, of course, but I do think I've read most of his stories as he is possibly my favorite author. It's not as amusing as Nicholas Nickleby but a far better ending to my mind than The Old Curiosity Shop, although I do so love stories about girls having adventures." Jules paused. "Even if Little Nell's were rather dreadful."
"Yes, well, dying at the end of one's story does tend to make one's adventures a bit less than cheery," Lizzie said under her breath.
With eternal friendship, Elizabeth.
"I dislike books that don't end well. Mother's books always end well. This one does too, in a fashion, although it is something of a pity Scrooge did not discover the error of his ways until he was old. He would have had a rather wonderful life if he had married Belle. Don't you think so?"
Friendship was good. Not the least bit improper. And Elizabeth had the right tone. Perhaps ... Lizzie sighed and crossed out her latest effort. Why on earth was this so blasted diffi- cult? All she was trying to do was come up with an appropriate inscription for a book to give as a gift. Still, her words were as important as the book itself. Even more so.
"I think my very favorite part though," Jules said slowly, "was at the end when Tiny Tim sprouted wings and flew off with Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Don't you agree?"
"Yes. Of course. I ..." Lizzie jerked her head up, swiveled in her chair, and stared at her sister. "What did you say?"
"I suspected as much." Jules narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "You weren't listening to a word I said, were you?"
"I most certainly was. You said ... " Lizzie searched her mind. She did so hate to admit that her sister was right, at least in part. "You said you liked A Christmas Carol better than any of Mr. Dickens's other works."
Jules snorted in a most unladylike manner. "That was the very least of what I said." She sat upright on the chaise and craned her neck to see around her sister. "Whatever are you doing, anyway?"
Lizzie shifted to shield the paper on the desk and adopted a casual tone. "Nothing of importance really. Just trying to find the right words."
Jules raised a brow. "For what?"
"For none of your concern, that's what," Lizzie said firmly.
"Is it something for Charles?" Jules fluttered her lashes in an exaggerated manner.
Lizzie laughed. "No, it's not. And even if it was, I wouldn't tell you."
"Why not?" Indignation sounded in the younger girl's voice. "I'd tell you what Iwas giving the gentleman who was about to ask for my hand in marriage."
"Nonsense," Lizzie said quickly. "Charles is not about to ask for my hand."
Jules smirked. "Would you care to wager on that?"
Lizzie stared at her sister, unease settling in the pit of her stomach. "Do you know something I should know?"
"Perhaps." Jules settled back on the chaise and smiled at her sister in that irritating way younger girls refine for the express purpose of torturing their older sisters. "I might know that Charles spoke to Father privately this morning. And I might further know, when Charles came out of Father's library, he had a look of relief and excitement on his face."
Lizzie waved off her sister's comments. "That could mean anything."
"Oh, come now, Lizzie. You can't be the least bit surprised by this." Jules studied her sister curiously. "For as long as I can remember, everyone in both our families has expected a match between you. I rather thought you expected to marry him as well."
"Charles is a good man and an excellent match, and any woman would be honored to be his wife. Indeed, it seems to me there are any number of young women wishing to do just that." Lizzie smiled in a noncommittal manner and hoped her comments would satisfy her sister.
"I know I would. Charles is wonderful." Jules
heaved a heartfelt sigh. "He's so handsome, with
the brightest blue eyes and the merriest smile and
the most charming manner. Indeed, I fear I have a
penchant for men with blond, wavy hair. One is
hard-pressed to keep from running one's fingers
Excerpted from A Visit From Sir Nicholas by Victorial Alexander. Copyright © 2004 by Victorial Alexander. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.