To kick off this holiday season, I thought I’d bring a little bit of joy and happiness through a full chapter excerpt from Before the Flood set on Christmas Eve 1947. It features a very special Christmas song, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, featured in and written for the 1944 classic Meet Me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien.
People during the Second World War and well into the postwar era identified with the song so well because it was meant to be cheerful during a time of uncertainty. A time when people were missing loved ones away at war or missing family members that never came home. Many of us are missing loved ones either through lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, and a number of families across the globe are missing loved ones who have passed. The lyrics back then were “We’ll have to muddle through somehow” and gosh, if that doesn’t describe this year, I don’t know what does.
But enough of that. Pour yourself a glass of eggnog like the Bainbridge clan does or your favorite mug of cocoa, cider, or wine and enjoy a trip back in time.
From Before the Flood, Book Two of the Laurelhurst Chronicles saga. All rights reserved. Copyright Kellie Butler
Lydie was a bundle of nerves Christmas Eve morning. She was making toffee as a hostess gift for the Bainbridge family gathering. She hoped she remembered everything Sister Clara had taught her. Sugar had been in short supply during the war, but they made treats like toffee at Christmastide. Henry had said it would be just them and a few friends, but she wondered how many were a few? He hadn’t quantified it. Hopefully, the batch of toffee would be enough for two tins: one for the Bainbridge house and one for the Millers downstairs.
Hours later they hailed a cab to St. Paul’s chapel for Christmas Eve candlelight mass. Lydie wore a simple green wool frock by Claire McCardell and Edward wore his best suit from Papa’s old tailor back in London. Lydie loved how the chapel’s warm colors that reminded her of an old church in Florence.
After the mass, they rode in another cab back to the Bainbridge’s townhouse. She clutched the tin in one hand and tried to readjust her coat with the other.
“Stop fidgeting, Lydie.” Edward glanced over at her and she stopped.
Edward turned away and glanced out the window, as if steeling himself for the evening. Lydie knew he had reservations about attending tonight, but he was doing it for her. She reached over and clasped his hand to show her appreciation for his gesture.
Upstairs in the house, Hyacinth Bainbridge was having reservations of her own. She’d hoped to have a small gathering this year, just the family with Kate’s recovery, but Henry surprised her by inviting guests. The last time he brought people over to a family gathering, he was dating that girl back in medical school with the crooked teeth that drove her crazy. She loved her boy, but sometimes he needed to learn that he couldn’t rescue everyone.
“I’m not sure why we had to invite all these people. I’m not in the mood for it tonight. Not after that child in front kept crying in church. Why couldn’t the parents take it out?”
“Hyacinth, it’s just the Mortons and the Caverts. May I remind you that Jesus was born in a manger? I’m sure he was crying too.”
“I can’t stand the Mortons. I only tolerate them because they make me look better. Why do we invite them every year?”
“Such charity on Christmas Eve. And the Caverts?”
“Who are they?”
“Friends of Henry. I understand they’re from England.”
“Oh, how charming. Are they husband and wife?”
“Brother and sister. Dr. Cavert works with Henry.”
“I don’t know why I chose this dress tonight. It makes me look frumpy.” Hyacinth readjusted her long black velvet frock. She wasn’t sure why they still had this gathering. It used to be fun when children were smaller, but now every time their friends come they brought pictures of their grandchildren and she couldn’t bear it.
Downstairs Henry and Kate waited for their guests to arrive.
“Do you think I look pretty, Henry?” Kate fingered her red wool dress. She’d turned down all invitations this autumn, trying to stay on the wagon. It was hard for her because the old Kate wouldn’t have needed an excuse. Her friend Gwen had been bitterly disappointed. She had never imagined her best friend of several years could have turned so cold towards her.
“You always do, Katie.” Henry straightened his bow tie and checked his hair. He hadn’t felt this excited about a girl in ages.
“I hope so. I’d like for Edward to like it. Lydie will be here too.”
“Yes, she’s quite a girl, isn’t she?”
“Yes. I’m sorry about what I did to her. I was atrocious.”
He shook his head. “I hope Mom is on her best behavior tonight.”
“Me too. It’s going to be hard not to have a drink tonight. If she acts out, I don’t know how I will handle it.”
“You can do it. We’ll be here to support you, Katie.”
“What do you think would happen if we arrange our own affairs? Would it send Mom off her rocker?”
“Who knows? Let’s focus on the positive.” Henry walked over to the sideboard and checked the eggnog. He put a small tipple of rum in and stirred with a crystal ladle that matched the large punch bowl before dipping some into a cup for Kate.
“Here, have a taste and tell me what you think.”
Katie took it and smacked her lips after taking a sip. “Did you put anything in it?”
“Just a bit of rum. It isn’t too strong, is it?”
Kare took another sip. “No, it’s wonderful. I’ll have to nurse this cup tonight.”
“We have cider as well. Uncle Mike’s orchard had a great crop this year.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Don’t get too sentimental, Katie.”
“Henry, I wish you would smile like you used to. I suppose that’s my fault.”
“I dashed both our chances for romance. I should thank you for being so good to me after I wrecked your date with Lydie. I’m sorry I’ve only thought of me all these years. I stopped you from being happy, too.”
“Well, maybe that’ll change. You never know.” He winked as he stirred the eggnog again, waiting for their guests to arrive.
Outside, Lydia and Edward waited with a middle-aged couple holding a bottle of wine. Lydie should have thought to bring wine. The older couple broke the ice. “I’m George Morton and this is my wife, Miriam. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Pleasure to meet you as well. Edward and Lydia Cavert. We’re friends of Henry and Kate.”
“Well, isn’t that wonderful? Henry’s a good boy. His father and I went to Cornell together. Our daughter Frances recently had a baby. Sweetest as she can be. We’re so proud.”
“As you should be. One of my school friends is a midwife.” Lydie smiled.
“Is she now? Great profession. My daughter loves children. I suppose you’ll be having some of your own soon?”
“Well, perhaps when I meet a nice man of my own.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I assumed you’re married with the same name. You are siblings then?”
Edward barely kept a smile on his face. Was it a mistake to come here tonight? He was saved by Agatha opening the door. The Mortons entered first with Lydie and Edward trailing behind.
“Hello, Henry. Hello, Katie. Don’t you look lovely tonight?”
“Thank you, Mr. Morton.” Kate blushed.
“We’ve brought our usual holiday offering. Where are your parents?” George continued. Lydia wondered if Miriam ever got a word in with him..
“They’ll be down shortly,” Kate said.
“Good evening, Kate. You look radiant,” Edward said as he followed the Mortons into the parlor.
“Thank you, Edward.” Kate smiled and twirled around. “Do you like my dress?”
Edward and Kate moved towards the punch bowl, and Henry offered his hand as he greeted Lydie. “Good evening, Lydie. Don’t you look lovely.”
“Good evening, Henry. I like your tie.” Lydie blushed.
“Why, thank you.” Henry winked.
They stood there for a few moments before Robert and Hyacinth interrupted.
“This must be the Cavert siblings. We’re so glad to have you here. Henry, pass around the eggnog,” Robert said.
“Yes, Dad. Would you like some, Lydie?”
“I would love some, thank you.”
“Pour some for the young lady, Henry.” Robert smiled.
“Here you are. Mrs. Foster’s famous recipe.” Henry handed Lydie a cup.
“Thank you.” Lydie takes a sip. “It’s delicious.”
“Good evening, Dr. Cavert. I’m Henry’s mother.” Hyacinth offered her hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Bainbridge. Thank you for inviting us.”
Kate smiled. “Edward and Henry are colleagues, Mother.”
“Yes, I’ve heard. How fascinating. I should greet the rest of my guests,” Hyacinth turned away quickly.
The others exchanged glances, stunned at Hyacinth’s rudeness.
“My wife isn’t feeling her best tonight, Dr. Cavert. Please excuse her. We’re glad you and your sister are here.” Robert shook Edward’s hand.
“We all have those times. It’s a pleasure to be here.”
Hyacinth turned to the Mortons. “Good evening, George and Miriam. How are you?”
“Doing well, Hyacinth. Your family is looking lovely as always.”
“I suppose you have more pictures of your granddaughter?” Hyacinth feigned a polite smile.
“Yes, we do. Would you like to see them?”
“I’m sure you are beaming with joy. Thank you, but no. At least your child gives you grandchildren.”
“There’s still plenty of time for that, Hyacinth.”
Henry offered his mother some eggnog. “Mother, would you like a cup?”
“Thank you for considering me, Henry. I see you gave that young lady one first.”
“I’m serving our guests first. You taught me that.”
“Yes, I did. Thank you, my darling boy. I see one of my children behaves.”
“Eggnog, Mr. and Mrs. Morton?” Henry turned to his parents’ old friends. His eyes diverted quickly towards Kate as he checked on her, then fastened his gaze on his guests.
“Yes, please. How’s the medical world, Henry?” George asked.
“Never a dull moment. They keep us busy, don’t they Edward?”
“Oh, that’s for certain.” Edward agreed.
“You know, we should have some music,” Robert said.
“That’s like a lovely idea, Robert. Kate, why don’t you sing for us? You took all those voice lessons,” Hyacinth said as she settled onto the sofa with her cup.
“I don’t think I remember anymore.” Kate frowned.
“Surely you can think of something to entertain our guests?”
Sensing Kate’s apprehension, Henry turned to Lydie. “Do you remember me asking you to play the piano for me the night we went to the Philharmonic? I’d love to hear you play now.”
“Oh, I suppose I could,” Lydie said brightly and she went to the piano and sat down.
“You will find our piano is well-tuned, Lydia,” Hyacinth said. “Kate, why don’t you sing with her?”
Kate shook her head no, so Lydia sat on the tufted bench and played a few bars of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. Gaining her confidence, Kate joined her and began to sing. Soon everyone else joined in except Henry.
“Not singing, son?” Robert leaned over and asked.
“I’d rather listen,” Henry whispered as Lydie played.
“That was lovely, Kate. Let’s have something else,” Robert said as the song ended.
“Maybe I should play for a while,” Lydie offered.
“Henry plays, you know. Let’s see if I can get him up here.” Kate whispered in Lydie’s ear while glancing over at her brother.
“I don’t want to put him on the spot.”
On a mission, Kate went over to her brother. “Go play with her.”
“In front of everyone? Are you kidding? I’m better off where I am.”
“Someone else needs to get up there and I can’t keep singing. Go impress her! Now’s your chance.” Kate pushed him forward.
“All right, we’ll call ourselves the Bainbridge Family Quartet.” Henry quipped as he slid off the sofa, went to the punchbowl, and filled another cup. Strolling over to the piano, he sat down next to Lydie on the bench.
As he pressed the cup to her lips, he whispered, “Something for the pianist. I thought you might be thirsty.”
“That’s so sweet of you, Henry,” Lydie took a sip and continued to play.
“You didn’t tell me played this well. Keep it up, and we’ll book you for every family gathering from now on.” He chuckled and she giggled.
Setting the cup down on the piano, Henry flexed his hands, found a moment where he could come in, and began playing the bass clef. The cuff of his dark jacket brushed against her bare arm. Grinning, he winked at her before he sang in a lovely tenor voice. Lydie’s eyes widen in surprise and she let him take the lead.
“What a nice evening. Henry hasn’t played or sang for us since high school.” Hyacinth shook her head in amazement.
“A man will do many things when he’s in love,” Robert said.
“I think you may be right. I haven’t seen him this happy in years,” Hyacinth agreed.
“We used to look at each other that way. Do you remember?”
“Yes, we did.” Hyacinth looked down.
“It must be off between Katie and the young Englishman,” Robert observed.
“It’s on between Henry and the young lady. What is her name again?”
“I always liked that name. I think my great-grandmother was named Lydia.”
Robert shook his head and watched the pair at the piano.
Kate stood next to Edward. “It must be the mistletoe I hung up in the front entryway that has them like that.”
He shook his head. “Henry is good for Lydie.”
“Listen, I know I ruined things between us, and I spoiled everything for them. I was a mess, and I want to tell you I’m sorry. I wish I could go back and be a different girl for you. Something like that.”
“Well, it’s all done now. I’m sure you’ll be a lovely lady for someone.”
“I am getting better, Edward.”
“I hope you continue to improve.”
“Thank you for not putting me down. You’ve been nicer to me than I’ve been to myself.”
They sat in silence for a while. Kate wished she could be with Edward the way Henry was with Lydie. “It’s adorable the way he holds the cup to her lips as she plays so she won’t get thirsty.”
He shrugged.“Henry is an excellent chap. I’ve known that since day one. Why do you think I let him around her?”
At the piano, Henry leaned over and whispered to Lydie, “Why don’t you rest? I can play. Relax and enjoy yourself.”
She smiled. “I’m happy where I am.”
“Me too, but you’ve been playing for a while now. Why not get yourself another cup of eggnog?”
“If you insist.” Lydie was enjoying playing a duet with Henry so much she didn’t want to leave his side. It brought back her feeling from that date to Carnegie Hall again.
“I do. Rest. I’ll play for a while. Besides, my mother is stunned and I’m rather enjoying it.” He winked at her again.
That twinkle could make Lydie do a lot of things, so she got up and filled a cup of eggnog for Henry. She reciprocated his gestures by returning to the piano and held the cup to his lips. Their eyes were twinkling when they met, the kind of special smile that eyes have when two people are in love.
Over on the sofa, the Mortons and Robert and Hyacinth observed this exchange.
“Robert, I think you ought to see if the church is free back in Ithaca. I’ve got a feeling about those two,” George said.
“Why Ithaca?” Hyacinth demanded. “A well-bred girl like Lydia would most likely want a city wedding. The bride gets to choose, after all.”
Robert raised his eyebrows. “Are you merely looking after her wishes or your own, dear?”
“Well, I can’t fathom her wanting to get married in Ithaca. She hasn’t even seen the place yet. No, she’d much rather have a wedding here in the city. Much easier on planning, too.”
“Don’t put the cart before the horse, Hyacinth. Just let the couple enjoy this evening.” Robert reproached her and she turned away.
Close to midnight, they left the piano and stood next to a tall fir tree trimmed with red and gold ornaments.
“It’s getting late,” Henry said.
“I suppose it is.” Lydie agreed.
“Did you take a cab?” He inquired.
“I’ll drive you and Edward home.”
“I’d hate for you to go out of the way. Aren’t you staying here tonight?”
“No, it’s a holiday and I’m on call. I need to be closer to home. My home.”
Lydie was about so say something when Hyacinth joined them. “I hope you won’t mind Henry’s long hours at the hospital. Don’t let him neglect you, my dear. You work too much, Henry. Take care of this young lady.”
“I’m used to that, Mrs. Bainbridge. My brother is a doctor and so was my father.”
“A family of doctors! Well, you have more fortitude than me.”
Henry glanced at the clock. “Lydie, it’s about time to head back, isn’t it? Edward’s on call too.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Not everyone gets to stay home for Christmas,” Edward said as he overheard the exchange.
“Lydia, it was a pleasure meeting you, my dear. Come back and visit.” Hyacinth kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bainbridge. I had a wonderful time.”
“Lydia, you’re booked to play from now on.” Robert nudged Henry a little as he joined them.
“Thank you, sir. I had a lovely partner tonight that made it easier.”
“Well, shall we go?” Edward asked. Between Kate’s attempts to ingratiate herself and Mrs. Morton’s medical inquiries he’d had enough. The goal had been to keep his sister’s mind away from that Reggie fellow and it had worked.
Donning their coats, Henry, Lydie, and Edward prepared to venture out into the night. Lydie and Henry stood underneath the doorway as he took his hand. “Shall we go?”
“Henry, you’re forgetting something!” Kate pointed to the mistletoe above them.
Henry shook his head, bent down, and kissed Lydie on the nose before he helped her down the slippery steps frosted with snow to his car parked right outside with Edward right behind them. Henry helped Lydie into the backseat and the two men climbed into the front.
“It’s already coming down. I’ve got a feeling we won’t be enjoying Christmas dinner at home tomorrow night,” Edward said.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Henry agreed. “Although this is nothing compared to the kind of snow we get in Ithaca. We’re used to two feet easily.”
“I can’t imagine what Londoners would do with that much snow.”
“They would carry on like they always do,” Lydie replied.
“Quite right. I’m speaking badly of my native city.”
“They’ll forgive you this once,” Lydie teased.
“Lydie, there’s a blanket back on the floorboard if you need it, although I think Edward might need it more. You’re rubbing your hands a good bit, my man.”
“Thank you, Henry. Pass it this way, please, dear sister,” Edward said. “I forgot my gloves because Lydie took too long getting ready this evening. I had to hurry her out the door.”
“Thank you, Henry. You’re such a gentleman. Blaming it on me, are you, Neddy?”
“But you’ll forgive me, won’t you?”
“Just this once,” Lydie teased. “Isn’t it lovely? We’re going to have Christmas snow.”
“It will be lovely if I don’t have to get out in it tomorrow,” Edward complained.
“You get out in it then,” Edward said.
“You get to wear trousers. What are you complaining about?”
Henry chuckled as he listened to Edward and Lydie’s banter. He would love to get to know Lydie much better after tonight. Maybe the new year might bring another chance at love.
Thank you so much for reading. If you’re interested in reading the full novel, you can purchase it here (available in Kindle and paperback formats):