Here’s a glimpse of how my steampunk family might have celebrated Christmas a hundred and forty seven years ago. After the excerpt, there’s also a link to a free story (a prequel of sorts) featuring the same characters.
Santa Fe, The Republic of New Texacali, 1870
Eight years ago, Ophelia Leonides’s husband cast her off when he discovered she was not the woman he thought she was. Now destitute after the death of her father, Ophelia is forced to turn to Dario for help raising the child she never told him about.
Dario is furious that Ophelia has returned, and refuses to believe Arthur is his son—after all, he thought his wife was barren. But to avoid gossip, he agrees to let them spend the holidays at his villa. While he cannot resist the desire he still feels for Ophelia, Dario despises himself for being hopelessly in love with a woman who can never love him back.
But Dario is wrong: Ophelia’s emotions are all too human, and she was brokenhearted when he rejected her. Unsure if she can trust the man she desperately loves, she fears for her life, her freedom and her son if anyone else learns of her true nature…
“How will we be spending Christmas this year?” Arthur asked, half turning in his seat to look up at Dario.
The boy’s voice pulled Dario back to the present. He was surprised to find that, while his thoughts had wandered, he’d somehow allowed his horse to slow to a walk. He frowned absently, annoyed at his own inattention. “What was that?”
“Christmas,” the boy repeated, his tone unexpectedly stern. “You said that’s why we were coming here, because it would make Christmas more enjoyable.”
“So I did.” Dario felt a small stab of guilt. His motives for wanting Ophelia and her son out of the hotel had been purely personal. But, all the same, who wouldn’t prefer to be here, rather than in a hotel?
“But how will it be enjoyable? What do you intend to do to make it so? Everyone says you don’t do anything anymore—that you never celebrate Christmas—that you rarely even leave the house. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable to me.”
Everyone? “Who have you been talking to?” Dario asked, equally affronted by the idea of the child asking questions about him as he was by his accusations. True, he hadn’t had a reason to celebrate much of anything in the past few years and the stares and whispered comments his presence always seemed to elicit made going out in public something of a nightmare, but his behavior wasn’t unalterable either. He could still celebrate Christmas if he wanted to.
Arthur shrugged. “Just the maids. And the grooms. And Mrs. Harrison, of course. She said it was because you were so unhappy. And Mama said I was to stop asking so many questions and not to trouble you about it either, but I’m not troubling you. Am I?”
“Not at all,” Dario answered, lying smoothly. He gazed curiously at the boy. “How are you used to celebrating Christmas?”
“We’d always have a tall tree set up in the parlor, all lit with candles,” Arthur said promptly. “With presents underneath. Oh, and there’d be cookies, of course, and sweets, and sometimes in the evening, carolers would come to the door, singing.”
Dario nodded. “And what kind of presents do you like to get?”
“I dunno. Games, I guess, and toys, maybe some books. Last year I got a pair of ice-skates.” His face fell. “But there’s no pond to skate on here, is there?”
“And there’d always be one special toy that Grandpapa would have made for me,” the boy said wistfully. “But he’s gone now. I don’t suppose I’ll be getting any more like those.”
“No. Probably not.” Dario could only imagine the wondrous toys an inventor of Charles’ caliber might have made for his grandson: marvelous electrical games and puzzles, miniature steam-powered vehicles that were working replicas of their real-life counterparts, clockwork dolls that could walk and talk and…no, he would not think of it.
“Here, it’s your turn.” Seeking distraction, Dario took hold of Arthur’s hands. He lifted them from the pommel and placed them on the reins, keeping his own hands loosely clasped atop them. “Guide her where you want her to go.” He smiled at the small tremor that ran through the boy, the way he sat up a little bit straighter in the saddle, the
way his hands firmed on the reins. “Yes. Just like that. Very good.”
A pleasant silence settled between them, broken only by Arthur’s murmured encouragements to Leveche.
“You know, my father used to take me riding like this when I was your age. This is how he taught me.” And now I’m teaching my own son in the exact same fashion. The thought came to him unbidden and once again set his heart to racing. He wanted so desperately to believe it was true. Why should it not be so, even if he couldn’t prove it? What could it hurt to at least entertain the possibility? And what possible goal could Ophelia have for seeking to deceive him in this fashion?
“Did you always live here?” Arthur asked.
“What, here in this house? No. But, if you mean in Santa Fe, then yes. Always.”
“It must be nice to live in the same place your whole life.” Arthur’s voice held a wistful note once again.
“Oh, I think both paths have their own advantages.” Dario gave the boy’s hands a slight squeeze. “Think of it this way, you will get to experience so much more, and at a much younger age, than I ever did. And, if something here is not to your liking, perhaps in the next place you go, it will be.”
“I don’t want there to be a next place,” Arthur muttered beneath his breath. Dario pretended not to hear.
“What did you used to do here at Christmas?” Arthur asked after a moment’s silence. “When you were my age, I mean.”
“It was very much like what you described—a tree, presents, special foods. And then on Christmas Eve we’d go into town to view the posada and see the plaza, all lit up with faralitos. But there were quite a few more of us in my family, so it was very noisy at times and we always had to share. And we lived too far from town for anyone to come caroling, there was no pond for skating and I had no grandpapa to make me wonderful toys.”
“But you had horses, didn’t you? I should think they’d make up for a lot of the other things.”
“Yes. We always had horses.” Dario smiled, for he, too, had been crazy about horses from a very young age. “And each season the whole family would ride out to the river for Balloon Glow, which is something else I imagine you don’t see much of back in Pennsylvania.”
Arthur craned his neck again to frown up at him. “Balloon Glow? I’ve never heard of it. What is it?”
“It’s a local festival involving lighter-than-air craft—mostly balloons. Even back in those days, you know, almost all of the most wealthy families had at least one. On a specific date, we’d gather out on one of the mesas along the river. People would come from miles around. For some, the trip was so long it would take them several days to get there and back. On the day of the event, vendors would set up camp, offering coffee and hot apple cider as well as fry-bread and other snacks. Shortly after dusk, all the other lights would be extinguished and the balloons fired up. They’d glow from within like giant lanterns and we’d walk around among them, admiring all the many designs, listening to the carolers sing…” Dario’s voice trailed off as the memories overtook him. He almost missed Arthur’s next question.
“Do they not do that anymore?”
Dario looked at him in surprise. “Why, no. Why would you think that? It’s still held every year. It takes place this coming weekend, I believe.” It had been years since he’d gone, years since he’d even thought about it.
“Might we go?”
Dario smiled at the tension in Arthur’s voice; surely that combination of hesitancy and eagerness could not be manufactured? Noticing the boy had let the reins go slack he took them back and urged Leveche toward the stables. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t. Especially seeing as you haven’t been to one before.” In such a vast crowd one little boy was unlikely to attract too much attention and, with any luck, even Dario might be able to go about his business undetected by the gossips. It was a holiday. Why should he not chance it?
FREE READ: This Winter Night