Richmond, Virginia, December 1847

"Shall we go into town tomorrow and see about getting you a new suit for Christmas, Ezra?"

Charlotte's young ward just shrugged, not even turning away from the front window that he'd been staring out of for the last half-hour. Soon, it would be too dark for him to see anything, though what he was watching for was his mother, she was certain.

Sighing, Charlotte walked over to the boy, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. Maude had dropped him off two weeks before, just a week after Ezra's tenth birthday, and it seemed that all the progress Charlotte had made with the child over his last several visits had disappeared like so much snow on the wind. He'd been sullen and moody, and nothing Charlotte did or said seemed to make it through the walls he'd erected around himself. Normally, the prospect of a shopping expedition would have had him so excited, she'd have a hard time getting him to even eat his supper. This time though, he didn't seem to care.

"Mrs. Holcombe is making roast chicken for supper; she knows it's your favourite. And spice cake for dessert," she finished brightly.

He pulled away from her, crossing his arms around himself. "I'm not hungry," he muttered.

"Be that as it may, Ezra, you will sit down to supper with me," she told him firmly. "It would be rude of you to snub all Mrs. Holcombe's effort on your behalf."

Tilting his chin truculently, his green eyes looking far too hard for a boy his age, he took a step forward. "She's just a servant. Mother says you don't have to treat servants like other people!"

Of course Maude would say that, she thought darkly. Reaching out, she put a hand on each of the boy's shoulders. "Ezra," she said sternly. She looked into his eyes, seeing defiance masking fear. What had happened since his last visit to cause such a dramatic change in his behavior? In a gentler tone, she continued, "All human beings are deserving of our respect, no matter their occupation or class or the colour of their skin, dearest. You should endeavor to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself." She put a finger under his chin, not letting him escape her gaze. "And while you are under my roof, you shall treat all the servants with the respect due your elders. Is that quite clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied stiffly.

Well, that would have to do for now. Pulling him into her arms, she hugged him, an embrace he didn't return. Her heart broke a little as he just stood there. Taking a deep breath, she released him. "Why don't you go wash up and change for supper? Livy will come fetch you when it is time to dine."

"Yes, ma'am," he said one more time. Not 'Cousin Charlotte' – that form of address had been noticeably lacking during his stay this time around.

As he walked dejectedly from the room, Charlotte closed her eyes tiredly. What could she do to heal his hurt?

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Charlotte watched as Ezra came down the stairs. He didn't look any happier than he had before, but he had done as she asked and changed out of his play clothes. Her maid, Livy, followed behind him giving her mistress a little shake of her head and a look that told Charlotte that Ezra had been difficult. Difficult, but apparently not quite willing to outright disobey. The boy stopped on the bottom step, head down, his bangs hanging almost to his eyes. A haircut as well tomorrow, she made a mental note.

She put a smile on her face. "Don't you look dashing!" she exclaimed. "In fact, I am sure I am dining with the most handsome young man in all Virginia." Extending her hand for Ezra to take, she looked over at Livy who had come to stand next to her. "Thank you, Livy, for helping him get ready."

"My pleasure, madam."

Ezra had ignored her extended hand, so Charlotte took his instead. "Wait till you see, Ezra," she told him as she drew him along with her down the hall, "the dining room has been decorated for Christmas with evergreen, holly, ribbon, and extra candles. I was hoping you could help us decorate the rest of the public rooms this week."

Stopping, he tugged on her hand. "Will mother be here for Christmas?" he asked in a voice devoid of emotion. But she knew the question was anything but a casual one.

Leaning down, she stroked his hair with her free hand, wishing she could give him the answer she knew he wanted to hear. "I just don't know, dearest," she said softly. "But if she isn't, I promise you we will still have a wonderful holiday. I will do whatever I can to make it a perfect day for you."

Wrenching his hand from hers, he shook his head violently. "I don't want to spend Christmas with you!" he shouted. "You aren't my mother! I don't want to be here!"

"Ezra—" Charlotte began.

"No! Leave me alone!" He whirled away, practically knocking Livy over as he ran back down the hall and stormed up the stairs.

Stunned, Charlotte followed, but stopped at the stairs. Gripping the banister, she fought back tears. Livy, coming up behind, squeezed her shoulder sympathetically.

"That boy!" she said disapprovingly. "What's the world coming to when a child speaks to an adult in such a fashion?"

"It is all right, Livy." Letting go of the banister, she turned to look at the maid. "He is angry and hurt and I am the obvious person for him to vent his unhappiness at."

Livy clicked her tongue and shook her head. "It's not all right, madam, not right at all! Not when you're crying, it isn't." She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, dabbing at Charlotte's cheeks, before handing the square of cloth to her.

Charlotte nodded her thanks, taking a deep breath and wiping her eyes. "He just wants his mother, and as he pointed out, I am not her."

"No idea why," the maid muttered. "That woman has all the motherly love of an alley cat."

"Livy!"

"Well, I'm sorry, madam, I am, but I'm only speaking the truth. You give more love to young Master Ezra during his short visits with you than his mother does the rest of the time."

Sighing, she patted Livy's arm. "Maude loves Ezra, she just doesn't show it the same way I do." She knew that to be true. Maude did love her son, but the confidence woman's own past made it hard for her to express that love. Charlotte knew how fortunate she was to have had a loving father and a safe secure childhood; Maude had never had anything like that.

Livy shook her head, but held her tongue this time. "Are you going up to him then?"

"No, he needs some time to himself. I am the last person he wants to see right now."

"Then you need to go to the dining room and let Mrs. Holcombe feed you." She took Charlotte's arm, prepared to pull her mistress along after her if need be. "I know you all too well, madam, you get all melancholy and then you don't eat."

Laughing softly, Charlotte acquiesced to her maid's kindly scolding, letting her lead her back down the corridor. "Very well, Livy, I promise I will eat something." She patted the woman's hand on her arm. "Would you please take a plate up to Ezra in a little while? I have no wish for him to go to sleep hungry."

"Very well, madam."

"Thank you."

"Now, madam, you go eat," Livy instructed, opening the dining room door.

Charlotte nodded, walking slowly to her chair and sinking into it. The festively decorated room mocked her; how silly for her to have thought any of it would matter to the little boy under her care. Well, tomorrow was another day, and she prayed that it was a brighter one for her and for Ezra.