This story is the third in a series, beginning with my first two: "Dorcas and Timothy: A Lark Rise to Candleford Tale", followed by "A Midwinter's Tale", both of which I hope you will read first here at FanFiction . I hope you will enjoy the continuing adventures of Dorcas and Timothy as much as I enjoy writing them!

For Charlotte, who wanted more Dorcas and Timothy...


Chapter 1

The cry brought Sydney Dowland to his feet, and he was nearly halfway up the stairs before his father-in-law, Sir Timothy Midwinter, stopped him.

"Abigail will be fine, son. She is in the best of hands," Timothy said, placing a hand on the young man's shoulder, but his face was no less pale than Sydney's.

Sydney nodded and ran his hand through his hair. "I know, I know, but I can't help worrying. And to hear her in such pain…."

Another cry rendered the air and Sydney gripped the railing of the stair even tighter, his brow now beaded with sweat despite the winter chill in the room. "Dear God, why does it have to be so painful for her?" he cried.

Timothy took a deep breath. "Come back into the parlour, Sydney. Doctor Armstrong and your mother are with her, and you know they won't let anything happen to her. For what it is worth, I completely understand what you are going through."

Sydney looked at Timothy with anguished eyes. "Yes, of course you do. It's just I cannot help thinking of what happened to Abby's own mother. I know Doctor Armstrong is the best doctor, but what if…."

"No," Timothy interrupted him, "nothing is going to go wrong, I promise you! I have never had so much faith in a doctor as I do with Doctor Armstrong. He won't let anything happen to her." He sounded very confident although he was saying it as much to reassure himself as the young man before him. "Come, I think we both could use a drink."

Sydney nodded and followed Timothy back down the stairs, but not before looking back and blanching once again as Abby screamed out in pain. But this time the scream was followed by the lusty cry of a baby and Sydney bolted back up the stairs and pressed his ear against the door, desperate to know the outcome. A few moments later his mother opened the door, looking tired but extremely happy. She took his face in his hands. "You have a beautiful baby boy, Sydney darling."

Tears were now running down Sydney's face as he hugged his mother tight. "Oh, Ma! And Abby? Is she all right?"

"She is fine, darling—tired, but completely well and desperate to see you!"

Sydney laughed and kissed his mother's cheek. "Thank you, Ma. Thank you for being here for her." Dorcas stepped aside and Sydney fairly flew into the room, closing the door behind him.

Dorcas made her way downstairs to where Timothy stood waiting, still looking pale with strain. She put her arms around him and kissed the worry from his face. "Congratulations, my Timothy, your daughter has just presented us with the most beautiful grandson!"

Timothy could no longer keep his tears at bay as he wrapped his arms around his wife and held her tight. "Oh, Dorcas! My little girl, is she really all right?"

Dorcas smiled and kissed his cheek. "Yes, my love, Abby did brilliantly and the baby is absolutely perfect!"

"Thank God you were there with her. I did not worry half as much knowing you were by her side."

Dorcas smiled and shook her head at him dubiously. "I would hate to see how you would look worrying twice as much! Honestly, darling, I think you should sit down and rest for a few moments. You look terribly pale."

Timothy nodded and gave her a kiss. "I was just about to have a drink. I think you should have one, too, darling."

"Ooh, yes, please! But I cannot stay with you long for I must attend to Abby in a few minutes. I am just letting her have some time alone with Sydney right now."

"I wouldn't mind a drink myself," Doctor Richard Armstrong's rich, deep voice announced as he entered the room looking no less tired than they did.

Timothy reached out and clasped the doctor's hand. "Thank you, Richard, for taking such good care of Abigail. Once again you have saved the day for one of my loved ones."

Richard smiled. "Well, I would hardly call it saving the day for the birth went as smoothly as any I have ever seen."

"Still," Timothy replied, "it was an enormous comfort to know you were here should anything have gone wrong."

"Thank you, Sir Timothy." Richard took the offered glass and drained its contents quickly. "Well, Abby should be fine with resting now, but I will check in on her in another hour or so. I am just going to tell Laura the happy news and have a bite to eat."

"Thank you again, doctor," Timothy and Dorcas both said as they walked him to the door.

As they made their way back they heard soft voices coming from the Post Office itself. There they found Harry Smith, one of Sydney's postmen and best friend, and his wife Annie, who was Abby's best friend, along with long-time postman Thomas Brown, all standing nervously as they awaited news of Abby's delivery.

"My dear friends," Dorcas exclaimed, "how good of you to be here! Just moments ago Abby was delivered of a beautiful baby boy, and both mother and baby are doing splendidly."

The little trio all breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, how wonderful!" Annie exclaimed joyfully as she cradled her own newly born little girl, Meghan, in her arms. "I cannot wait to see them both!"

"Yes, please give her and Sydney our congratulations, Lady Dorcas," Harry added as Thomas nodded in agreement. They both looked like the proud uncles they would become to the newest little Dowland.

A moment later they all turned to see James Dowland, Sydney's father, looking harried and anxious as he burst through the Post Office door. "Am I in time?" he gasped. "Has my grandchild been born yet?"

Dorcas walked over and took his arm in hers. "You arrived just in time, James. Congratulations, you have a grandson! He was born just a few minutes ago."

James surprised her by embracing her tightly in his arms, causing Timothy to frown slightly. "Oh, Dorcas, how wonderful!" he cried. "I have a grandson! And how is my daughter-in-law doing?"

"They both are fine, James, and you will be able to see them soon. Right now Sydney is with her getting acquainted with his son."

"Of course, of course," he said. "Oh, what splendid news!" Then he stepped over to Timothy and held out his hand. "Congratulations to you, too, Sir Timothy. We are both first-time grandfathers today."

Timothy shook the offered hand. "Congratulations to you, Dowland. It is indeed a happy day."

James then looked around to Dorcas. "May I send a telegram to my wife? I know she is eagerly awaiting any news."

"I will take care of that, Lady Dorcas," Harry said as he hurried forward to help James send his telegram. Then they all went into the parlour to await their turn to greet the new baby and congratulate his parents.

Sydney nearly burst into tears when he saw Abby holding their newborn son in her arms. In an instant he was by her side and kissing her tenderly. "Are you all right, darling?" he asked as he studied her face and kissed her again.

"I am fine, my love, really I am. Look, Siddy," she said proudly, "we have a son!"

Sydney peered down into his little son's face and smiled broadly. "Well, hello there, little one! Welcome to the world!" He took his son into his arms and kissed his face. "Oh, Abbs, he's perfect! I cannot believe he is finally here!"

"I know," Abby replied happily. "Isn't he a wonder?"

Sydney then lay down beside her as they held their baby between them, marvelling at the life they created together.

"So did we decide what name we are going to give him yet?" Abby finally asked Sydney.

Sydney smiled as he watched his son give his first big yawn before snuggling against his mother's breast. "I still like the idea of naming him after our fathers," he said.

"I like that, too, Siddy. I know Papa will be so proud."

"Pa, too. In fact, I think he might be here already. It sounded like his voice that I heard a few minutes ago downstairs. Shall we tell them now? Are you ready for visitors yet?"

"Yes, I am ready. I cannot wait for everyone to see him!"

Before he left, Sydney leaned down and kissed her again. "I love you so much, Abby. Thank you for giving me such a precious gift. And I love you, my little man," he said, kissing his little son's head.

"I love you too, Siddy, so very much." She smiled at him with tears in her eyes.

As he reached the door a soft knock was heard. Sydney opened it to find his mother standing there.

"You have two very anxious grandfathers waiting to meet their grandson," she said with a twinkle in her eye.

"Oh, please let them come in, Ma," Abby said.

James bounded in first and clasped Sydney's shoulder. "Congratulations, son! And how are you, my dear?" he asked Abby as he bent and kissed her cheek.

"I am fine, Pa," Abby smiled up at him.

"Look at you!" James exclaimed as he lifted his grandson from Abby's arms. "Hello, there, little one, I am your Granddad."

"And I am your Grandpapa!" Timothy added as he stood next to James and saw his grandson for the first time. Then he went over to Abby and kissed her forehead. "And how are you feeling, my girl?"

Abby smiled at him. "I am so happy, Papa. I didn't know I could be so happy."

"Well, now you know how I felt when you and Benjamin were born, Abigail." He kissed her again. "He is a handsome little fellow. Well done, darling."

"Thank you, Papa."

"So what are you going to name him?" James asked, looking around at Sydney and Abby.

Sydney went and sat next to Abby, putting his arm around her. "Well, Pa, Ma, Sir Timothy, we would like to introduce you to Timothy James Dowland."

Timothy suddenly looked like he was going to cry and James looked no less touched. "Well, that is a very fine name indeed," James managed to say. He kissed his grandson and then let Timothy have his turn.

"Welcome to the world, Timothy James," Timothy said softly as he kissed his grandson's cheek.

As the grandfathers were exclaiming over their namesake, Dorcas made sure Abby was comfortable. "Annie, Harry and Thomas all send their love and congratulations to you both," she told the new parents.

"Oh, Ma, is Annie here? Could you please send her up? And where is Benjamin? Has anyone told him yet?" Abby asked.

"I will send Annie up right away, darling," Dorcas replied. "And I will see if Harry or Thomas could fetch Benjamin from the manor."

"No need to fetch me, Mother," Ben said as he stuck his head around the door. "I couldn't wait any longer to see if I was an uncle yet."

"Come in, Uncle Ben!" Abby called out to him happily. "Come meet your nephew!"

"It's a boy? Brilliant!" Ben exclaimed as he peered over his father's shoulder to see the baby.

Dorcas then brought Annie in who squealed with delight when she saw the baby. "Oh, he's gorgeous!" she exclaimed. Then she laughed. "He looks just like you, Syd!"

Sydney squeezed Abby's hand as he smiled proudly. "Thank you, Annie."

Annie then gave Abby a hug and they sat whispering together about the birth as everyone admired the baby.

"I believe he has my eyes!" Timothy said as he held his grandson.

James frowned and looked for himself. "You are mistaken, Sir Timothy, his eyes are blue like mine!"

Timothy peered closer. "Hmmm, you may be right. But he has my chin, he definitely has my chin!"

James peered at little Timothy James again and gave a nod. "I concede that he might have your chin, but I think he has my…"

"Oh, for goodness' sake," Dorcas interrupted them, "he looks like the both of you! Now, may I have my grandson, please?"

Dorcas took the baby and cradled him in her arms before kissing his little nose and placing him back into his mother's arms. "He is absolutely perfect, you two!" she said to the proud parents, but she noticed Abby was now looking even more exhausted.

"I think it is time Abigail had a rest now," she said as she began shooing everyone except Sydney out of the room. "Abby, darling, Doctor Armstrong will be back to see you soon. In the meantime, you should try to get some sleep and I will send Mrs York up with some dinner in an hour or so."

"Thank you, Ma, I am rather tired."

As they went downstairs James offered to buy everyone a special celebratory dinner at the Golden Lion Hotel where he was staying, and a merry time was had by all as they toasted the health and happiness of the newest member of their family.

Later that night, Dorcas sat in front of the fire, snuggled up against Timothy as they thought about the blessings they had received that day. They were both exhausted, but it was a happy kind of exhaustion.

"Before we go to bed, darling, I have one more thing to do," Timothy said as he kissed Dorcas's head.

"What is it, Timothy?"

He stood up and took her hand. "Come with me."

He led her into his study where he took the large, ancient family Bible from its stand and placed it on his desk. Then he opened it to the family tree and carefully wrote under Abigail and Sydney's names: 'Timothy James Dowland, born the twelfth day of January, 1913.'

Dorcas smiled at him as he finished, and Timothy then put his arm around her and kissed her as they made their way to their bedroom for a well-earned sleep.

As the year progressed, Little Timothy, as they had begun to call him, grew into a very robust and happy-go-lucky little boy, with bright blue eyes like his father, and hair that was beginning to darken like his mother's. Everything made him laugh, and no one who saw him could help but fall in love with him. Annie would often bring her baby girl, Meghan, with her to the Post Office to spend the afternoon with Abby, and Little Timothy would shriek happily when he saw the other baby. Meghan would then struggle to get down from her mother's arms so she could play with her new friend. The mothers would smile as their babies played with each other and laughed as the two little ones chattered away in a language only babies could understand.

"Oh, Annie, wouldn't it be wonderful if our children fell in love and married one day?" Abby exclaimed after watching Meghan clutch Little Timothy in a big bear hug.

Annie laughed. "Only you would jump to love and marriage for mere babies, Abby!"

Abby laughed, too. "Well, of course they must grow up first! But look how sweet they are together already. And I wouldn't have to worry about whether I would like the in-laws or not!"

"It would be a happy day indeed to see my Meghan married to such a handsome fellow as Little Timothy! But I'm afraid Harry has decided that his little girl will not be allowed to even speak to a man until she's at least thirty years old."

"Oh, dear! Harry has become quite the protective papa bear, hasn't he?" Abby exclaimed.

"You don't know the half of it!" Annie replied with a shake of her head. "Although I think he may be a bit more lenient if Little Timothy is the young man in question."

Meghan then chose that moment to hit Little Timothy over the head with a wooden spoon, making him cry.

"Look at that," Abby said as she bent to pick up her son to comfort him. "They are acting like an old married couple already!"

It was now closing in on December and Sydney came into the kitchen one day holding a letter in his hand. "Abby, I've had a letter from Pa. He wants us to—actually he's insisting that we come to stay with him and his family in Manchester over the Christmas holiday."

"Over Christmas?" Abby asked as she took the letter from his hand and read it out loud: "'Your step-mother is eager to meet Timothy James as are your brother and sister who are impatient to meet their nephew. I won't take no for an answer, son. It would mean so much to me to spend my grandson's first Christmas with him and with you and Abby. We have a room all ready for you….'"

Abby looked up at Sydney and said, "I think we should go, Siddy."

"Are you sure, Abbs? You know how upset Ma and Sir Timothy will be if we aren't here for Christmas. They've been so looking forward to sharing their first Christmas with Little Timothy."

"I know, Syd, but Little Timothy is Pa's grandson, too, and he hasn't seen him since he was born. I am sure Ma and Papa will understand."

Dorcas and Timothy were indeed very disappointed when Sydney and Abby told them they were going to James's home for Christmas, but they agreed that they would have to learn to share their grandson with his other grandparents. It was a bitter blow, though, to be missing Little Timothy's first Christmas.

Timothy put his arm around Dorcas as he could see the disappointment in her face. "I have a splendid idea, darling. Why don't we celebrate Christmas a couple of days early this year so we can still enjoy it with Little Timothy?"

Dorcas immediately brightened. "That is a wonderful idea, Timothy!"

"Of course! That is exactly what we shall do!" Sydney said as he and Abby smiled with relief.

So it came to be that the day before Christmas Eve Sydney, Abby and Little Timothy joined Dorcas, Timothy and Ben in picking out the Christmas tree and then spent the day decorating it before having their traditional Christmas feast. Afterward, they all enjoyed watching Little Timothy's face light up with wonder as they lit the candles on the tree, and then laughed as he tore open his first Christmas presents. Timothy then spent extra time holding his grandson up to the tree and pointing out each ornament, enjoying Little Timothy's giggles as he poked and prodded the shiniest ones. Afterward, it was all they could do to keep Little Timothy from pulling down the tree as he tried to pull himself up by its branches to play with the ornaments.

Soon, though, the little one began to yawn and Sydney and Abby said their goodbyes for they would be leaving first thing in the morning for Manchester on the train.

"Happy Christmas, my darlings!" Dorcas cried as she hugged her children goodbye before smothering her grandson with kisses. "Please be sure to give James and his family our best Christmas wishes as well!"

"We will, Ma. Happy Christmas!" Sydney and Abby called out as the carriage pulled away.

"Mother," Ben asked as they went back inside the house, "we will still have Christmas on Christmas Day, too, won't we?"

Dorcas looped her arm through her son's for at the age of fifteen he had grown too tall for her to put her arm around his shoulders. "Yes, darling, we will have another Christmas dinner on Christmas Day for I have invited the Browns and the Misses Pratt to join us."

Ben groaned.

"What is the matter, Benjamin? I thought you would be happy to have your young friends here for company rather than just us adults, especially Hannah."

"Hannah? Why should I care if she's here or not?" he exclaimed rather loudly.

Dorcas smothered a grin for she could see her son was now blushing to the tips of his ears. Little Hannah Brown had had a crush on Benjamin for years, much to his embarrassment. "I just meant that Hannah is closer to you in age than is John."

"And she is bound to chase you with mistletoe," Timothy added, unable to resist teasing his adolescent son.

"Timothy, honestly! You are not helping!" Dorcas admonished him.

"What?" Timothy was trying to look innocent. "You chased me with mistletoe at that age and it is one of my most cherished Christmas memories. Benjamin should be so lucky."

"Timothy! I did no such thing!" Dorcas was now giving him her most exasperated look, which only made him laugh softly as he pulled her to him, kissing her forehead. "Perhaps you are right, darling. Now that I think of it, I think it was I who chased you with the mistletoe. But the end result was the same, regardless."

"I'm going to bed now," Ben said as he rolled his eyes at his parents. "Goodnight, Mother. Goodnight, Father."

"Goodnight, son. Sweet dreams!"

It was raining on Christmas Day—a windy, soaking kind of day that made the churchgoers huddle together under large umbrellas as they hurried into the church. The children were disappointed for the rain had melted away all the snow that had fallen the day before. But by the time Dorcas and Timothy's guests had begun to arrive for Christmas dinner the temperature was dropping and it looked like snow was imminent again.

"Happy Christmas!" Dorcas greeted Pearl and Ruby Pratt who had arrived first holding their hats firmly in place on their heads against the wind.

"Happy Christmas, Dorcas, Sir Timothy. It was so kind of you to invite us." The ladies nodded as their heads swiveled around to take in the manor and its Christmas decorations.

A few moments later Thomas and Margaret Brown arrived with their two children, Hannah and John, in tow. There was a flurry of activity as coats and umbrellas were taken, and Timothy pushed Benjamin forward to greet his young guests.

"Happy Christmas, Benjamin!" Hannah said sweetly in a voice that no longer squeaked when she spoke to him. "I-I made these biscuits for you. They're chocolate." She shyly held out a small decorative tin that had a red bow tied around it. John giggled behind her but somehow restrained himself from making a teasing comment.

Ben blushed deeply as his father prodded him again. "Thank you, Hannah," he said as he took the tin from her. "Happy Christmas."

"What a magnificent tree!" Ruby exclaimed as she admired the huge Christmas tree now lit with candles that dominated the parlour.

"Thank you," Dorcas smiled. "We put it up a bit early this year so we could celebrate Christmas with Sydney and Abigail before they left to visit James and his family."

"Oh, I am sorry we won't be enjoying their company this Christmas," Margaret said. "I have a special gift for little Timothy James." Margaret gave Dorcas a beautifully wrapped little package to give to the baby. Dorcas smiled for she knew it must be one of Margaret's hand-made little outfits. If she knew Margaret, it would be a miniature postman's uniform.

"How very thoughtful of you, Margaret! I am sure they will love it," Dorcas said as she took the gift and placed it under the tree.

During the Christmas meal, Dorcas noticed Timothy was drinking more wine than usual with his dinner. This always seemed to be the case whenever the Pratts were present. Dorcas couldn't blame him really, but she couldn't bear the thought of the two lonely spinsters spending Christmas by themselves. She thought it very generous of Timothy to forbear their company for her sake. She caught his eye and gave him a little wink.

Benjamin was relieved that Hannah hadn't been seated next to him at the dinner table. Instead, John was next to him whilst Hannah sat across from them next to her mother. Ben studiously avoided looking at her, though, for the one time he had looked up he had found her staring at him unabashedly. He sighed, wishing he had been able to go to Manchester with his sister rather than suffer the attentions of a blue-eyed young girl who worshipped him, no matter how pretty she was becoming.

After dinner had ended and the delicious desserts had been consumed, John asked Ben to show him the secret passageway that Abby and Sydney had discovered a year and a half ago.

"I would love to see it again, too, Ben!" Hannah chimed in.

"All right, follow me," Ben said importantly as he led the two into the narrow hallway where the secret door was located and lit a candle to take inside with them.

John's eyes were wide as he looked around the ancient corridor. "This house is really old, isn't it?" he said with wonder.

Ben nodded. "Yes, it was built in the year 1576."

"Gosh!" John exclaimed. "I'll bet it's haunted, too, being so old!"

Hannah crept closer to Ben. "I-Is there a ghost here, Ben?" she asked tremulously.

"Not that I…" Ben hesitated as he realised he had the perfect opportunity to scare Hannah. "Not that I'm allowed to speak of," he corrected himself, trying to sound as mysterious as possible.

"Go on, tell us!" John prodded him, but Hannah moaned for she did not want to hear about ghosts.

Meanwhile, Margaret looked around the parlour. "Where have the children gone?" she asked her husband.

"I believe I heard Benjamin say he was taking them to see the secret passageway," Dorcas answered.

"Oh, I would like very much to see this secret passageway, too, Dorcas!" Ruby piped up eagerly. "Wouldn't you like to see it, Pearl?"

Pearl looked rather blasé. "I suppose so."

"Well, then, let's all go see it together, shall we?" Timothy said, eager for a diversion.

At that moment Benjamin was spinning a tale that was setting the children's hair on end: "Before we found this passageway, our housekeeper said she saw a headless man walk out of the wall and down the corridor. We know now that the part of the wall he walked out of led to this passageway. And then one time I, myself, heard moaning and then a scream coming from behind the secret door, but when I looked inside no one was there. Later, I found an old family diary from the 1600's which told of the haunting of Candleford Manor. It said a man who once lived here was beheaded for his disloyalty to the King and his headless body was cursed to roam these corridors forever, looking for his lost head."

Wicked Benjamin then blew out the candle and began to moan spookily causing Hannah to scream and run as fast as she could out of the passageway. She nearly bowled over Ruby Pratt as she sprang out into the hallway yelling, "Ghost!"

Ruby, being deathly afraid of ghosts, let out a blood-curdling scream and ran headlong into Timothy who cried, "What on earth is going on here?"

A very sheepish looking Ben then came out of the passageway. "Sorry, Father, I was just telling Hannah and John a ghost story and Hannah got scared."

"I will deal with you later, Benjamin," Timothy said sternly as he tried to calm Ruby down. "I suggest you find Hannah and apologise to her at once, after you make your apologies to Miss Ruby first, of course."

Benjamin looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry I scared you, Miss Ruby. I didn't mean for that to happen."

Ruby, now looking utterly embarrassed for having acted so foolishly in front of the Squire, tittered nervously. "N-No, it is I who apologise to you all for being so silly. After all, what is Christmas without a good ghost story?"

"Yes, well I think it is time we said our good nights, Ruby," Pearl said, giving her sister a disparaging look.

Whilst the adults prepared to take their leave, Ben found Hannah alone in the foyer crying. He hung his head as shame burned his cheeks. "Hannah," he said as he put his hand on her shoulder. But Hannah turned away from him. "Leave me alone, Benjamin. I hate you."

"I-I'm sorry I scared you like that. I didn't mean to. I was just having a bit of fun."

She kept her back to him and wouldn't speak to him.

Ben sighed, not knowing what else to do. Then he noticed the little sprig of mistletoe that his father had hung earlier that day, hoping to catch his mother underneath it. Hannah had yet to realise she was standing beneath it.

Ben took a deep breath. "Hannah, look up."

Hannah, despite her attempt to ignore him, looked up. Just as she did, Ben leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Thank you for the biscuits," he said quickly, and then bolted up the stairs and out of sight.

Hannah reached up and touched her cheek in astonishment. And then she smiled.

"Well, darling," Timothy said when they were finally alone to enjoy their beautiful tree together, "it has been quite the eventful Christmas, hasn't it?"

Dorcas shook her head and laughed softly. "It has indeed, my Timothy. I swear that son of yours is becoming more like you every day."

"Me? I don't recall sending ladies screaming in terror when I was his age," Timothy chuckled.

"No, you just frightened me to death with that silly tale of the bloody phantom that haunted the spinney when I was a girl. I did not sleep for a week."

Timothy chuckled again. "I did, didn't I? Well, I only made that up hoping you would clutch my arm as we walked through it."

Dorcas leaned her head against his shoulder and sighed happily as she continued to stare at the tree. Then she suddenly got up and walked over to it, studying it more closely.

"What is it, darling?" Timothy asked.

Dorcas continued to search the tree. "Timothy, where is Cupid?"

"Where is who?" Timothy asked.

"Cupid, the little reindeer you made for me the Christmas we were eighteen. I cannot seem to find it."

Timothy got up to help her search. "It should be there, I hung it myself right here…" Timothy pointed to the spot where he remembered hanging the little wooden ornament and saw it was now empty. "That is strange, I could have sworn I put it right there. Maybe it fell off the tree." He got down on his hands and knees to search the floor but couldn't find it anywhere.

"Are you sure you put it on the tree, Timothy?"

"Yes, darling, but we can check the box to make certain."

They both went up to the attic and found the Christmas box, but the little wrapper that once held the ornament was empty, except for the dried piece of mistletoe that Dorcas had always kept with it. Timothy held the fragile piece of greenery in his hand for a moment and then held it above her head. "Remember, Dorcas?" he said softly.

"How could I forget, my love? It was the most wonderful Christmas."

He kissed her tenderly under the ancient mistletoe and then pulled her into an embrace. "I love you, Dorcas, more than ever, if that is even possible. Now, let us go back downstairs and find our Cupid."

But despite searching every branch of the tree and every nook and cranny in the parlour, Cupid was nowhere to be found. Dorcas suddenly began to cry. "Oh, Timothy, we just have to find him!"

"Shhh, darling," he said as he put his arms around her. "We will find him. He cannot have just disappeared now, can he? He will show up sooner or later. If not, I will carve you another one."

"No," Dorcas shook her head, "I must have that one. You know how much he means to me. You gave him to me the first time you…." Dorcas's voice broke as she began to cry again.

"Yes, I remember," he said softly as he took his handkerchief and wiped her tears away. "It was both the most wretched year and the most wonderful year of my young life. I remember everything as though it had happened yesterday."

They continued to hold one another as each remembered back to that earlier time—a time when two life-long friends became something more, but not before going through the heartbreak that nearly broke them apart forever…

Chapter 2

For a few months out of the year, Dorcas Lane and Timothy Midwinter were exactly the same age. For the rest of the year, Timothy was the elder, which nearly drove Dorcas mad for he took great delight in being one up on her for anything, even something as inconsequential as age. Not because he felt in any way superior to her, despite the fact that he belonged to a class far above her own, but because he knew that Dorcas was more than his equal in every other way; her keen intelligence and sharp wit never failing to challenge him, and she often left him dizzy with the circles she ran around him. No, he did it because he knew it irritated her, and nothing delighted him more than teasing her. It had been this way since they were children and it appeared it would continue into their adulthood.

"Dorcas," he would say authoritatively with his hands clasped behind his back and his chin held high as he looked down upon her, usually the day of his birthday, "you must do as I say now because I am older and therefore wiser than you."

Dorcas would roll her eyes and shake her head at him, and then proceed to ignore him until he got over himself or until he managed to make her laugh, which he usually did.

But this time, on the day of his eighteenth birthday, he took a more commanding stance. "Don't shake your head at me, Dorcas Lane," he said as though addressing a naughty child. "One day I will be your Squire and then you shall have to listen to me."

Dorcas tossed her head and folded her arms across her chest stubbornly as her beautiful eyes flashed at him. "That won't be for ages and ages, Timothy. And besides, by the time you are Squire I will be far away from Candleford and will have to answer to no one."

He raised his eyebrows at her. "Oh?"

It was her turn to lift her chin at him. "Of course! You don't really expect me to stay here when there is so much of the world for me to see, do you? No, I shall most likely be in Egypt, walking in the footsteps of the Pharaohs and patting the Sphinx's head as he tells me riddles, or sailing to the Galapagos Islands to see Darwin's finches for myself."

Timothy frowned and bent to pick up a stick which he began to twist idly in his hands. "I see. Well, I cannot say I won't envy you, Dorcas," he said rather wistfully, his former air of superiority now deflated. "I do not know what I shall do with myself once you are gone. I had hoped you would always be around to liven up my sure-to-be-very-dull life as I embrace my duties."

Dorcas studied his face and felt rather guilty for saying such things. She knew he wasn't particularly interested in becoming their Squire and having to shoulder all the responsibilities that came with being the eldest son and heir. In fact, she noticed him becoming more pensive and moody the closer he came to his eighteenth birthday. As much as she longed to see the wonders of the world she could not imagine her life without Timothy in it. But she knew things would change once he really did become Squire, and she knew she would never be able to stay in Candleford and watch him marry someone else—someone more suited to his own class—someone, she knew, who could never be herself.

She kept her voice light despite the sudden sadness in her heart. "But soon you shall marry a real lady, Timothy, and have dozens of children and then you won't have time to give a moment's notice to your old friend."

He looked sharply at her then; an intense look where his dark brown eyes seemed to bore into her own. "That will never happen," he said quietly.

"But it will, Timothy. You know it and I know it, and there is nothing to be done about it. Your father will see to that."

"Is that what you really believe, Dorcas?" he said sadly.

"It is how things are, Timothy."

They both fell silent as they continued their walk and Timothy moodily swung his stick at the hedgerow as they passed.

"There is always something to be done, Dorcas," he finally said, "and I am not going to let my father dictate every detail of my life for me. When it comes to whom I shall marry I will make my own choice in the matter."

Dorcas wished with all her heart that what he said could be true, but she refused to let herself hope or imagine that she and Timothy could ever be more than just friends. She would have to stay ever vigilant to keep some distance between them and not let her heart hope where only heartbreak could follow. She had to be careful not to let Timothy see how much she loved him; how integral to her life he had become, for one day she would have to let him go, and she wanted to enjoy his company for as long as possible until life's conventions took him away from her.

As for Timothy, his feelings for Dorcas Lane had changed the first time he kissed her. It happened when they were sixteen years old during a rainstorm, when they had taken shelter under their favourite oak tree on his father's estate. The kiss had been spontaneous, but Dorcas's reaction had been unexpected. She had become so frightened that their friendship was changing and could possibly be ruined, that she avoided him for a week. It was the worst week of his life. Since her friendship meant more to him than anything else in this world he kept his feelings to himself, but it was becoming more and more difficult for him not to give in to the feelings he had developed for her—feelings that soared far above the boundaries of mere friendship. For Timothy Midwinter had fallen in love with his best friend, and dreams of kissing her again kept him awake at night, tossing and turning, until he began to develop dark circles under his eyes. As a result, his teasing became relentless; anything to provoke her, anything to stir her emotions. Anything that might prove to him her feelings for him had changed, too.

Dorcas gave him a nudge with her shoulder as they walked for she hated to see him looking gloomy on his birthday. "Well, old man, if your ancient bones are up to it I will race you to the Post Office. I had Zillah make your favourite cake for you."

Timothy immediately brightened. "Chocolate?"

"Of course, silly! And if you behave yourself I might even give you a present." Her eyes twinkled at him so fetchingly that he wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless right then and there, but he settled for nudging her back instead, and then took off running as he laughed and shouted over his shoulder, "You will never catch me, Dorcas!"

Which was exactly what Dorcas feared as she ran after her dearest friend-that, no matter how hard she tried, she would never be able to ascend to Timothy's level and he would one day leave her behind forever.

"Zillah, you have outdone yourself," Timothy said with a contented sigh as he finished the enormous piece of cake that the Lanes' old cook and housekeeper had placed before him. "I don't think I will be able to move from this table for at least a week!"

Zillah cackled happily for she had always had a soft spot for Timothy. "Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see a young man with a hearty appetite, Master Timothy."

Timothy stood up and placed a kiss on her cheek. "When it comes to your cooking, Zillah, I always have a hearty appetite!"

Zillah blushed and tittered as she took his plate away. "I will send the rest home with you to enjoy later."

"Thank you, Zillah. Speaking of which, I should be on my way home now. Mother is making a special dinner for me tonight, although I don't know where I shall put it." Timothy said as he patted his belly. Then he looked over at Dorcas. "Will you walk out with me, Dorcas?"

"Of course, Timothy, I just have to run upstairs to fetch something and I will meet you at the stable."

A few minutes later, Dorcas found Timothy readying his horse and she held out a small package to him. "Since you behaved yourself I guess you earned your gift," she teased.

Timothy's face lit up as he took the package from her. "Thank you, Dorcas!"

She smiled as she watched him open it.

"A wood carving set!" he exclaimed as the wrapping fell away.

"I thought since you were always whittling away with that dull old knife of yours you could use some proper tools."

"Thank you, Dorcas. That was very thoughtful of you. Now I shall be able to make something identifiable for once!"

"You mean like that dog you carved for me before?" Dorcas asked innocently.

Timothy rolled his eyes. "I told you it was supposed to be a horse!"

Dorcas laughed. "Well, I am glad you like them, Timothy." Then she surprised him by standing on her tiptoes and placing a kiss on his cheek. "Happy birthday, old friend," she said softly.

She stood so close to him that he stopped breathing for a moment. His eyes met hers and suddenly time seemed to stop. Even the sounds of hammering from the nearby forge faded away and all he could hear was the thudding of his own heartbeat in his ears.

He leaned closer to her and she did not back away. "Dorcas, I…"

"Master Timothy! Don't forget to take your cake with you!" Zillah called out from the back door, spoiling the moment.

Dorcas found herself blushing as she stepped back, and Timothy could only sigh as he turned to Zillah. "I will be right there, Zillah!"

"Will I see you tomorrow?" Timothy asked as he turned back to Dorcas.

"Of course, Timothy. Now, you had better get that cake before I decide to keep it all for myself!"

Timothy chuckled. "Good night, Dorcas. Thank you again for my birthday present."

"You are welcome, Timothy. Good night!"

She then stepped past Zillah and made her way inside as Timothy took his cake and rode quickly home, his heart still thudding in his chest as he thought of how close he came to kissing his best friend again that night.

A few days later, Candleford was covered in an early spring snowfall. It snowed on and off for two days straight and left more than a foot on the ground, much to the delight of the children who could never resist a snowball fight. Dorcas loved the snow, too, and as she and Timothy walked together from the church, for it was now Sunday, she convinced him to veer off the path and explore the snow-laden woods with her.

"I am hardly dressed for trudging through snow, Dorcas," Timothy grumbled as he pulled on his gloves, for he had worn his new suit and bowler hat for the first time that day.

Dorcas stopped and looked at him. "I must say you do look quite handsome today, Timothy," she said with an approving smile.

He gave her a pleased little bow for he had hoped she would notice. "Thank you, Dorcas."

They continued walking and Dorcas, as inconspicuously as possible, stooped to gather some fresh, powdery snow in her hand as Timothy turned away to watch a pair of birds take flight from a nearby bush. Despite her best efforts not to give in to her feelings for Timothy, she couldn't help her mischievous side, which was now telling her to do something very wicked. She knew what she was about to do was tantamount to playing with fire, knowing what his reaction would be, but she could no more stop herself from provoking him than a bear could avoid honey. So strong and capable in many ways, Dorcas Lane was not without weaknesses, and her biggest weakness of all was now standing in front of her, innocently unaware of what she was about to do. She took aim and then plastered the back of his head with snow, knocking his new hat clear off of his head.

He whirled around so fast that he slipped and fell on the slippery patch of snow, landing flat on his stomach. Dorcas was now laughing out loud and took full advantage of his prone position by pummeling him with snowball after snowball until he was as white as a snowman.

"Why you little…" he growled as he rose quickly to his feet, shaking the snow from his head and gathering a large handful of it as he did. "Right, now you are going to get it."

Dorcas squealed and laughed as she ran quickly away, finally ducking behind a large pile of rocks as snow exploded against the topmost stones above her head. Before she could gather her wits Timothy had run behind her, trapping her against the stone barricade. She squealed again as he aimed a snow-filled hand at her head.

"Ha-ha!" Timothy laughed vengefully. "I have you now!"

Dorcas tried her best to look imperious. "Timothy, you wouldn't dare!"

"Oh, wouldn't I?" he said, raising his hand even higher. "And afterwards I am going to take you over my knee and give you a good spanking!"

She raised her hand to cover her face. "A gentleman wouldn't do such a thing!"

"Gentleman or not, you deserve it and you know it!" he countered.

She half squealed and half laughed, looking so adorably helpless as she shrank against the rocks that his desire for revenge suddenly morphed into a very different form of desire. He took in a deep breath and, for once, decided to throw caution to the wind. He arched an eyebrow at her before contemplating the snow in his hand. "Hmmm, I may consider letting you go free, even though you don't deserve it, but only for a price."

She lowered her hand just enough to peek up at him. "What kind of price?" she asked cautiously.

His dark eyes glittered at her. "A kiss. One kiss and you may go free."

Dorcas stared at him, thinking he was only teasing, but the look he now wore on his face was anything but. She felt her heartbeat quicken and a sudden warmth spread throughout her body. She found herself blushing.

"That is an awfully high price," she replied in a half whisper.

Timothy shrugged. "In that case…" He raised his handful of snow again.

"Wait!" she cried. "All right, I will do it. One kiss and you promise not to throw that at me?"

"I promise," he said. His eyes seemed to darken even more as she stood up to face him.

"Drop the snow first," she said rather breathlessly.

Timothy was about to let the snow drop when he caught a familiar glint in her eye. "Oh, no, I'm no fool, Dorcas Lane. This snow is my guarantee. I will drop it after you kiss me."

"And what guarantee do I have that you won't throw it at me anyway?" she countered.

Timothy pretended to look hurt. "Don't you trust me, Dorcas?"

Her beautiful eyes flashed at him, making him almost drop the snow anyway as a feeling of excitement rippled through his belly.

"Not one whit, Timothy Midwinter."

"But I am a gentleman." His voice had gone husky as he leaned closer to her, looming over her smaller frame as she reached up and grabbed the lapels of his coat.

"No you're not," she managed to whisper as she pulled herself up and pressed her lips against his.

Now the snow did drop from his hand as he put his arms around her and pulled her close. All those months of dreaming about this very moment culminated in a kiss so intense both their breathing seemed to stop. They finally broke apart, gasping for air, but the separation lasted only a second before they fell together again. This time Timothy's hand held the back of her head as the kiss deepened, and Dorcas never felt the stone barricade digging into her back as he pressed his body to hers; desperate to feel her, desperate to have her.

When their lips finally parted, Timothy pressed his forehead to hers and gasped, "Oh, Dorcas, you have no idea how much I have longed for this…to kiss you again!"

He was alarmed to see tears in her eyes and he quickly took her face in his hands. "Oh, no, my darling, please don't cry! I did not mean to upset you!"

Dorcas placed her hands over his and shook her head. "No, no, I am not upset. I have just longed for this moment, too."

Joy lit his face. "You have?"

"Yes, Timothy, so very much," she said as she put her arms around his neck and placed a gentle kiss upon his lips.

He then wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace, pressing his cheek to hers, and closing his eyes as he breathed in her sweet scent and savoured how perfect she felt in his arms. They stayed that way for a long time, until Dorcas, realising that poor Timothy was soaked to the skin thanks to her wicked snowball attack, made him go home to change his clothes. They made plans to meet later at their favourite tree, or 'Big Tree', as they had always called it. So whilst Timothy left reluctantly, Dorcas was glad to have some time alone to contemplate what had just happened between them.

The door was now opened, and every meeting thereafter culminated in kisses and embraces of growing intensity, usually under the privacy of Big Tree's sheltering branches. As their passion grew and their bond deepened, Dorcas's fear of Timothy leaving her behind for a woman more suited to his station began to recede in her mind. She allowed herself to hope, and then to dream, but then the circus came to town and it changed everything.

Chapter 3

It was a very slow Wednesday in April, and Dorcas stood quite bored behind the counter of her father's Post Office, wishing she could be outside enjoying the sunshine and spring weather like everyone else seemed to be doing. Not one customer had come through the door in nearly an hour and her father was still out running errands in town, leaving her alone with no one to talk to. She was feeling a bit sulky, too, because Timothy had been taken to London by his parents to attend a few balls the previous week and he still had not returned. Her stomach twisted into a knot whenever she thought of him meeting and dancing with all those young ladies, but he had assured her that he had no interest in meeting any of them and he was only going because his parents were forcing him to. Besides, he hated dancing. Still, Timothy's life was changing now that he had reached manhood, and his father was demanding more of his time and dedication to his future duties. Despite this, he tried to spend every free moment he had with Dorcas, or, if she happened to be working when he came by the Post Office, he would sit for hours in the kitchen with Zillah as she tested out new dishes on him, or made him a plate of scones where they would sit and chat, sharing a pot of tea. Anything to be close to Dorcas and share her world for as long as possible before being thrust back into the drudgery of his duties.

Dorcas sighed and was just thinking of having a scone herself when she heard a strange sound. It was the sound of horns being blown and a swell of voices was heard growing louder and louder out in the street. She was then astonished to see two bizarrely dressed men juggling odd-shaped objects in the air as they passed by the Post Office window. They were soon followed by tumbling acrobats and clowns throwing confetti as they waved to the crowd of people that was gathering on the street. Dorcas dashed quickly out the door and stood watching with awe as a large caravan of vehicles passed by her, one of which had painted on its side 'MANCINI'S AMAZING CIRCUS!' followed by a real live elephant upon which a turbaned man in robes with a large, curling mustache and white beard sat surveying the crowd majestically. Behind them were more vehicles as far as the eye could see containing lions, tigers, monkeys and one tired-looking bear. A barker carried a large wooden, cone-shaped contraption which he held to his mouth that magnified his voice ten-fold as he shouted, "Come one! Come all! Come see the most amazing show on earth! You will see death-defying acts! You will see wild animals from darkest Africa! You will see real living freaks of nature! Prepare to be amazed, folks! Don't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!"

The excitement was palpable. Children shrieked and laughed whilst the adults stared wide-eyed with mouths agape. Zillah came and stood next to Dorcas to see what all the commotion was about, and after spotting Madame Zelda's Fortunetelling caravan muttered darkly, "Gypsies! You'd best lock up tight tonight, Miss Lane, or we will be robbed blind in our sleep!"

"Good heavens, Zillah! What a thing to say!" Dorcas replied with a disapproving frown.

Zillah grunted. "You mark my words, miss."

Dorcas was about to retort when she was interrupted by her younger cousin, Emma, who lived in the nearby hamlet of Lark Rise, running up to her. "Cousin Dorcas! Is this not a sight to behold?" she cried, her eyes shining with excitement.

Right behind Emma was Queenie Turrill, a woman of middle age, who lived in Lark Rise as well, and had been walking to town with Emma to sell her lace, when they came upon the circus caravan. "I thought I was seein' things!" Queenie chortled as they craned their necks to see what the next vehicle would bring.

"Hello, Emma and Mrs Turrill," Dorcas greeted them. "It is indeed an amazing sight! I wonder where they will be setting up."

"I am going to follow them and will let you know," Emma said excitedly. "Oh, Dorcas, did you see there is to be a real gypsy fortuneteller? I cannot wait to have my fortune told!"

Dorcas, who did not believe in such things as fortunetelling, just smiled and nodded her head at her young cousin. She did not want to spoil her fun with her scepticism.

"Are you coming with me, Queenie?" Emma asked her companion.

"No, you go ahead, Emma. I will take care of my business first and will meet you back here," Queenie replied.

Emma ran off to follow the crowd and Queenie chuckled as she leaned in towards Dorcas. "Do you think they will let me set up a little stall where I can read tea leaves for a penny or two?"

Dorcas laughed and placed her hand on Queenie's arm. "I don't see why not, Mrs Turrill. Your tea leaf readings are probably far more accurate than Madame Zelda's tricks of the trade!"

"Oh, they are not tricks, Miss Lane," Queenie said gravely. "No, indeed."

"Well," Dorcas said quickly, hoping to change the subject, "I do hope before you and Emma return to Lark Rise you will stop by the Post Office and join Father and me for tea. I am sure you must be tired after your long trek and I know Father would be delighted to see you."

Queenie smiled gratefully at her. "Thank you, Miss Lane. That would be lovely."

Queenie then hurried into the dressmaker's shop to deliver her lace whilst Dorcas stood watching after the caravan until a customer finally arrived and demanded her attention.

It wasn't long before Emma returned from her reconnoitering and informed them that the circus was setting up in an empty field just north of town. By this time, Mr Lane had returned from his errands and was having tea with Queenie. He and Queenie went way back so he was enjoying a nice catch-up with her. He stood up to give his niece a kiss and invited her to join them.

"I do hope Ma will let me come tomorrow to see the circus once it is set up!" Emma enthused. "Cousin Dorcas, won't you come, too? I am sure Ma will let me come if she knows you will be with me."

Dorcas looked over at her father as she replied, "I am afraid I have to work tomorrow, Emma, otherwise I would be more than happy to accompany you."

Emma looked pleadingly at her uncle who began to chuckle. "Who am I to refuse two lovely young ladies their chance to see the circus? You may have the day off tomorrow, Dorcas."

Dorcas skipped over to him and kissed his forehead. "You are a dear! Thank you, Father."

"I think I may come, too!" Queenie announced with shining eyes. "That is, if you girls don't mind this old lady joining you."

"No, Mrs Turrill, it would be wonderful! The more the merrier!" Dorcas said warmly as Emma clapped her hands gleefully. "What a day we shall have!"

And so it was at one o'clock in the afternoon the following day that Dorcas, Emma and Queenie set out for the circus. Dorcas was looking forward to it, but she felt Timothy's absence keenly for he still had not yet returned from London. How fun it would have been to experience her first circus with him! It was such a shame that he would be missing all the excitement.

The circus was a small one, by London's standards anyway, but it seemed spectacular to the villagers and hamlet folk, many of whom had never seen such a spectacle in their life. It really appeared to be part circus and part carnival for there were booths set up where folks could try their skills at throwing hoops around bottles or knocking down pins for prizes, and all kinds of little stands selling toffee apples and other sweets. Those who were fortunate enough to have pennies to spare could take a ride on the gentle elephant named Clementine, or ride the ill-tempered camel which had a tendency to spit upon unsuspecting passersby. Children gasped as the lion tamer stuck his head inside the lion's mouth, tempting a gruesome death again and again, and laughed with delight at the elderly, somewhat mangy-looking, dancing bear which sat on its haunches and swayed tipsily this way and that as its trainer played the flute.

Dorcas, Emma and Queenie paid the small fee to enter the largest tent that boasted of Chinese acrobats, daredevil tightrope walkers, and a man and wife trapeze artist team. The wife would flip through the air and her husband, who was swinging back and forth, would catch her in mid-flight, always cheating death at the last moment. Gasps were heard throughout the tent again and again followed by thunderous applause. The ladies then left the tent clutching at their chests and exclaiming how they had never seen anything so spectacular or frightening in their lives.

As they walked along the fairway, Emma and Queenie were distracted by a barker claiming to have "Real freaks of nature!" The canvas outside of the tent was painted with such things as 'See the Fattest Lady in the World! See the Man With Four Legs! See Twins Joined Together For Life! See the Tallest Man and the Tiniest Man in the World!' accompanied by rather gruesome depictions of each. Dorcas begged off for she could not bear to see such unfortunates on display in such a degrading fashion. She left Emma and Queenie there whilst she strolled ahead to look at the animals.

Soon she came upon a large cage that held several monkeys which were running along and swinging from their wooden bars whilst chattering madly. She smiled as she watched their antics.

"I might have known I would find you with the monkeys," a familiar deep voice sounded in her ear which sent a shiver of excitement throughout her body. She whirled around to see Timothy standing there grinning at her. "Are you giving them climbing lessons, Dorcas?"

Dorcas's eyes flashed at him, remembering how he used to call her a monkey when they were children climbing Big Tree. "Keep that up, Timothy, and I will volunteer you to stick your head in the lion's mouth!"

Timothy laughed out loud as he looked at her with great fondness. "Did you miss me, Dorcas?"

She gave him a look of feigned surprise. "Why, Timothy, were you away somewhere? I hadn't noticed."

He could tell that she was still a bit piqued with him, for she hadn't been at all happy when he told her of the balls he had to attend, so he took her arm and steered her away from the crowd to a private place behind a tent where he pulled her to him. "Well, I missed you," he said huskily before proceeding to kiss her most thoroughly.

Still not quite placated, Dorcas said waspishly, "I am surprised you had time to miss me, Timothy, with having to dance with all those Young Misses and Lady So-and-Sos."

He held her face and looked deep into her eyes. "Oh, but I did miss you, my darling. There wasn't one moment when I wasn't thinking of you or wishing it was you with whom I was dancing. The whole thing was a great, ruddy bore without you."

Anyone who knew her less would have missed it, but Timothy could see in her eyes a hint of sadness, a vulnerability which tore at his heart. He knew his absence had not been easy for her and he had a lot of convincing to do to make up for it. So he began by kissing her again and with such intensity that he finally felt her weakening and kissing him back just as eagerly.

"Yes, I did miss you, Timothy," she finally admitted in a whisper as she laid her head against his shoulder, "every moment of every day."

"I am very glad to hear it," he whispered back as he held her tight.

They remained that way for a few moments longer before joining the crowd again. Before long, Emma and Queenie caught up to them. Emma smirked when she saw Timothy with Dorcas. Her young, romantic heart just knew her cousin was smitten with the handsome young Squire-to-be. Queenie curtsied to Timothy. "How nice to see you, Master Timothy," she said with the formality due a man of his station.

"The pleasure is all mine, Mrs Turrill, Emma." He tipped his hat to them.

Emma let out a giggle, which earned her a glare from Dorcas, but she made up for it by declaring that she and Queenie were off to find the gypsy fortuneteller since Dorcas now had Timothy to keep her company.

"Thank you, Emma." Dorcas nodded to her. "You two have fun!"

Timothy was more than happy to have Dorcas to himself again as they continued on. They took in the lion-taming show and then watched as a man seemingly consumed fire. It was all quite enthralling, but Timothy delighted most in watching Dorcas's face which was aglow with child-like wonder at all the sights. He reached out and took her arm in his as they walked further down the path, but her attention was soon stolen by a barker who claimed to have one of St Nicholas's actual flying reindeer.

"Step closer, folks!" the barker cried. "This 'ere be Cupid, who on Christmas Eve helps fly ol' St Nick's sleigh through the night to deliver presents to all the good children of the world!"

"But Father Christmas brings us our presents!" one small boy exclaimed with his nose scrunched up in confusion.

The barker waved his hand. "Father Christmas, St Nick, he is one and the same, son! How do you think Father Christmas gets around delivering all those gifts to everyone? He needs his magic reindeer, he does!"

"I want to see 'im fly!" another little boy exclaimed, soon to be joined by a chorus of other children clamouring to see such a spectacle.

"Sorry, sonny, but ol' Cupid 'ere can only fly on the night before Christmas! Them's the rules, I'm afraid, but you may pat him on the nose if you like. Come closer, he won't bite. And if you whisper in his ear what you desire most for Christmas he may just pass it on to Father Christmas himself!"

Some of the children crept closer, and the bolder ones reached out and patted the reindeer's nose, who obligingly dipped his head down from his great height to allow the caresses. Soon they all approached and began whispering their heart's desire in the friendly reindeer's ear, hoping it might come true. Dorcas slipped away from Timothy and approached the reindeer herself, smiling with delight as she patted Cupid's scratchy nose. Cupid then raised his head and grunted at her, making her take a step back, but his owner patted the creature's neck and reassured her that it was a sign that the reindeer had taken a liking to her. Dorcas looked dubious as she gave the animal one last tentative pat. But before walking away, she turned back and quickly whispered in Cupid's ear, "All I want for Christmas is for Timothy to be mine forever." She felt rather foolish doing such a silly thing as whispering in a reindeer's ear, but it could not hurt to ask now, could it?

Timothy was looking at her with amusement as she returned to him. "What did you ask for, Dorcas?"

"Never-you-mind, Timothy, it is between Cupid and me!"

Timothy laughed and took her arm again as they proceeded around a corner where they found a man selling toffee apples. Timothy stepped away to buy one for Dorcas and when he turned back to her he was astonished to see that Cupid the reindeer had followed them. Timothy's eyes widened, but before he could warn Dorcas Cupid had come up right behind her and rested his head on her shoulder with a contented grunt.

Dorcas froze and slowly turned her head, nearly screaming when she saw the huge, furry face next to hers. Before she could utter a sound, though, Cupid stuck his tongue out and gave her face a big lick.

Timothy suddenly burst out laughing. Cupid licked her face again.

"Don't just stand there, Timothy, DO something!" Dorcas nearly shrieked as she tried to get away from the creature, but Cupid stuck to her like glue.

Timothy was now bent over and wheezing with laughter. "Wh-Who am I to get in the way of a reindeer in love?" Timothy managed to gasp as Dorcas looked furiously at him.

Just then, Cupid's owner came running around the corner and sighed with relief when he spotted his reindeer. "I am so sorry, miss," the man apologized, his face beet red with embarrassment. "I told you he took a liking to you! I turned my back for a mere second and he was gone!" He pulled at Cupid's harness. "Come on, you daft beast!" he yelled as he dragged the creature away.

Timothy was still weak with laughter as Dorcas wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.

"Honestly, Timothy! Some help you are!" She glared at him.

Timothy tried to regain his composure. "I am sorry, Dorcas, but if you could have seen the look on your face!"

"It isn't funny, Timothy!" she said, her face now scrunched up with disgust as she wiped her cheek again.

Timothy started wheezing all over again and, despite her disgruntlement, Dorcas's mouth began to twitch, and then she started to giggle. Before long she and Timothy were leaning against each other for support as they went weak with laughter.

Timothy was now holding his sides. "Oh, that was the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life! A lovesick reindeer!"

"I am so happy I could provide you with such amusement, Timothy," Dorcas said as her laughter subsided into hiccups.

Timothy was still chuckling. "Well, all I can say is I know exactly how Cupid feels. He has very good taste." He gave her a wink as he held the toffee apple out to her. "A peace offering?"

She shook her head at him but took the apple anyway. "Apology accepted."

They found Queenie and Emma just as Emma emerged from Madame Zelda's tent. Emma's eyes were shining as she breathlessly told them her reading. "She said I was going to marry a very handsome man and have five children!" Emma gushed as her cheeks turned pink. "Five! Can you imagine?"

"Goodness!" Dorcas said. "You are sure to have a busy life!"

"Oh, Dorcas, you must have Madame Zelda give you a reading, too!" her cousin said.

Dorcas shook her head. "I don't think so, Emma, it really isn't my thing."

Emma was about to reply when Queenie interjected, "Speaking of a busy life, we had best be heading home now, Emma. Will you be coming with us, Miss Lane, or would you prefer to stay with Master Timothy?"

"I think I will stay a little longer, Mrs Turrill. Don't forget to stop at the Post Office for Father wanted to take you both home in his carriage."

"That is very good of him. Well, good night, Miss Lane, Master Timothy. Enjoy the rest of your evening!"

"Thank you, Mrs Turrill," Dorcas said as she gave Queenie and Emma each a hug. "It has been a spectacular day!"

As they waved goodbye, Madame Zelda herself came out of her tent and stood staring at Dorcas, ignoring the other ladies who were awaiting their turn for a reading.

Somehow feeling eyes upon her, Dorcas turned to see she was being observed. Madame Zelda looked nothing like the image of the beautiful, young gypsy that was painted on the side of the tent gazing into a crystal ball. No, this woman was much older, with thick, long black hair peppered with grey and deep-set black eyes that glittered like beetles from beneath impressive black eyebrows. Large gold hoops dangled from her ears and the jangle of gold bracelets was heard as the woman lifted her arm and pointed at Dorcas. "Your aura burns as bright as the sun! Come, you must let Madame Zelda look into your future."

Dorcas began to protest, but Timothy nudged her forward. "Go ahead, Dorcas, it might be fun!"

"But, Timothy, you know I don't believe in such things!" she hissed under her breath.

"Well, do it anyway and we can laugh about it later," he insisted. "Look, I will even pay for it."

He pulled out a silver coin and held it out to Madame Zelda who snatched the coin from his hand and quickly pocketed it. Then she beckoned to Dorcas again.

Dorcas sighed, and with one last disparaging look at Timothy, followed the old woman into the tent.

Inside, the air was heavy with the smell of incense, and the bright colours of the shawls draped along the sides of the tent were muted by the faint light emanating from a red-glassed lantern which burned next to the table in the centre of the room.

Madame Zelda beckoned for Dorcas to sit down at the table as she, herself, sat right in front of her. Their knees were nearly touching as the old woman stared intently at Dorcas for a moment before taking her hand and turning it palm-side up. "You are an old soul, my dear. I can see it in your eyes," she said.

Dorcas remained silent.

The old soothsayer than began to cackle as she studied Dorcas's palm. "You must be part gypsy—you have a traveller's soul! No wonder your aura beckoned so strongly to me." She bent closer as she studied the lines on Dorcas's hand then tutted. "But I see that the world shall be coming to you instead, for you shall be the keeper of messages."

Dorcas blinked, but then realised the gypsy woman could have seen her at the Post Office as the caravan passed through town—an easy supposition.

"Hmmm, I see you lost your mother in the not so distant past, and you have no siblings with which to share your grief. Your father, however, is your strength."

Dorcas blinked again and began to feel uneasy, but she was determined to believe it was nothing more than trickery.

The gypsy continued, "And three children shall call you 'Mother', but only one will be your true flesh and blood."

Dorcas finally spoke, unable to resist as her lips quirked into a disbelieving smirk. "I see. And I suppose those three shall come with a husband? Or perhaps three husbands?"

"Ah, for that I must consult the crystal." Madame Zelda released Dorcas's hand and turned towards the mystical sphere which stood in the centre of the table. Her hands reached over the crystal as her gaze settled deep into its core. Soon that gaze turned to Dorcas so intensely that Dorcas felt the uncomfortable sensation that the old woman was seeing into her very soul. Then that gaze seemed to lose focus, as if Madame Zelda were falling into a trance, and the old woman began to rock back and forth as she spouted in a singsong voice:

"Two hearts, one heart, fated, mated. Faithless love soon separated."

Dorcas's brow drew together in a frown. "I-I don't understand."

Madame Zelda closed her eyes and shook her head regretfully as she muttered, "Fate is a jealous mistress."

Dorcas felt the gypsy was becoming nonsensical and began to stand up to leave, but the old woman reached out and grasped Dorcas's hand, holding it alarmingly tight. "He holds your heart in his hands, this man you love..." Her voice fell to a whisper. "A pity, for he shall crush it."

Dorcas felt her insides turning to ice and she shook her head as she tried to pull her hand away. "And there you are wrong, madam. He would never hurt me."

The gypsy's gaze refocused and she looked at Dorcas with sorrowful eyes. "Oh, but he will, my dear, and you him. Madame Zelda is never wrong."

Dorcas finally managed to pull her hand away and stood up quickly, feeling suddenly afraid as she backed away towards the opening of the tent. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" she cried as tears sprang to her eyes. "Shame on you for taking people's money and telling them lies!"

"Dorcas?" Timothy's voice called out from the other side of the tent. "Dorcas, are you all right?"

Dorcas turned away from the gypsy and reached for the flap of the tent. But before she could walk through it Madame Zelda's voice called out to her, stopping her in her tracks: "The crystal never lies. I have seen it all. You must mark my words, child, and prepare your heart, for your young man is to marry another."

Dorcas lurched forward.

"Wait! You mustn't leave! Your reading is not yet finished!"

But Dorcas did not care to hear anymore and plunged through the opening of the tent, walking quickly past a worried-looking Timothy who was instantly by her side, placing his hand on her arm as he tried to stop her. "Dorcas, what happened? What is wrong? What did she say to you?"

She turned away so he would not see the tears in her eyes. "Nothing," she managed to say, "nothing at all but a lot of nonsense, just as I expected it to be."

"Dorcas, wait…"

"I am sorry, Timothy, but I just want to go home now. My head is beginning to ache."

Timothy frowned with concern, but took her arm and escorted her back home. They never did return to the circus, and a short time later it disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving only emptiness in its wake—as though it had never existed at all.

Chapter 4

It had been a week since the circus had come and gone, and Dorcas hadn't slept a full night since. The gypsy's words "your young man is to marry another" kept playing over and over in her mind until she thought she was going to go mad. But why was it torturing her so? She had never believed in soothsayers or mediums before, so why now? Why give this particular gypsy's reading a second thought? She kept chastising herself for falling prey to what she had always considered to be nonsense, but she could not dismiss what the gypsy had seen in her. How could a complete stranger have guessed that she had lost her mother and had no siblings? Or that bit about her having a traveller's soul but would remain the 'keeper of messages'? Was it possible there were people who could see into one's soul as well as one's future? Were her deepest fears, that Timothy would marry someone else, really about to come true?

These thoughts continued to plague her, and as a result she began to avoid Timothy. A feeling of guilt shot through her as she remembered the hurt look in his eyes when she told him once again that she was too busy to go riding with him. She did not know what to do, for if she believed the gypsy then she would have to do something to avoid the inevitable heartbreak, yet if the gypsy was wrong then her doubts could ruin her relationship with Timothy forever.

After lying awake yet another night, an obvious solution finally came to her: She must consult Queenie. After all, Queenie was known as a very wise woman, and she knew something of fortunetelling with her skill of reading tea leaves. Perhaps she knew something of these gypsy fortunetellers, too, and how much credence one could lend to them.

Luckily, Dorcas's father had two letters to be delivered to Lark Rise that day so Dorcas volunteered to take them herself. She would seek out Queenie and hopefully get some answers.

As Dorcas knocked on Queenie's door, she saw the brief flicker of a curtain and then heard Queenie's husband, Twister, whisper quite loudly, "It's that girl from the Post Office! What's she doin' here?"

Then Queenie's reply: "Oh, I don't know, Tom. Did you ever think she may have a letter or telegram for us?"

"Telegram!" Twister exclaimed. "We ain't got money to pay for no telegram!"

"No, we ain't, and whose fault is that?"

Twister muttered something about a man being entitled to his drink. Dorcas rolled her eyes and sighed.

"Don't just stand there keeping her waiting! Open the door, you old fool!" Queenie hissed at him.

Twister finally opened the door and tipped his cap to Dorcas before scurrying away. Queenie smiled at her. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting, Miss Lane. Come in, come in!"

"Thank you, Mrs Turrill," Dorcas replied as she walked into the dim, but cosy little house.

Queenie peered at Dorcas. "Are you all right, dear? You look as though something is troubling you."

The older woman was now looking at her with such motherly concern and kindness that Dorcas suddenly found herself bursting into tears. It was at a time like this when she missed her mother most.

"Oh, my dear child!" Queenie exclaimed as she put her arm around Dorcas and led her to the table. "Come, sit down and I will make us a nice pot of tea. Then you must tell me what has upset you so."

"Th-Thank you, Mrs Turrill," Dorcas's voice hitched as she tried to keep from sobbing.

Queenie put the kettle on and then sat next to her. "Now, tell me what I can do to help."

Dorcas wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. "I f-feel so silly, really, but do you remember that gypsy fortuneteller who was at the circus?"

Queenie nodded. "Yes, of course." Then she stared at Dorcas with sudden understanding. "Let me guess, you let her read for you after all and she told you something you did not want to hear, am I right?" she asked gently.

Dorcas nodded and her eyes welled up again. "Yes, and that is why I am here, Mrs Turrill. What do you know of these gypsy fortunetellers? Are they to be trusted or are some of them merely skilled at parlour tricks?"

"Well," Queenie thought for a moment, "I don't have much experience with them myself, but my Gran swore by them. I never heard of any trickery as far as the soothsayers go amongst the gypsies, but that is not to say it does not happen. Would you like to tell me what she said to you? Perhaps it would make you feel better."

Dorcas shook her head and dabbed her eyes. "Thank you, Mrs Turrill, but I would rather not talk about it just yet. I have taken up enough of your time as it is. But, just one more thing-have you ever seen this gypsy woman before now? Could she have been through Candleford in the past and known something of us, do you think?"

Queenie pondered this for a moment before shaking her head. "No, I would have remembered her if she had ever been here. And I don't ever recall the circus visiting here or anywhere nearby for that matter."

Dorcas nodded sadly and stood up to leave. "Mrs Turrill…"

"Please, Miss Lane, you may call me Queenie, dear."

Dorcas smiled her thanks. "Queenie, if you had had a reading by this gypsy, would you have believed it?"

Queenie reached out and gently held Dorcas's cheek. "What I believe doesn't matter, child. I think if you look deep into your own heart you will see where the truth lies. I think you already know what that truth is or you would not have let it upset you so."

Dorcas looked down at the twisted handkerchief in her hand and sighed. "I wish I had never gone into that tent."

Queenie patted her hand. "But you did, Miss Lane, and perhaps it was meant to be. Forewarned is forearmed, I always say."

Dorcas nodded bleakly. "Perhaps you are right. Thank you for your time, Queenie."

"Anytime, dear," Queenie said kindly. She then stood and watched as Dorcas mounted her horse before shaking her head sadly and closing the door.

For Queenie Turrill believed wholeheartedly in the readings of gypsies.

Dorcas left Lark Rise feeling even worse than she did before. The question was, what was she going to do about it?

When she arrived back at the Post Office she was met by Zillah who gave her a baleful look. "Master Timothy was here again, Miss Lane. He said to tell you that if you could 'spare the time' to please meet him at the usual place, whatever that means."

"Thank you, Zillah," Dorcas said calmly, but inside her heart lurched at the thought of having to face him again. She knew she would have to explain herself and she had absolutely no idea what she was going to say to him. But she couldn't avoid him forever and, truth be told, she was starting to feel very foolish for letting herself get so upset over a silly fortunetelling. Perhaps she should tell Timothy so they could both have a good laugh over it.

Feeling somewhat better, Dorcas decided to meet him at their usual place, which was Big Tree, of course, and mend her fences with him. Instead of riding there, though, she decided to walk so she could have time to figure out what she was going to say to him. It was such a lovely afternoon and a nice walk would help clear her mind.

Setting out for Big Tree, which was within sight of Candleford Manor, Dorcas decided to take a lesser used footpath where the spring flowers were much more abundant. As she neared the manor, though, she heard voices approaching and, not wishing to be seen, she ducked behind a hedgerow and waited for whomever it was to pass. She was soon mortified to discover it was Sir Frederick and Lady Olivia Midwinter, Timothy's parents.

"Oh, I do hate to have to leave for London again when everything is so beautifully in bloom here," Lady Olivia lamented to her husband.

"Well, then why don't we stay here, my dear?" Sir Frederick said hopefully. "I don't know why you feel Timothy needs to be going to balls at such a young age anyway. After all, he should be back in Oxford. I do not understand why he insisted on taking this year off from college."

"Do you not?" Lady Olivia said pointedly. Then she murmured something too low for Dorcas to hear, much to her frustration, before Sir Frederick replied, "Oh, that. Well, Timothy is no fool. He knows where his duty lies, but I still think he is better off in school rather than gadding about London."

"He is not 'gadding about', Frederick, he is getting the proper exposure he needs to the ton. I was quite proud of him, too, for he made himself very agreeable to all the young ladies and never once sat out a dance! He has already turned quite a few heads, too—daughters and mothers!" Lady Olivia giggled happily.

Sir Frederick grunted. "Of that I have no doubt. He is a handsome young buck—takes after me, you know—and he is set to inherit a very pretty property. Yes, I have no doubt mothers were queuing up their daughters to be presented to him. However, I still think he is too young, and I don't want a dolt for a son. He must finish his education first."

They began walking away until Lady Olivia exclaimed, "Ouch! I think I have a pebble in my shoe!"

"Do allow me," her husband said, and Dorcas heard him grunt as he squatted down to fix his wife's shoe.

Lady Olivia began again, "You know, dear, I think Timothy might have been wise to sit out this year of school."

"Oh, why is that?"

"I think he has already made a conquest for which he may consider leaving school altogether!"

Dorcas had been hunkered down all this time herself, but when she heard what Lady Olivia said her legs gave out and she fell back on her behind with a soft thud.

"What was that?" Lady Olivia exclaimed.

"Probably just a rabbit, love, nothing to worry about," Sir Frederick replied as he stood back up. "Now what is this about my son making a conquest?"

"Well," Lady Olivia said excitedly, "there was one young lady he paid particular attention to and danced with three times at all three balls!"

Dorcas heard Sir Frederick sigh. "I concede that you know far more about the politics of a ballroom than I, my dear, but I hardly see how that can be considered a conquest."

"Oh, Frederick, don't be tiresome!" Lady Olivia snapped. "You know very well it is highly unusual for a man to dance with the same woman more than twice in an evening. It can only mean that he is quite taken with her."

"And who is this enigma of a young lady?" Sir Frederick was starting to sound bored.

"Lady Wilhelmina Havelstoke!" she said triumphantly.

Sir Frederick snorted. "Have you actually seen Lady Wilhelmina, my dear? My guess is that Timothy's asking her to dance was not so much a conquest as a charitable act."

Dorcas smiled behind the hedge in spite of herself.

"Frederick!" Lady Olivia was now sounding quite exasperated. "Don't be ridiculous, her father is an earl!"

"That I cannot dismiss," he conceded. "However, I know my son, and he would desire beauty in a woman as much as a title."

"Hmmph," Lady Olivia sniffed. "Well, you did not see them out on the balcony together later that evening. I swear I saw him give her a kiss."

Sir Frederick's voice started to fade as they finally moved down the pathway. "I told you, dear, that you needed a new pair of spectacles! I would bet my…." But they were now too far away for Dorcas to hear anymore. It did not matter, though, for Dorcas felt as though someone had thrown a spear through her heart. Timothy had assured her he was bored silly at those balls and had no interest whatsoever in any of the young ladies there. And now his own mother revealed the truth: Timothy was not only enjoying himself, he was courting the daughter of an earl!

Hot tears burned her eyes as she remained behind the hedgerow, and she continued to cry until the shadows grew longer around her. Then she picked herself up and walked quickly home.

Timothy was now officially worried.

He stood waiting at Big Tree until darkness fell, unable to believe that Dorcas would not have met him there after leaving his message with Zillah. With a heavy sigh he trudged his way home, unable to fathom what he could have possibly done to make her angry with him. Before he reached the house he had decided he was not going to spend another sleepless night over it—if she wasn't going to come to him then he was going to go the Post Office and have it out with her. He then veered off to the stables to saddle his horse, only to be intercepted by his father.

"Timothy, I would like to have a word with you," Sir Frederick said.

"Can it wait, Father? I have something I need to attend to," Timothy said impatiently.

"No, it cannot wait." His father stood firmly in front of him. "Timothy, what are you doing here? Why are you not in Oxford this term, and, more importantly, why did you let your mother talk you into attending this London season, of all things?"

Timothy sighed. "I told you, Father, I just wanted a break from college. Lots of students take a year off. It is not unusual. And as for Mother, well, you try to say no to her when she looks at you so pleadingly. If only she had had a daughter to fuss over instead of me."

Sir Frederick narrowed his eyes at him. "Hmmm, are you telling me the truth, Timothy? Because I imagined your break from school had more to do with that girl from the Post Office rather than any pleading on the part of your mother, which, incidentally, you seemed immune to before."

"Don't be ridiculous, Father," Timothy said.

"And don't you lie to me, boy," his father snapped. "Do you think I am blind? Do you think I have not noticed you spending every waking moment with that girl?"

"Dorcas is my friend, Father, and has been since we were children, you know that! Where is the harm in me spending time with my friend?"

"Oh, don't be naïve, Timothy! You are a grown man now and it is time for you to say goodbye to childish things and start taking your duties seriously before people begin to talk!" Seeing the now mutinous expression on his son's face, Sir Frederick tried changing tactics. "Son, I understand what you see in her, really I do. I am a man after all. She is bright and charming, and whilst there are women out there more beautiful than she, she does have a way about her that is, frankly, quite appealing. You would hardly be a man if you weren't attracted to her. But, Timothy, she is not of our kind. You must not form any real attachment to her."

Timothy leaned towards his father as he bit out each word for emphasis. "Dorcas Lane is more of a lady than any other woman I know who lays claim to the title. It does not matter to me where she comes from for she is the most splendid and, yes, beautiful, person I know, and I will be damned before I would ever say goodbye to her."

Sir Frederick was through with trying to be diplomatic. "Now you listen to me, Timothy Midwinter. You will be Squire one day and you will do your duty and marry a woman whom your mother and I will deem suitable for a man of your station. It is time for you to grow up! It will be your duty to take over this estate, marry well and produce an heir to follow in your footsteps. Once you do that, well, let us just say that it is not unheard of for a man to take a mistress if you refuse to give up your 'friend'."

Up until this point, Sir Frederick had only ever seen his son as a boy. But when those last words left his mouth his son seemed to physically grow in front of him. Timothy's anger was swift and frightening, and Sir Frederick found himself taking an involuntary step backward as this new man before him descended upon him and thrust his finger in his chest.

"If I ever hear you say another disrespectful word against Dorcas Lane, Father, so help me God I will walk away from this 'duty' and let my idiot brother have the honours!"

Sir Frederick's eyes bulged out of his head. "How dare you speak to me in such an insolent manner? You wouldn't last a week without my money, and, believe me, if you turn your back on your duties you will not be able to make it in this world for I will cast you out!"

As Timothy began walking away he threw over his shoulder, "Oh, I don't know about that, Father. I hear Mr Lane is looking for a new postman."

"You wouldn't dare!" Sir Frederick bellowed.

Timothy spun around and swiftly approached his father again, standing nearly nose-to-nose with him. "Oh, wouldn't I?" he ground out before turning on his heel and walking away.

Sir Frederick stood there a long time, shaking with anger, before slamming his way into the house where Lady Olivia stood waiting for him. "What on earth, Frederick…" she began.

He strode past her into his study where he quickly poured himself a drink. Lady Olivia watched as he gulped it down. "Well, what did he say?" she asked.

Sir Frederick shook his head and poured another drink. "It is worse than we thought."

Timothy rode his horse hard for a couple of miles after his encounter with his father to let his anger subside before seeing Dorcas. He knew he should not have spoken to his father the way that he did, but he could not stand by and let him speak of Dorcas in such a demeaning manner. He really had no desire to be burdened with being the heir to his father's estate in the first place. What he would not give to walk away from it all and spend the rest of his life with Dorcas at her father's Post Office, spending cosy evenings in their small home and filling it to bursting with their children. He even envied Queenie and Twister Turrill their meagre but uncomplicated lives in Lark Rise. Was it so wrong that all he wanted was a simple life fulfilled by the love of the woman of his own choosing?

But duty had been bred into him since the day he was born and he knew he would eventually have to apologise to his father. Perhaps by the time he came into his inheritance the world will have changed, becoming less stringent over class divisions and making whomever he married a non-issue. He only knew that the only woman he would ever want was Dorcas Lane, the daughter of a simple postmaster, and his very best friend in the whole world.

As he slowly approached the Post Office building he glanced up at the window of Dorcas's bedroom and was relieved to see that it was dark. That meant she was still downstairs somewhere for it was too early for her to have gone to sleep. Now, the question was how he was going to attract her attention, for it would be rather untoward for him to be calling on her at such an hour.

As he was contemplating this dilemma he was alerted to a sound coming from the shadows near the forge next door. Timothy dismounted his horse, and as he slowly approached the shadows he was surprised to find it was Dorcas who was sitting on the ground with her back against the wall. She appeared to be crying.

"Dorcas?" he called out softly.

She startled at the sight of him and quickly wiped her tears away before standing up. "Timothy, what are you doing here?"

"I wanted to speak to you. Dorcas, what is wrong? Why have you been avoiding me all week? Why didn't you meet me at Big Tree today?"

Dorcas could not bring herself to look directly at him so she looked down at her hands instead. "Nothing is wrong, Timothy. I just needed some time to myself."

"You are lying," Timothy growled.

Dorcas's eyes flashed up at him. "You are a fine one to accuse me of lying!"

Timothy stepped closer to her. "What is that supposed to mean?"

The words suddenly seemed to burst out of her. "All that talk about how you hated dancing and had no desire to meet those young ladies in the ballrooms…Well, now I know otherwise, Timothy."

"Dorcas, what on earth are you talking about? You are not making any sense!"

"Do not play innocent with me, Timothy Midwinter. I know all about it! You not only danced every dance but paid quite a bit of attention to one lady in particular-a Lady Wil-Wilhelmina, or something like that."

Timothy's mouth fell open and he just stared at her for a moment. "How did you…?"

"Your mother," she said as she folded her arms across her chest. "I accidently overheard her speaking to your father in one of the footpaths, and she was more than thrilled with your new 'conquest', as she called it. She even swore she saw you kissing this Wilhelmina, or whatever her name is, out on the balcony."

Timothy shook his head in disbelief. "No, Dorcas, you have it all wrong. I can explain!"

"I don't think so, Timothy. I heard your mother quite clearly."

Timothy's mouth twisted in anger. "I see. So I have been tried and convicted already, is that it? Well, perhaps you are right, then. Perhaps if you think me capable of such deception then I should just go ahead and court Lady Wilhelmina."

"Perhaps you should!"

"Fine, I will!" he shouted as he turned and walked quickly back to his horse.

"Fine!" she shouted back, and then burst into tears again as he galloped away.

She wasn't the only one who was in tears.

Timothy rode his poor horse even harder for nearly another hour before finally going home. He sought out his father and duly apologised to him for his earlier behaviour, and then slunk off to his bedroom where he spent the entire night propped up in his bed wide awake, contemplating why his relationship with Dorcas had suddenly gone so terribly wrong.

Sir Frederick was relieved to receive his son's apology. He had to grudgingly admit he was proud of the way Timothy had stood up to him. "At least he is no milksop, that one," he proclaimed to his wife. He even began to see the wisdom of his wife insisting on Timothy attending the Season in London sooner rather than later, for his son had been rather insulated from his peers living in the country all his life. No wonder he had formed such a strong bond with a woman of so little consequence as Dorcas Lane. But, Sir Frederick thought with satisfaction, as any man of his acquaintance could attest to, the best way for a young man to get over one woman was with another. And whilst in London, Timothy would have his pick of the best and most beautiful of the eligible young ladies in England.

Chapter 5

It was with a heavy heart that Dorcas made her way to Lark Rise to deliver a telegram to one of its residents. Earlier that day she happened to see Timothy and his parents ride through town in their carriage, trunks piled high, as they headed towards London once again to finish out the Season. Dorcas could not help but stand there in the street looking forlornly after the carriage as it grew smaller in the distance. And there was one moment when her heart leapt for she could have sworn that Timothy had turned and looked back at her. But she could not be for certain, and it may have only been his father looking back instead, or, most likely, just her imagination. In any case, Timothy was now gone and it left a big, gaping hole in the fabric of Candleford and an even bigger one in her heart.

Lark Rise was oddly quiet as Dorcas rode slowly through to her destination. The only person she saw was Queenie who was tending to the domed-shaped beehives behind her house. Dorcas waved to her and Queenie smiled and waved back, but then frowned with concern when she saw how sad and listless Dorcas appeared to be. Dorcas did not stop and Queenie suddenly wondered if the gypsy's reading was still plaguing the poor girl. If Dorcas returned the same way that she came then Queenie most certainly would stop her and try to get her to tell her what the gypsy had said. Queenie shook her head sadly for she pitied the poor, motherless girl who was now at an age when a girl truly needed a mother's ear and guidance. Perhaps she would be able to help her.

As it turned out, Dorcas did not return through Lark Rise after delivering her telegram. Instead, she left the pathway altogether towards a clump of trees at the edge of the hamlet for she felt a good cry coming on and she did not want anyone to see. She left her horse to graze and sat with her back against a small tree as her tears finally spilled forth. She felt horrible for having hurt Timothy so badly; for not trusting him, and for not letting him explain his side of the story. She chastised herself for letting a silly fortuneteller put distrustful ideas in her head in the first place and then eavesdropping on Timothy's parents. She knew Timothy and she knew he would never kiss her whilst courting another. Lady Olivia was so hopeful of Timothy making a good match that she probably saw what she wanted to see in London. Sir Frederick, too, was surely correct when he said Timothy's attentions to this Lady Wilhelmina were probably a charitable act. That sounded more like the Timothy she knew—always kind and thoughtful of other people's feelings. Oh, what a fool she had been to let her fears get the best of her and ruin her relationship with the boy she loved so dearly! But then, she realised as a dark thought crossed her mind, Timothy had never actually said that he loved her. He had never uttered those three most cherished words "I love you" to her. Did he love her as much as she loved him? Were all those kisses and stolen moments just practice for him until he found the real woman he was going to marry? Dorcas quickly tried to banish such wicked thoughts from her mind for the Timothy she knew, her very best friend since childhood, would never do such a thing to her. Of course he wouldn't. But there was still one more thing to consider that went beyond whatever Timothy might feel for her, and that was the fact that Sir Frederick and Lady Olivia expected their eldest son and heir to marry within his class. There was no getting around that one, and with renewed sorrow, Dorcas cried even harder and did not hear the approaching footsteps.

"Cousin Dorcas?" a gentle voice called out.

Dorcas started and then swallowed a sob as she looked up to see her young cousin, Emma, standing over her.

"Dorcas, what is wrong? Why are you crying?" Emma asked worriedly as she sat down beside her.

Dorcas quickly wiped her eyes. "Nothing, Emma, I am fine," she replied in a hitching voice.

Emma frowned at her. "You were crying your eyes out, Dorcas. You are definitely not fine!"

Dorcas shook her head. "It is nothing," she said again. "I am just being silly."

Emma threw her arm around her cousin's shoulders. "Is it about Timothy?" she asked softly.

Dorcas looked startled. "What makes you say that?"

"It is about him, isn't it? You are in love with him, aren't you?"

"Emma!" Dorcas exclaimed. "You are only fourteen years old, what on earth do you know of love?"

Emma gave her a serenely knowing look. "I knew it—you are in love with him! I could see it when you two were at the circus together. What happened? Did you have a fight?"

"Honestly, Emma, you have been reading too many novels! Besides, I-I really don't want to discuss it."

Emma went on as though she hadn't heard her. "He loves you, too, you know."

"No, I don't know, Emma, and neither do you!"

"Oh, but I do!" Emma persisted. "He had that look."

"What look? What are you talking about?"

Emma thought for a moment. "Remember that dying calf look Leroy Johnson used to get whenever he saw that milkmaid from Lowesley's farm?" She then imitated her idea of a 'dying calf' look and Dorcas couldn't help but smile.

"Yes, I remember."

"Well, that is exactly the same look Timothy gets when he looks at you."

"He does not!"

"Yes, he does! He only looks like that when you are looking the other way, though. That boy is as much in love with you as Leroy was with the milkmaid—and you know what happened between those two. I think they are about to have their fourth child!"

Dorcas shook her head again, but this time she was smiling. "Emma, you are too much!"

Emma settled herself more comfortably and pulled a large blade of grass to chew on whilst she thought. "Now that we have established that he loves you, what were you fighting about?"

Dorcas could see that Emma was going to be persistent, and besides, it really was helping her feel better to have someone in which to confide.

"Emma, you must promise not to repeat what I am about to tell you," she said firmly, wondering if she was doing the right thing.

"Cross my heart!" Emma said solemnly.

Dorcas began to cry again as she told Emma everything—from what the gypsy foretold to the conversation she overheard between Timothy's parents.

Emma, who fully believed in the gypsy, put her arm around Dorcas again. "Oh, Dorcas, I am so sorry. No wonder you are so sad. But did you not say the gypsy had more to tell you but you ran out before she could? Maybe she was going to tell you some happier news!"

Dorcas shook her head. "I don't think so. Nothing could ever make me happy again if Timothy marries someone else."

Emma was silent as she pondered what Dorcas had told her. "Well," she finally said, "as my ma is always telling me, don't go borrowing trouble. Timothy hasn't married anyone else yet and that gypsy might have been wrong."

Dorcas looked at her hopefully. "Do you really think so?"

If ever telling a little white lie was the right thing to do it was now, Emma thought to herself. "Of course I think so. Another thing my ma told me is to never trust a gypsy. And, Dorcas, one thing is for certain—if you give up on Timothy because of what the fortuneteller told you, then you will be making her prediction come true all on your own. So you mustn't give up yet!"

Dorcas suddenly smiled and gave her cousin a hug. "Thank you, Emma. How did you become so wise?"

Emma laughed as she returned the hug. "As you said, I read too many novels!"

Timothy left home filled with hurt and anger. Despite what Dorcas had overheard his parents saying, he had never once looked at another girl with any thoughts of romance in his mind. Why was Dorcas so quick to judge him without hearing his side of the story? Why was she suddenly so distrustful of him? All he knew was this all seemed to have started after the circus and, more specifically, after she came out of that gypsy's tent. What did that blasted gypsy tell her to upset her so?

Timothy kept his face averted as his family's carriage passed by the Post Office, but despite his determination to remain indifferent, he suddenly felt compelled to look back once they were halfway down the road. He simply could not help himself. Then he felt his chest constrict as he saw Dorcas standing in the middle of the road, just as he knew she would be, watching the carriage depart, and looking just as sad and miserable as he himself felt. He almost begged his father to stop the carriage so he could run back and say goodbye to her at least, but in the end he remained silent and turned reluctantly away from the window. Maybe London would be good for him. Seeing new faces might help him get his mind off the one face that would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.

Arriving the evening of the first ball, Timothy was happy to find his favourite cousin, Harriet, and her best friend, Lady Wilhelmina Havelstoke, waiting for him just inside the door of the ballroom. He and Harriet had grown up together, since they were the cousins closest in age, and Wilhelmina, or 'Willie', being Harriet's best friend, had often been present at many family gatherings. They had all become good friends through the years.

Timothy smiled and gave them a quick bow and the girls giggled as they gave him a little curtsy in return. Timothy then glanced around the room and spotted Lord Ravenscroft chatting with two other men whilst glancing covertly in Lady Wilhelmina's direction. Timothy immediately took Lady Wilhelmina's hand and kissed it whilst leaning flirtatiously close to her. "He is watching, Willie," he whispered as he gave her an overly bright smile. "Laugh as though I have said something incredibly amusing."

Willie did as she was told and threw her head back, laughing softly, whilst allowing her hand to remain in Timothy's.

Timothy threw a quick glance over to Lord Ravenscroft and smiled to himself when he saw the man scowling at them.

"I think it is working, Willie. Look at that scowl!" he whispered to the young lady.

"You are a dear for doing this, Timothy," Willie whispered back. "Serves him right to be so jealous after the way he treated me!"

Timothy gave her another jaunty little bow. "Happy to be of service, milady! Will I have the first dance again?"

"Erm, no. Believe it or not, Sir Henry asked me for the first dance just before you arrived. His wife appears to be not dancing this evening. Perhaps the second?"

"Second it is!" he said obligingly then turned to his cousin. "Well, Harriet, may I have the honour of this first dance?"

"Too late, Tim, I have already been claimed!" Harriet gave him a playful tap on the nose with her fan.

Timothy sighed and moved over to the wall as the two girls were swept to the centre of the room to begin their dance. He had no desire to dance with anyone else at the moment, and for that he had to endure his mother's glares as he stood alone. Finally, he drifted off to the long table at the end of the room for a glass of punch and tried not to think of Dorcas Lane. Instead, he tried to focus on his friend Willie's predicament. Three years his senior, Willie was like a big sister to him. Whilst not a beauty by conventional standards, she had a very sweet nature, was very amusing, and when one got to know what a wonderful person she was she grew in attraction. Lord Ravenscroft had discovered her qualities the Season before and had been calling upon her father's house quite frequently. He and Wilhelmina seemed to enjoy each other's company and often went for long walks together, despite a bit of a difference in age, for Lord Ravenscroft was perhaps fifteen years older than she. Then Lord Ravenscroft seemed to withdraw and before long his visits stopped altogether. This was a bitter blow to Wilhelmina, who was fully expecting an offer of marriage from him, and, at her age, knew she was nearly on the shelf with no other prospects forthcoming. Cousin Harriet had enlisted Timothy's help to provoke Lord Ravenscroft by pretending to court Wilhelmina himself. He was only too happy to help his friend achieve a successful marriage. Unfortunately, his parents believed otherwise, but in many ways this was good for him as well, for as long as his parents believed he was interested in Wilhelmina they did not demand he pay any particular attentions to the other young ladies. The only young lady he wanted and would ever want was Dorcas Lane, for there wasn't a single lady in this room, high born or not, who could compare to her. He already missed her terribly.

He sighed again and waited his turn to dance with Willie. If Lord Ravenscroft had an ounce of regard left in him for Willie then Timothy would do his best to wrench it out of him. Why Lord Ravenscroft stopped seeing Willie in the first place was a mystery to Timothy. After all, Willie was the eldest daughter of an earl and came with an impressive dowry. She was as good a match for his lordship as he was for her. And it was not as if he was courting anyone else, for he still stood to the side with the other men and did not dance. Perhaps there were other reasons, for Lord Ravenscroft's eyes seemed to follow Willie wherever she went.

Timothy chuckled. "Don't worry, Willie," he said to himself, "I am sure before this Season is over you will have Lord Ravenscroft eating out of your hand."

Unfortunately for Timothy, his prediction came true halfway through the Season and he lost his excuse for not paying attention to the other young ladies. Lord Ravenscroft, unable to bear seeing Wilhelmina so happy with Timothy any longer, marched up to her at the beginning of a ball in June and demanded to see her dance card. Willie watched with amazement as he scribbled his name in for every single dance and then handed it back to her with a look of great agitation in his eyes, and something seemingly of desperation. Later that night, Lord Ravenscroft sought a private audience with Willie's father and then he swept her out to a secluded balcony where he proposed marriage.

Harriet squealed and embraced Willie when she heard the news. Then both girls turned to Timothy and kissed his cheek, thanking him for his part in bringing Lord Ravenscroft to his senses.

"Now we must return the favour and find a nice young lady for you, Timothy!" Willie said with a gleam in her eye.

"Oh, no, please don't do that, Willie," he begged.

"Why ever not?" she frowned at him.

"I-I have no interest in finding anyone at this point in time," he stammered as his cheeks turned pink.

Harriet narrowed her eyes at him. "Is there something you are not telling us, Timothy? Has your heart already been captured?" she asked shrewdly and not without a bit of teasing.

"Don't be silly!" he huffed, but he suddenly found he could not look either her or Willie in the eye.

"There is someone, isn't there?" Harriet persisted.

"Who is she, Timothy, do we know her?" Willie chimed in, leaning forward with great interest.

"Please, ladies, I beg you not to play matchmaker with me. I am only here because my mother insisted I come. Besides, I will be returning to college this autumn and am nowhere near ready for marriage yet."

He looked away again, but not before his cousin saw an expression in his face that gave her pause. She saw pain in his eyes and realised he was not simply demurring when he said he did not want to be here. There must be someone he was already in love with, for she had never seen him looking so serious. Perhaps it was someone his parents did not approve of. She reached out and patted his arm reassuringly. "All right, Timothy. If you ever need advice, though, you do know I am always here for you. After all, you are my favourite cousin!"

"Thank you, Harriet," he said quietly.

Harriet and Willie exchanged worried glances and then decided to leave Timothy to his thoughts.

All Timothy wanted to do was go home.

Dorcas stood deep in thought behind the counter of the Post Office and barely noticed the handsome young man who came through the door. He cleared his throat to get her attention.

"Good morning, Miss Lane," he said politely.

"Oh! I am so sorry, Mr Farnsworth, I am afraid you caught me woolgathering!" she exclaimed with a little embarrassed laugh. "How may I help you?"

He placed his forearms on the counter as he leaned towards her and studied her face. "If you will forgive me, Miss Lane, you look a bit distressed."

Dorcas waved her hand dismissively and tried to summon up a smile. "Thank you for your concern, Mr Farnsworth, but I am quite well."

"Hmmm, if you say so," he said dubiously as he stood up straight again. "Well, I just thought I would stop by to see if that parcel I have been waiting for has arrived yet. I know you said you would have it delivered immediately when it did arrive, but I thought I would save your postman a trip if I could."

Dorcas smiled at him. "How very thoughtful of you, but I am afraid it still has not arrived. I am so sorry your trip was wasted."

He leaned forward on the counter again and smiled rather flirtatiously at her. "Oh, it wasn't a wasted trip at all, Miss Lane, for seeing you again is always a delight."

Dorcas's smile dimmed a bit and she leaned slightly away from him. "You are too kind, Mr Farnsworth. I will be sure to send the parcel to you immediately the moment it arrives."

The young man nodded. "Thank you, Miss Lane. Good day to you!"

"And to you, sir," she replied as he turned away.

Just before he reached the door, though, he paused and then turned back to the counter. "Miss Lane, I know just the thing to get your mind off your woolgathering. My father's stables are full again and there is more than one horse in desperate need of exercise. Would you consider riding with me this afternoon? I know a nice little mare that would be perfectly suited to you."

"Oh, Mr Farnsworth, that is very kind of you, but…"

"Please, Miss Lane, call me Oliver. Whenever you say 'Mr Farnsworth' I look around for my father."

"Oliver," she began again, "I do appreciate the offer. Your father raises the most beautiful horses! But I am afraid I would not be very good company today."

"Nonsense!" he replied. "I cannot imagine your company being anything less than delightful."

Dorcas sighed, wishing her father would come back from his errand and save her from this awkward situation. Not that Oliver Farnsworth was a bad fellow; in fact he had always behaved in a gentlemanlike manner towards her and seemed a genuinely nice young man. It was just a certain other young man dominated her every thought and there wasn't room for anyone else.

"Thank you, Oliver, but I really cannot go riding with you today."

"I see," he replied, looking disappointed, "perhaps another time?"

She shook her head apologetically. "I-I don't think so, Oliver."

"I see," he said again. "Well, just so you know, Miss Lane, I am not one to give up so easily. I hope you will reconsider—think of those poor horses that could do with the exercise!" He gave her a lopsided grin before heading out the door.

True to his word, Oliver came by every few days asking Dorcas to go riding with him, but she managed to turn him down each time. It seemed the more she turned him down the more persistent he became, and he began to find more creative ways to get her to agree to his request. One time, when she happened to be away from the Post Office when he called, he left a note with her father to give to her. She could not help but smile when she opened it for it contained two well-rendered drawings of a horse: One was of the horse looking quite trim and lively, and the other showed the same horse now quite fat and despondent looking. Underneath he had written: "See what has happened to the sweet little mare I had picked out for you because you would not help me exercise her?"

Dorcas shook her head and laughed. If her heart had not already been taken she might have given in to Oliver Farnsworth. After all, he was handsome and amiable, funny and sweet. His father, as his grandfather and great-grandfather had done before him, bred horses for a living. It was a successful and lucrative business. Everyone who was anyone bought their horses from Farnsworth Farms, which abutted the Midwinter estate on its east side. Oliver was the eldest son and would one day inherit the business and the land that came with it. There really was no reason why she should not be interested in him, except for one thing—he wasn't Timothy.

Dorcas sighed and her heart tightened in her chest as she thought of Timothy for the millionth time that day. He had been away now for two months and she had not heard a word from him. All she could picture in her mind was him dancing with, and perhaps even courting, all those beautiful young ladies in London, and it made her want to weep. He had probably forgotten all about her by now.

But nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, Timothy was so eager to get home and make up with Dorcas that he insisted on coming home a week early. Despite his anger with her he missed her terribly, for he had never been parted from her for so long. He missed her smile and the way her beautiful eyes would flash at him when he provoked her; he missed her laugh and her quick wit which never failed to make him laugh. But most of all, he missed their conversations and the way she felt in his arms. During the last ball he attended, he had overheard a group of young ladies, who were standing behind a large pillar and thus hidden from view, giggling and carrying on about a handsome young newcomer with whom they were dying to dance. They were behaving like such ninnies that Timothy felt heartily sorry for the poor fellow, whoever he was, until he realised, with mortification, that it was he of whom they were speaking. He closed his eyes and sighed. If these were the kind of ladies his parents wanted him to choose a wife from he could only consider it a fate worse than death. He had never wanted anything more in his life than to be back in Candleford kissing Dorcas under their tree, and he felt a pang of guilt for not even having written to her all the time he was gone. He could only imagine what she must think of him by now.

Timothy's mother, thinking her son's eagerness to go home was due to heartbreak over Lady Wilhelmina's engagement, finally agreed to leave London, and the Midwinters were now on their way back to Candleford.

After two days of rain, Dorcas stepped outside of the Post Office and breathed in the fresh, clean air, smiling as she raised her face to the sun. She stood there for a moment, enjoying its rays, until the nearing clatter of horses' hooves caught her attention. She turned to see Oliver Farnsworth approaching, leading a pretty little mare behind him.

"I thought if you actually saw Molly you would not be able to refuse her," he said with a grin.

Dorcas shook her head at him and smiled. "Oliver, you really are quite shameless, aren't you?"

"I am, I really am," he replied as he dismounted his horse and tied him to a hitch. Then he led the little mare to her. "Molly, this is Miss Lane. Miss Lane, this is Molly."

Dorcas laughed and petted Molly's nose. "I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Molly," she said. The mare nickered softly then gently nudged Dorcas in a show of friendliness, but the ground beneath Dorcas's feet, still slippery from the rain, caused her to slip and lose her balance. Oliver quickly grabbed her hands and steadied her.

"Oh, thank you, Oliver. Animals seem to be taking a liking to me lately for whatever reason," Dorcas said as she nearly slipped again. Then she felt a pang in her heart as she remembered Cupid and the laughter she and Timothy shared over the errant reindeer.

Oliver held tighter to her hands and laughed as he himself nearly slipped. "Oh, the reason is quite plain why they like you, Miss Lane," he said. "I understand it completely."

The sound of someone clearing their throat caused Dorcas to turn her head, and then her heart stopped in her chest. "Timothy!" she exclaimed. Realising she was still holding on to Oliver's hands she gently pulled them away. "W-When did you get home?"

"Only just," he said in a clipped tone. He gazed coolly from Dorcas to Oliver and then back again.

"Oh, forgive me," Dorcas said, remembering her manners. "Oliver, this is Timothy Midwinter. Timothy, this is Oliver Farns…"

"I know who he is," Timothy cut her off rather rudely, but he was in no mood to be polite.

"Midwinter," Oliver nodded to him.

Timothy ignored him as he kept his eyes on Dorcas. "I see you have kept busy since I was away," he said with a tight little smile.

Dorcas could practically feel the anger emanating off of him, and she suddenly felt her own rising to the surface. "Well, Timothy, the world does not stop just because you have been away looking for a wife now, does it?"

Oliver had been looking from Dorcas to Timothy with wide eyes. "I-I think I'll just be going now…"

"No!" Dorcas nearly shouted before she could stop herself, and then gave Oliver an apologetic look. "I mean, no, there is no reason for you to leave."

Timothy blinked at her. "Is that what you really think I have been doing, Dorcas?"

"Have you not?" she retorted. "How is Lady Wilhelmina, by the way?" She crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head as she raised an inquiring eyebrow at him.

Timothy's face darkened into a scowl as he realised she was still believing the worst of him. "Lady Wilhelmina is doing very well, thank you. Splendidly well, in fact. Well, don't let me keep you. Good day, Dorcas, Farnsworth." He gave them both a curt nod and then walked away.

Dorcas tried to keep the tears from forming in her eyes as she watched him go, and then she turned to Oliver, who was regarding her quite solemnly.

"Well, now I understand why you keep turning me down," he said softly.

Dorcas shook her head sadly. "No, Oliver you don't understand. Timothy and I have been friends since we were children, and now that we have grown up we both have to face reality."

"I see," Oliver said. "Well, I am sure you wish to be alone right now, Miss Lane. I will just take Molly home..."

"Oliver," Dorcas stopped him, "if you wouldn't mind, I think I would like very much to go riding with you today."

"Are you sure?" he asked hopefully.

"Yes, I am very sure."

He beamed at her as he helped her up on the mare and then mounted his own horse before they began heading towards the open meadows. Dorcas could not help glancing back as they rode away, though, and found Timothy had stopped walking and was now watching after her. She held his gaze for just a moment longer before turning away and urging the little mare into a gallop.

Timothy stood there with his hands balled into fists as he imagined the many ways he wanted to dismember Oliver Farnsworth. And as for Dorcas, he did not know whether he wanted to throttle her or kiss her senseless—probably both. Was she really interested in this Farnsworth fellow or was she just trying to make him angry?

He left his horse behind the Post Office and started walking. He did not know where he was going, but his mind and heart were in such turmoil he knew he needed to keep moving or risk combusting. He must have walked several miles before he realised he was heading towards Lark Rise. The sun beat mercilessly down on him until he finally loosened the collar of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. Then he trudged on with his head down, unable to get the image of Dorcas holding on to Oliver Farnsworth's hands out of his mind, until he threw his head back and yelled as loud as he could. He felt rather foolish hearing the sound of his own frustration echoing back from the gentle hills around him, and was very glad there was no one around to have heard him. Well, almost no one. A small figure came running down from the trees, and he groaned when he saw it was Dorcas's young cousin, Emma, who was looking rather frightened.

"Master Timothy!" she exclaimed when she spotted him. "I heard shouting. Are you all right?"

"Yes, Emma," he said with a sigh, "it was I who shouted. I am fine, I assure you. I am sorry to have frightened you."

Emma came closer and studied his face. "Why were you shouting?" she asked bluntly.

"Oh, it was nothing; I just needed to let out a little steam, that is all," he replied sheepishly.

Emma frowned at him. "There sure is a lot of 'nothing' going on wreaking havoc around here."

Timothy gave her a curious look. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing," she replied rather mischievously. Then, adopting an innocent air, she asked, "Have you spoken to Dorcas lately?"

Now he was getting suspicious. "Why do you ask?"

Emma shifted from foot to foot and then scratched the top of her head. "Well, it seems her 'nothings' seem to have a lot to do with your 'nothings' lately and I just thought…." Suddenly, she drew back and put her hand up to her mouth, pressing her lips tightly together.

Timothy saw her reaction and his hand shot out and gripped her arm. "You know something, don't you? You must tell me, Emma!"

"I-I cannot," she said with a shake of her head. "I promised I would not repeat anything she told me!"

"Please, Emma, I am going mad! I know it has something to do with that gypsy. What did she say to Dorcas to upset her so?"

He looked at her so pleadingly that Emma felt her resolve crumbling. She took his hand and led him to a low stone wall under the shade of a tree where she had him sit next to her. Then she gave him an almost pitying look. "All right, here is what I know: Madame Zelda told Dorcas that you were going to crush her heart and that she needed to prepare herself because you were going to marry someone else."

"What?" Timothy yelped, staring at Emma with disbelief. "But…but…that is preposterous! And since when does Dorcas believe in fortunetelling? Why would she believe such a thing from a gypsy, of all people?"

Emma looked at him sadly. "Perhaps she would not have believed it so much had she not overheard your mother saying you were courting a Lady Somebody-or-other."

Timothy groaned and stood up as he ran his hand through his hair. "She has it all wrong!"

"Does she? Well, then, don't you think you should explain it her, Master Timothy?"

"Believe me, I have tried, but she won't listen to me."

"Then you have to make her listen," she said firmly. Then she stood up and brushed the dirt from the back of her skirt. "I had best be on my way now, Master Timothy. You won't tell Dorcas that I told you, will you? She would never forgive me!"

Timothy shook his head absently as he was still trying to take in what she had told him. "No. No, of course I won't. And thank you, Emma."

Emma nodded to him. "Good luck, Master Timothy." She began walking back to the tree line, but then stopped and faced him again. "She is in love with you, you know," she said.

Timothy's head jerked up in surprise. "How do you know, Emma?"

Emma lifted her chin and gave him a knowing smile. "Oh, I just know. Now stop yelling at nothing and go talk to her."

"I will," he said softly, and then shook his head in wonderment at how a young chit of a girl like Emma had more wisdom than he. "I will do just that," he said to her retreating form.

Timothy walked quickly back towards Candleford. Now that he understood why Dorcas was acting the way she was, he was eager to do what Emma suggested and force her to listen to him. His heart began to feel lighter as he imagined this could all be cleared up once he made Dorcas understand he was not courting Lady Wilhelmina or anyone else. Then, he hoped, things could get back to normal again.

His pace quickened as he reached the edge of Candleford, but he stopped short when he spotted Oliver and Dorcas trotting up to the shade of some trees, laughing over something or other. Oliver helped Dorcas down from her horse and then suddenly pulled her into his arms and kissed her. That wasn't half as bad as when Timothy saw that Dorcas was kissing Oliver back. A rush of blinding anger and jealousy shot through him and it was all he could do not to rush up to them and beat Oliver to a pulp. Instead, he skirted around them and walked quickly to the back of the Post Office, where he stood with his back to the wall and waited.

It was nearly a quarter of an hour later when he finally heard Dorcas returning home. His anger simmered as he heard her say goodbye to Oliver, then he heard her footsteps approaching as she headed to the door that led into the kitchen. He had the satisfaction of seeing her jump when she spotted him leaning against the wall.

"Timothy! What are you doing here?"

"I was waiting for you. I was going to ask if you had a nice time, but I already know that you did."

He was sounding deceptively sweet and Dorcas looked at him suspiciously. "What are you talking about, Timothy?"

He pushed away from the wall and walked slowly towards her. "I was talking about that kiss, Dorcas. You must like Farnsworth a lot."

She had the grace to blush and he saw her swallow hard before summoning her bravado and forcing her chin into the air.

"Were you spying on me?"

"Not at all, I was merely returning from a long walk when I nearly stumbled over the two of you canoodling under the trees."

Her face turned even redder and she crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Why did you not make your presence known?"

"And interrupt such a tender scene?" he said mockingly.

When she did not answer he stepped even closer. "You should not be using poor Farnsworth like that, it isn't right."

Her eyes flashed up at him. "I am not using Oliver! I happen to like him very much!"

"Do you?" he said, his voice going deep and gravelly. "Is that what that kiss was about—how much you like him? Or are you just hiding behind him because you are scared to risk your heart with me?"

Dorcas shook her head and stepped back. "I am not going to stand here and let you judge me or Oliver or anything about us. You have chosen to court other women so why should I not see Oliver? Yes, I care about Oliver, and do you know what, Timothy? I think that scares you!"

She turned to walk away but he grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "So you are admitting you have feelings for Oliver, is that it? Tell me how he makes you feel, Dorcas. Is it the same way I do?"

She struggled in his grasp. "No!" she nearly shouted.

"He's safe, though, isn't he? You don't have to worry with him, do you? He's just good ol' safe Oliver."

"Stop it!" Dorcas cried. "I don't have to listen to this anymore!" She tried to pull away but he was too strong for her, and then his dark eyes bored into her own, pinning her to the spot like a butterfly in a display box.

"Tell me, Dorcas," he said, his voice growing more dangerous, "when he held you, did he make you feel like this?" He pulled her tight against his body and he saw tears forming in her eyes.

"No," she replied, her voice only a whisper.

"And when he kissed you," he continued and she tried to turn away from him but he took her face in his hands and forced her to look at him. "When he kissed you, did it feel like this?" He took her mouth with his own and kissed her with such intensity that he felt her slacken in his arms. Then she suddenly pulled back and tried to slap him, but he easily caught her hand and pulled her close again, causing her body to feel as though it had suddenly erupted in flames, and she could no more stop herself from kissing him back than she could stop the blood from moving through her veins. His hand cradled the back of her head as he continued to ravish her mouth, and then he abruptly pulled away, leaving her swaying in his wake.

"I didn't think so," he growled with what sounded like satisfaction before walking away and mounting his horse.

Dorcas finally came to her senses and glared daggers at him. "I never want to see you again, Timothy Midwinter."

"You don't mean that, Dorcas. I know it and you know it because that kiss just proved it. And you have it all wrong about me courting Lady Wilhelmina. She is my cousin's best friend and I was doing her a favour by pretending to court her to make this Lord Ravenscroft jealous enough to come back to her. I am happy to say the plan worked and she is now happily engaged to him to be married."

"Oh," Dorcas said in a small voice, her brow now furrowing with confusion. "But your mother…"

"My mother was wrong," he snapped. "I let her believe I was courting Wilhelmina so she would leave me alone about finding a wife."

"Oh," Dorcas said again, suddenly feeling ashamed.

"Yes, 'oh'," Timothy mimicked her. "How little faith you had in me, Dorcas," he said sadly, "but I won't keep you any longer. Good night." He nudged his horse's sides with his heels and rode away.

Dorcas excused herself early from dinner that night, feigning a headache so she could be alone in her room. She sat in the darkness by her window, looking out at the night sky as she thought of Timothy. Tears gathered behind her eyes and choked her throat as guilt flooded through her for hurting him; for having doubted his constancy. Her fingers strayed to her lips, reliving their kiss; an intense, almost brutal, kiss that awakened sensations in her she did not know existed before. Oliver's kiss had been very nice, but this…This that she had shared with Timothy had been soul altering. She knew part of his actions had been borne out of jealousy, but what did that mean? He still had not spoken of love. Was he simply being the typical territorial male or did he truly want her? There was only one way to know for certain and that was to go to him and find out how serious he was about her. They had spent all their young lives as the best of friends, and it was only natural that feelings had developed between them as well as a sense of possessiveness. But were they just trying to desperately hang on to their childhood affections, or could their bond survive the demands and expectations of their perspective adulthood?

Dorcas sighed for she already knew in her heart that she loved Timothy and always would, but his situation was much more complicated, and she had to find out what was more important to him—she or his duty to his future position? After overhearing his parent's conversation, she knew they would do everything in their power to persuade Timothy to adhere to his duties. Part of her told herself to let him go before her heart became irreparably damaged, and the other part told her that true love could conquer all. But before anything could be decided she needed to know what Timothy's true feelings for her were. Then they could face the future, whatever it might bring, together.

She never did go to bed that night. Instead, she watched the moon travel across the sky before sleep finally overtook her. And then she awakened the next morning, still in her chair, with the sun filling her eyes and the resolve to seek Timothy out that very day filling her heart.

Her father, unfortunately, had other ideas and kept her busy at the Post Office, either helping customers behind the counter or darting out to deliver a telegram or parcel from time to time. At last in the late afternoon she was free to go, and after freshening up and changing her frock, she set out on foot to the manor. Of course she would not go directly to the Midwinters' door, but she would wait under Big Tree, somehow knowing that Timothy would find her there. Perhaps she would invite him to dinner for she knew how much he loved Zillah's cooking. Yes, that is exactly what she would do. It was always best to discuss important matters with a man when his stomach was full and happy.

As she journeyed closer along a winding, hedge-lined path, she heard a voice approaching. It sounded like Timothy's and he wasn't alone. The tinkling sound of female laughter reached her ears as well, and it was too late for her to find a place to hide before Timothy, along with two ladies who were holding on to each of his arms, came into view.

Harriet, who happened to be one of the young ladies, felt Timothy's arm tighten around her own as he stopped abruptly. "Dorcas!" he exclaimed in such a way that Harriet gave him a curious look.

Dorcas, who looked rather like a deer caught in a hunter's sights, looked from lady to lady before directing an accusing stare at Timothy.

"Dorcas," Timothy said again as he disengaged his arms from his companions and stepped forward, "I did not expect to see you today."

"Obviously not," Dorcas replied barely above a whisper.

Timothy cleared his throat. "Please, allow me to introduce Lady Wilhelmina Havelstoke and my cousin, Miss Harriet Midwinter. Ladies, this is my good friend Miss Dorcas Lane."

All three ladies curtsied to each other whilst the two with Timothy stared at Dorcas with frank curiosity. Dorcas felt a pang of disappointment deep in her heart that Timothy would refer to her only as a 'good friend.' She felt she deserved at least 'my very dear friend', or, better still, 'the love of my life,' but she knew Timothy could never say such a thing in front of his cousin and their even higher-born friend.

"I am delighted to make your acquaintance," Dorcas said rather stiffly.

Harriet was now directing a questioning look at Timothy who was prompted to add: "Dorcas and I have known each other since we were eight years old. Her father is our Postmaster here in Candleford."

Harriet smiled at Dorcas, but before she could say anything Lady Wilhelmina raised her nose a bit as she regarded Dorcas. "The daughter of the Postmaster…how quaint," she said with a false smile.

Timothy was now looking quite uncomfortable and cleared his throat again. "Were you coming to see me, Dorcas?" he asked.

Dorcas's cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "Erm, no, I was just taking a walk—it is such a nice afternoon. I see you are doing the same."

Timothy frowned at her, knowing she was lying, but she had turned away from him and was now regarding Lady Wilhelmina. Both Lady Wilhelmina and Harriet Midwinter were dressed impeccably in the latest Paris fashions, and both sported expensively delicate parasols, obviously to keep the late summer sun from touching their flawless peaches and cream complexions. These were the kind of ladies that inhabited the world Timothy was born to, Dorcas realised with a sinking heart. She had always been quite fashionable herself by Candleford standards, but, standing next to these ladies of high society, she felt like a country bumpkin in comparison.

She shook herself from her musings for she realised Lady Wilhelmina was speaking again. "We were just convincing Timothy to accompany us to my father's estate for Papa is to hold a series of balls in honour of my recent betrothal."

"How nice," Dorcas replied without enthusiasm. "And may I offer you my congratulations, Lady Wilhelmina."

Lady Wilhelmina inclined her head. "Thank you, Miss Lane. We do so hope Timothy will join us for he has proven quite popular in the ballroom!"

Dorcas then directed her gaze at Timothy. "Has he?" she replied with a raised eyebrow. "Well, Timothy has always been nothing if not charming," she added with a smile that did not quite meet her eyes.

Lady Wilhelmina continued on enthusiastically, "Oh, yes, everyone adores our Timothy. He is most amusing! Every young lady seeks to add him to her dance card."

Timothy threw his eyes heavenward and sighed. "Really, Willie, I think you may be exaggerating just a bit, don't you think?"

Harriet, sensing Timothy's discomfort, and having a rather sneaking suspicion that she had just met the girl who kept her cousin from wanting to be the object of any matchmaking attempts, decided it was time to intervene. "I believe Papa is impatient to leave soon, Wilhelmina. You know he wanted to leave before it was dark. Do forgive us, Miss Lane. It was a pleasure to have met you."

Dorcas tried to smile for she sensed Harriet Midwinter was a genuinely kind person. "I would not dream of keeping you. And the pleasure was mine, Miss Midwinter. Good afternoon to you all."

Dorcas then walked quickly past them, wanting nothing more than to be out of their sight so she could wallow alone in her mortification, and not without a small amount of self pity. What a fool she was to even consider asking Timothy what his feelings were for her. Obviously, he could never acknowledge her as anything more than a friend, she was certain of that now. She had to be realistic and move on with her life, just as he seemed to be moving on with his. Perhaps she would ask Oliver to dinner instead. If nothing else, he could offer her a distraction from her gloomy thoughts.

As soon as she was out of sight, she slipped through the hedgerow and quickly made her way back home. The last thing she wanted was to encounter the little trio again.

Timothy deposited the two ladies back at the manor and then managed to excuse himself for a short time, pretending to have some urgent business to take care of. He knew Dorcas had been on her way to see him for she had been heading in the direction of Big Tree. He simply had to know what she wanted to say to him. After the way Wilhelmina had played up his popularity at the balls, he realised he could not blame Dorcas for being upset with him. And knowing her so well, he knew she would not have continued her charade of taking a walk but would have gone directly back home. He saddled his horse and rode quickly into town. He stopped abruptly, though, when he spotted Dorcas not far from the Post Office speaking to Oliver Farnsworth. His breath hissed through his teeth when he saw Oliver clasp her hands and then place a kiss on her cheek. "Thank you for the dinner invitation, Miss Lane, I will see you at eight o'clock!" he heard Oliver say.

Timothy felt anger rush through him again. How could she go back to Oliver after that kiss they had shared the day before? He knew by the way Dorcas had responded to his kiss that she felt just as passionately for him as he did for her, so what was she doing still carrying on with this Farnsworth fellow? After all, even though he had been dancing with other young ladies, he was only doing so out of politeness; he had pursued nary a one. But here was Dorcas allowing Oliver Farnsworth to court her.

"Hmmph," he muttered out loud. Well, if Oliver was whom she preferred then he was going with Harriet and Willie to the Havelstoke estate to enjoy the attentions of the young ladies who actually desired his company. It sounded childish, even to him, but at this point he did not care. He was not going to remain in Candleford to watch Dorcas carry on with Oliver Farnsworth under his very nose. He abruptly turned his horse around and headed back to the manor.

Chapter 6

Timothy was away for over a month.

On the ninth of September, Dorcas turned eighteen years old and she was never so miserable in her life. Every year since she could remember, Timothy had remembered her birthday. As a child he would mark the day by giving her a rather grimy bunch of wildflowers that he had picked himself from one of the meadows, and as he grew older he would make her funny little things, such as a whistle made of wood, or a crudely carved little pony or dog, always accompanied by one beautiful rose from his mother's garden. She looked forward to every birthday wondering what Timothy would come up with next. This year was different, though, and she was very sad to think that it would probably be the first year he would not acknowledge her birthday. So her heart leapt when a young man delivered a gorgeous bouquet of flowers addressed to her at the Post Office in the late afternoon. She eagerly opened the accompanying card only to feel her heart clench with disappointment to see that it was not from Timothy but from Oliver.

'My dear Miss Lane,' the card began, 'I apologise for not delivering these in person, but we have not one, but two mares that decided to foal today and, regretfully, Father needs my help. May I wish you the happiest of birthdays, and I hope to see you again real soon. Yours most faithfully, Oliver'

The flowers really were beautiful, but their vibrant colours suddenly seemed drab when tainted with disappointment. Still, she found a vase and filled it with water, and then placed the bouquet in the centre of the dining table. Then she went outside and took a long, listless walk, hoping to find some solace in the sunlight, which was already showing subtle signs in its lengthening shadows that autumn was just around the corner.

By the time she returned home, her father and Zillah were waiting for her to begin her birthday celebration. Zillah had prepared her favourite dinner and dessert, and her father held out two small, neatly wrapped boxes. Inside the first box, was an engagement and wedding ring set. Her eyes filled with tears as she took them out and placed them on her own ring finger, knowing to whom they had once belonged. They fit perfectly.

Her father cleared his throat. "Well, Dorcas, now that you are officially grown up, I wanted you to have your mother's wedding rings. I am sure you will marry one day very soon yourself and I know your mother would have wanted you to have them."

Dorcas gave her father a hug. "Thank you, Father, I will treasure them always!"

The second box held another ring; a lovely gold band with a beautiful, small, square onyx stone set within it. Dorcas gasped for she recognised the ring as the one her father had always worn on his right little finger. She looked up at him as a tear escaped down her cheek.

Her father cleared his throat again. "And that is from me to my beautiful daughter. I hope one day when I am gone, you will look down at these rings on your hand and remember your mother and me, and how much we loved you. I am so proud of you, Dorcas."

She found the ring fit perfectly on her middle finger, where she would continue to wear it for the rest of her life. Tears ran down her cheeks as she hugged him yet again. "Oh, Father, I love it! Thank you!"

"There, there, now," her father said as he patted her on the back. "Happy birthday, my girl."

Then they sat down and enjoyed a lovely meal. Dorcas did her best to eat as much as possible so no one would suspect that inside her heart was breaking knowing Timothy had forgotten about her and was probably at this moment dancing in the arms of some beautiful young lady.

But she was wrong. Shortly after they finished their dessert, a knock was heard at the door and Dorcas opened it to find yet another delivery boy with a long, narrow box in his hands. "Miss Dorcas Lane?" the boy asked.

"Yes, I am Dorcas Lane," she replied.

The boy handed her the box and tipped his cap to her before disappearing into the night.

Dorcas found a small card attached to the box, but before she opened it she took it to her room so she could have some privacy. Her hands trembled as she took the note out of its envelope and read it:

Dear Dorcas,

Well, today I cannot lord it over you that I am older and therefore wiser than you any longer, for we are once again the same age. But I could not let this day pass without wishing you a very happy birthday. I am sorry I could not say so in person, but I am still away from home.

I miss you, Dorcas. I miss our friendship. I hope we can always have that, at least, no matter what our futures may bring.

Happy birthday, my dearest friend!

Yours always,


Dorcas burst into tears as she held the card to her heart, and then she opened the box that came with it. Inside was one perfect red rose. Dew still clung to its petals as she took it out of the box and held it to her nose, breathing in its rich fragrance. Then she placed the rose and the card next to her bed and sighed contentedly. Timothy had not forgotten her.

It turned out to be a very happy birthday after all.

By the time Timothy came home again it was time for him to leave for college, but he could not leave without first seeing Dorcas. As he approached the Post Office he saw her standing outside talking with Oliver Farnsworth, and despite his attempts to be a friend and understand why she was seeing Oliver, jealousy raged through him. He frowned as he watched them laughing together, and then he saw Oliver clasp her hands for a brief moment before taking his leave. Timothy waited until Dorcas had gone back inside before approaching her.

"Hello, Dorcas."

Dorcas, who was now behind the counter but had bent down to look for something, looked up with surprise. "Timothy!" she exclaimed.

"How are you, Dorcas?"

"W-When did you get back?" she asked rather breathlessly.

"This morning. It is good to be back on my patch again."

"It is good to see you, Timothy. I hope you had a pleasant time at the Havelstokes'?"

"I did, thank you." He went silent for a moment as though searching for something to say. "I see Farnsworth is still about."

Dorcas blushed. "Yes, well, he is most persistent."

"I cannot say as I blame him. But as long as he makes you happy…."

"You are what make me happy!" Dorcas wanted to shout, but instead she replied, "He is a good man and has been a very attentive and kind friend to me."

"Well, I am happy for you, Dorcas. If he had been anything less than kind he would have had to answer to me."

"I am sure you have better things to do with your time than to worry about me, Timothy. I am sure you have made plenty of new friends now that you are getting out into society so much. But I imagine it must be difficult…"

"Difficult?" He gave her a puzzled look.

"Yes, with all those beautiful, wealthy young ladies it must be difficult to choose between them," she explained rather wistfully.

"Yes, some are quite beautiful indeed." He studied her face carefully as he said this and noticed a subtle wince in her expression which she did her best to hide. "But not one of them could hold a candle to you, Dorcas."

Dorcas turned away and pretended to sort through a small stack of letters. "Don't be ridiculous, Timothy, you were with ladies of the ton, they are sure to be the most beautiful in England."

"And dreadful bores," he added contemptuously. "I would bet my life that not one of them has ever climbed a tree or sat astride a horse in their life as you have."

"You mean, not one of them would have behaved as commonly as I," she said with a sigh.

He leaned across the counter and stared intently into her eyes. "There is nothing at all common about you, Dorcas Lane. You are the most unique woman I know."

Dorcas acknowledged him with a nod of her head. "Thank you, Timothy; I shall take that as a compliment."

"It was intended as one," he said, never taking his eyes off of hers.

"But let us not pretend that you are not going to choose your wife from amongst them," she said as her gaze slid away from his.

Timothy sighed. "If that is what you really believe, Dorcas, than I don't know what else to say, except I will be leaving for Oxford tomorrow to return to school."

"Oh," she said, unable to hide her disappointment, "so soon?"

"Yes, I promised my parents I would attend the autumn term as Father said, ever so eloquently, 'I will not have an ignoramus for an heir!'" He gave a derisive snort of laughter.

"Of course," Dorcas replied. "Yes, of course you must finish school. Will you be home for Christmas at least?"

"Yes, I believe so, unless Mother has me committed to attend a round of Christmas balls this year, which I would not put past her."

"Of course," Dorcas said again, suddenly feeling terribly depressed. "I guess this is goodbye for now, then, Timothy."

He covered her hand with his own for a brief moment. "Yes, goodbye for now, Dorcas."

"Timothy," she found herself calling out before he reached the door. "Thank you for remembering my birthday. The rose was beautiful. It…it meant a lot to me."

He smiled at her. "I am glad you liked it. And I could never forget your birthday, Dorcas. I still owe you a present, though."

She returned his smile. "Your remembering was a gift in itself."

He smiled again and then turned to leave.

"Timothy," she called out again, and he looked back at her with hopeful expectation.

"I…I think you are going to make a very fine Squire one day. We will be so lucky to have one such as you."

"Thank you, Dorcas," he replied, but disappointment dimmed his eyes. "Perhaps I will see you at Christmas."

"Perhaps you will," she said, then turned away before he could see the tears forming in her eyes. She heard the door close behind her and she gripped the counter to keep from weeping. "Goodbye, my love," she whispered to herself.

Just as Dorcas knew that Timothy would never be hers, she knew with equal certainty that she could never be Oliver's. He was a truly wonderful man, but he deserved a woman who would love him with all of her heart, and she knew that her heart would always belong to Timothy. It would be neither fair nor kind to allow Oliver to think otherwise, and she knew she would have to speak to him that very day and let him go as gently as she could before his attachment to her grew any stronger.

She sat at a little wooden bench near the edge of town knowing Oliver was due to pass that way, just as he always did, right before noon. As she waited for him, she sat leaning forward with her arms resting on her thighs and her hands clasped in thought. She knew she was being foolish turning away such a lovely man as Oliver Farnsworth. One day, probably very soon, Timothy would marry and he would be lost to her forever, and then where would she be? Would she spend the rest of her life mourning his loss or would she be able to let him go enough to let another man in? Chances were that she would end up a spinster; an old maid all alone with no one but a cat to keep her company. Or perhaps a dog. Yes, a lively little dog who would keep her too busy to feel lonely. But what about children? She would have liked to have been a mother some day, but that seemed an unlikely prospect now, too. She sighed dispiritedly. She had best make it two dogs and a cat to keep her company during the long, winter nights.

"Miss Lane?"

Dorcas jumped at the sound of Oliver's voice. "Oh, Oliver, I am sorry—I did not hear you approaching."

"I can see that," he chuckled. "Are you all right, Miss Lane? You seemed lost in thought."

"Yes, I am quite well, Oliver, thank you. Please, won't you sit down? I-I have something I need to say to you."

Oliver looked at Dorcas with concern as he sat next to her on the bench. Dorcas then took a deep breath and did her best to explain to him what was in her heart. When she had finished he sat quite still, looking down at his hands with a frown.

"I am so sorry, Oliver," she said with feeling. "You have been such a good friend to me and I would never, ever want to cause you pain. I can only hope that one day you will understand and forgive me."

He shook his head. "No, I do understand, Miss Lane. I think I knew the first time I saw you with Mr Midwinter. I guess I had hoped I could sway your heart over to me."

"Dear Oliver," she said as she clasped his hand, "somewhere out there is a young lady who has her whole heart to give to you, as you so well deserve. She will make you far happier than I ever could."

"Do you really think so?" he asked without conviction.

She gave his hand a squeeze. "I know so. And what a lucky girl she will be, too."

"Thank you, Miss Lane."

"No, thank you, Oliver. And please call me Dorcas—all my friends do, and I truly hope you and I can remain friends for a very, very long time."

He gave her a sad smile. "I hope so, too, Dorcas."

Then he stood up, and with a heavy sigh mounted his horse and said goodbye. Dorcas felt an overwhelming urge to cry as she watched him ride away, knowing at that moment she had chosen a life path filled with uncertainty. It was a very bleak feeling indeed.

Once he was out of Dorcas's sight, Oliver urged his horse into a gallop right out of town. Disappointment filled his heart for he had fancied himself in love with Dorcas Lane and had been considering asking her to marry him. It was a bitter blow to find she did not return his feelings. He was so eager to start a family of his own, but now he had to start all over again. He was sad, but now anger started to creep into his normally docile soul and he leaned over his horse, urging it on recklessly fast as he whipped around the curving, narrow path.

Suddenly, another rider was in his way and what followed was a confusion of rearing, screaming animals and one tiny rider who was thrown off her mount, landing on the ground with a loud "Oof!" and then silence.

Oliver was instantly off his horse and by her side. "Oh, miss! Miss! Are you all right? I am so sorry! Miss?" He took her hand and then patted her cheeks until her eyes fluttered open and she looked up at him with shock.

"W-What happened?" she asked, her deep blue eyes suddenly filled with fear.

"Oh, miss, I am so sorry. I came around the corner too fast and took your pony by surprise. I am afraid you fell quite hard. No, don't sit up just yet; I need to make sure nothing is broken. Can you tell me your name?" he asked gently.

"I-It's Jeanette…Jeanette White," she managed to say. Then her eyes grew wide with panic. "Bluebell! Where is she? Is she all right?"

"Bluebell?" he asked blankly.

"My pony! Oh, please, sir, could you find her for me and make sure she is not hurt?"

Oliver's heart warmed to the pretty, young lady whose first concern was for her pony and not herself. "Promise to lie still and I will fetch Bluebell for you." He gave her a reassuring smile and then ran off in the direction Bluebell had taken.

He found the dapple grey pony not far down the road, and it snorted and pawed at the ground as he approached. "Easy, girl, I am a friend, I promise," he said in a soothing voice until Bluebell, with a toss of her magnificent charcoal mane, finally let him take her reins.

Jeanette sat up when she saw Oliver leading her pony to her. "She is perfectly sound, Miss White, just a bit spooked is all," he told her. Then his breath stopped in his chest as she gave him a most dazzling smile of relief, and her hair, which had been hidden beneath her riding hat before it had taken flight in the fall, had come loose from its pins and was now cascading down her shoulders in great, golden waves. He just stared at her, nearly forgetting his own name, until she held out her hand to him.

"Please, sir, won't you help me up?" she asked.

Oliver gave his head a quick shake. "Of course, please forgive me." He hurried over and took her hands and helped her to her feet. She was quite petite, barely reaching his shoulders in height, and he forgot to breathe again as he stared into the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen in a woman.

Jeanette gave him a shy smile. "Thank you…erm, I am afraid I don't know your name, sir."

Oliver's cheeks turned red with embarrassment. "Do forgive me, Miss White, I am Oliver Farnsworth."

"Oh!" she exclaimed with recognition. "You must be one of the Farnsworths of Farnsworth Farms!"

"Yes, my father is the head of Farnsworth Farms," he said with a proud nod of his head.

"Bluebell herself was purchased from your father," she added as she reached out and patted her pony's nose.

Oliver laughed. "I thought she looked familiar! I hope you have been pleased with her."

"Very much so!" Jeanette enthused. "Bluebell and I have had many wonderful adventures together.

"I am very glad to hear it," Oliver said warmly.

They then went silent as they stood there smiling appreciatively at one another, and Oliver was pleased to see a rosy blush come over Jeanette's cheeks. He then clasped her hands fervently in his own. "Miss White, would you, perhaps, like to go riding with me sometime?"

Jeanette nodded her head and then dazzled him yet again with another smile which made his heart race in his chest. "I would like that very much, Mr Farnsworth. When shall we do so?"

He grinned broadly. "How about right now?"

She grinned back at him. "I would be delighted!"

Chapter 7

Timothy had a terrible time concentrating at Oxford. His mind refused to stop travelling back to Candleford and to a certain Post Office. He wondered if Dorcas was still seeing Farnsworth, and the longer he was away, not knowing what was going on back home, the more it was driving him mad. He glanced down at the block of wood in his hand and picked up one of the carving tools that Dorcas had given to him on his birthday, for he had brought them with him to Oxford. He still owed her a birthday present, however late, and whilst he knew she was now too old for little wooden animals, he could not resist carving one more for her. He smiled, for he knew exactly which animal he would carve for her this year. Hopefully, with his new, superior tools, it would be a more identifiable creature than the last ones were.

Back in Candleford, Dorcas sighed as she leaned on the counter of the Post Office and stared blankly out the window. A light mid-December snowfall had arrived, but she barely noticed the gently drifting flakes passing by the window for her mind was most definitely elsewhere. She wondered if Timothy would be home soon from Oxford or whether his mother would be whisking him off to the Christmas ballrooms. She smiled as she remembered the previous winter when she had pelted him with snowballs until he chased her down and kissed her senseless. Oh, how she wished she could look forward to such another snowball fight with him! But chances were that she would never again feel his lips upon hers. She felt tears stinging her eyes thinking of him kissing someone else; some other young woman who might one day become his wife. It made her sad, and it made her angry. In fact, the more she dwelt on it, the more irrational her anger became towards Timothy, even though she knew this had all begun with her own self doubts, and doubts of his depth of attachment to her.

It did not help that even Zillah was feeling Timothy's absence. She heaved heavy sighs many an afternoon, especially when she made a fresh batch of scones or tried a new recipe. "I surely miss Master Timothy," she would lament. "How dull it is without his popping in for a chat. Did you two have a spat?"

Dorcas reminded Zillah that Timothy was away at college.

"Hmmph," Zillah muttered. "That does not explain his absence all summer. It was probably you carrying on with that Farnsworth fellow that drove him away."

"Zillah! I hardly think it is any of your business to speculate on the reasons for Timothy's absence! I am sure he now has more important things to do than while away the hours at the Post Office."

"Hmmph," Zillah said again, but she held her tongue.

Finally, Dorcas could stand it no longer and she took the Squire's private postbag herself to the manor the very next day, hoping to find out Timothy's whereabouts. The butler, one Mr Simms, answered her knock, and as he took the postbag from her she asked as discreetly as possible after Timothy.

"Master Timothy is quite well, Miss Lane," Simms replied. "He is away enjoying the holiday festivities with his cousins at the moment, but we do expect the family back by Christmas Eve."

"Thank you, Simms," Dorcas said, trying not to look as crestfallen as she felt. She knew his cousins were mostly female and extremely fond of hosting balls at their home. No doubt they were eagerly introducing Timothy to every eligible young lady they knew.

She gave a nod to the butler then squared her shoulders and returned home.

Timothy hated being away from Candleford this time of year. Whilst away at school he resolved to have it out with Dorcas once and for all. He loved her; it was as simple as that, her relationship with Farnsworth notwithstanding. He was not going to let her go without a fight, and he was going to make sure she understood that if it was the last thing he would ever do. But now he was stuck miles from home at another insufferable ball. His cousin Harriet came and stood next to him.

"You don't seem to be having a good time, dear cousin," she said as she linked her arm through his.

He patted her arm. "It is a lovely party, Harriet. I have just been away from home for so long that I am missing my patch, I'm afraid."

Harriet nodded as she watched the couples dancing past them. "I imagine it is more than just your patch you are missing, Timothy—perhaps a certain young lady as well? I have noticed that you have barely danced all evening."

Timothy glanced quickly down at her. "Whatever do you mean, Harriet?"

"Do not play coy with me, cousin," she admonished him. "I saw the look on your face when we met Miss Lane during our walk last summer. And I saw the way she looked at you. Is there something you wish to tell me, Timothy? Is she the reason you are refusing to dance?"

"Really, Harriet, your imagination knows no bounds."

"You are avoiding my question, Timothy."

"Yes, I suppose I am," he said, giving her a little tap on the tip of her nose.

Harriet rolled her eyes at him. "You are impossible!"

"And here I was just about to ask you to dance," he said with an exaggerated sigh.

"You were not!" she couldn't help but laugh.

"I was!" he insisted, and then he pulled her to the dance floor to prove it.

Finally, two days later, Timothy breathed a sigh of relief as his family's carriage rolled up to the manor the night before Christmas Eve. He bolted up to his room and threw his bags into the corner. He would unpack them later. For now, he lit a candle at his desk and pulled out the little carving he was making for Dorcas. Just a few more touches, and it would be finished. He smiled as he gazed down at his handiwork. The tools Dorcas had given to him had been just what he needed to finally made something he could be proud of. In his hands now was a perfect little replica of Cupid the reindeer. He had even carved its name on the mantle around the reindeer's neck. He hoped it would make Dorcas smile and remember the laughter they had shared before everything went so terribly wrong. He could not wait to give it to her on Christmas Eve. As a finishing touch he attached a little red ribbon to the reindeer so that Dorcas would be able to hang it from her Christmas tree. Then he fell into bed, hoping to fall asleep quickly so the morrow would come even sooner.

The next day, just before noon, Timothy rode into town with Cupid in his pocket. His heart began to beat faster in his chest in anticipation of seeing Dorcas again. He just knew she would be happy to see him and then they both could be happy again. But then, just as he neared the Post Office, his horse's gait became erratic, and he looked down to see a shoe had come loose from one hoof. "Bother!" Timothy exclaimed as he hopped off the horse and led it towards the forge.

"Hello there!" Timothy called out to the young apprentice named Matthew, who looked up from his work before quickly coming over to him.

"How may I help you, Master Timothy?" Matthew asked.

Timothy nodded to his horse. "My horse is about to lose a shoe. Can you fix it for me as soon as possible?"

"Yes, sir, I can do it for you right now, in fact-it should only take a few minutes."

"Excellent. Thank you, Matthew."

As Timothy stepped away to wait for his horse, he spotted Dorcas leading her own horse away from the Post Office. Before he could call out to her, he saw Oliver Farnsworth approach and clasp Dorcas's hands whilst he spoke rather excitedly to her. Timothy strained to hear what they were saying but he could not make anything out. Dorcas was smiling at Oliver, though, which made Timothy's heart twinge with jealousy again, and then Oliver bent down and kissed her on the cheek before waving goodbye and walking away. Timothy's hands were balled into fists as he started to make his way towards Dorcas, only to be stopped by a little girl wanting to sell him mistletoe.

"Please, mister, just a penny a sprig!" the child pitched hopefully. Timothy dug quickly into his pocket for a coin only to be accosted by a second child, this time a little boy, with his own batch of mistletoe. "Hey!" the boy said to the girl. "This is my corner! I get to sell him my mistletoe!"

As the children argued, Timothy saw that Dorcas had heard the commotion and was now looking over at them. He tried to push his way past the children but they each grabbed on to his coattails, unwilling to give up their pennies.

"Look," he said impatiently to the tenacious little salesmen, "if I buy all of your mistletoe will you two leave me alone?"

They both nodded excitedly and their eyes widened as he gave them each a shilling. Then they held their baskets up to him, and he sighed as he filled his pockets with the mistletoe.

Finally, he was able to make his way to Dorcas who did not look quite as happy as he expected her to look. She raised an eyebrow at him and said rather waspishly, "I see you have bought an ample supply of mistletoe, Timothy, for what I assume is for your many new girlfriends. There must be another ball tonight."

Timothy frowned. She had some nerve to act the jealous lover when she had been Little Miss Friendly with Oliver Farnsworth only moments before!

"Yes, as a matter of fact, that is exactly why I bought it all!" he said with a scowl.

Dorcas just tossed her head and continued leading her horse down the road.

Timothy fell in step next to her. "This one, for example," he said as he held up the first sprig of mistletoe, is for Miss Lucy for she is particularly amusing."

Dorcas kept her eyes straight ahead as she attempted to ignore him, but he pushed another sprig in front of her face. "And this one is for Miss Patricia because she is the most divine dancer. And this one, oh, yes, this one is definitely for Miss Christine because she granted me such a kiss at the last ball I attended that I could not think straight for an hour, or was that Miss Charlotte? Come to think of it, it might have been Miss Maggie. I cannot remember now, there have been so many."

Dorcas continued walking but her cheeks were now flushed and her breathing began to sound ragged.

"Oh, yes," Timothy continued, "the only dilemma I have now is which young lady do I love most of all? I am hoping with each kiss to find my answer tonight. I just hope I have enough mistletoe."

Dorcas finally stopped walking and whirled on him with tears in her eyes. "Good for you, Timothy! Good for you!" she cried, and with a sob sprang up on her horse and galloped as fast as she could out of town.

Timothy swore under his breath and ran over to the forge. "Is my horse ready yet, man?" he yelled to Matthew.

"Yes, Master Timothy, he's ready to go," Matthew replied.

Timothy tossed him a coin and quickly mounted his horse, spurring the creature on faster and faster as he tried to catch up to Dorcas.

Somehow, he instinctively knew where she was heading, and sure enough he spotted her horse near Big Tree, with Dorcas herself standing with her forehead pressed to its trunk and her shoulders shaking with tears.

He jumped off his horse and ran up to her, taking her shoulders in his hands. "Dorcas, please don't cry," he said gently. "I did not mean what I said back there. I only said it to vex you."

"Leave me alone, Timothy!" Dorcas sobbed, keeping her face to the tree.

"Never," he growled as he turned her around to face him, and then his heart twisted to see the sorrow in her face. "Dorcas, you have to know—you must know!—how desperately I am in love with you!"

She tried to push him away. "No, you're not. You are in love with Lucy, and Patricia, and Christine, and Charlotte; women you are supposed to be in love with."

She began to cry again and Timothy pulled her to his chest. "No, no, I made them up, Dorcas. There is no other woman but you. I just said those things because I saw you with that Farnsworth jackanapes and it nearly drove me mad with jealousy."

Dorcas's voice hitched in her throat as she tried to stop her tears. "When you saw me with Oliver just now he was telling me of his engagement to a Miss White and how happy he was, that is all. Oliver and I are just friends."

"Oh," Timothy replied, suddenly feeling like the biggest heel in the world.

She looked up at him. "But what about all those young ladies you have been dancing with? You are bound to fall in love with one of them, Timothy, how could you not? They are rich and beautiful and proper ladies; the kind of ladies your parents want you to marry."

Timothy smiled gently at her as he bent and kissed a tear from her cheek. "No, darling, there was not one lady I danced with whom I did not wish was you in my arms. Besides, the prettiest lady so far at any of the balls was six-foot-two with a wart on her chin."

Despite her tears, the corners of her mouth began to twitch and then she began to smile. "You are terrible," she said as she wiped her face with the back of her hand.

"But it is true," Timothy said as he took his handkerchief and wiped the rest of her tears away. "She was such a large woman she tossed me about the ballroom like a rag doll. I began to fear for my life."

Dorcas sniffed loudly and then began to giggle. "Stop making up stories, Timothy, I am sure she was nothing of the kind!"

"No, the point is she was nothing like you. No one can compare to you, Dorcas. No one ever will compare to you." He was serious now as he looked into her tear-swollen eyes, the most beautiful eyes he would ever behold. "You are the only woman I will ever love, Dorcas Lane. I have always loved you. I think the very first time I met you, even though just a little boy, I knew in my heart I had met the girl I would love for the rest of my life."

Tears began to flow down her cheeks again and he bent down and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.

"Oh, Timothy," Dorcas cried as she kissed him back. "I love you, too. I thought I was going to go mad every time your parents took you away to one of those balls. I thought I was losing you."

"No, never!" Timothy replied vehemently, pulling her tightly to him. She began to cry again, this time with happy tears as she held him tight. "Shhh, my love, no more of that now," he said as he kissed her forehead. "Look, darling, I made you something. It was to be a late birthday present but I guess it is more appropriately a Christmas present now."

He pulled the little reindeer out of his pocket and held it out to her. Dorcas's mouth fell open and her eyes widened with delight as she took it in her hand. "Why, it's Cupid!" she laughed. "Oh, Timothy, it looks just like him!"

"At least you did not mistake it for a dog this time," he said with a roll of his eyes.

"No, he is perfect! Oh, I love him!" Dorcas clutched the little figure to her chest and looked adoringly up at Timothy.

"And I love you," Timothy said just as adoringly. "You will always be my girl, Dorcas Lane."

Dorcas reached up and caressed his cheek. "And you will always be my young man, Timothy Midwinter."

Timothy grinned down at her. "Now that we are perfectly clear on that point," he pulled out a little piece of greenery from his pocket, "what am I to do with all this mistletoe?"

Dorcas's eyes flashed wickedly at him as she pushed his hand that held the little sprig up over her head. "I think I can think of a thing or two we can do with it," she whispered rather naughtily in his ear.

A low rumble of laughter escaped from Timothy as he bent down and took her lips with his own…

And they did not stop kissing until every single piece of mistletoe had been held over her head...

Timothy leaned back and took Dorcas's face in his hands. "You see, darling, we still remember everything from that incredible year so long ago. We don't need Cupid here to remind us."

"I know," Dorcas said softly, "but it was the first time you told me that you loved me, Timothy, and Cupid was a part of that."

"Yes, well…" Timothy looked down at his hands and frowned in thought before looking up at her again. "It was strange how that gypsy's fortune ended up coming true, though, wasn't it? Everything she said did happen. I wonder what more she would have told you before you ran out of her tent?"

Dorcas shook her head. "I did not want to hear another word from that woman's mouth," she said with a shudder. "Besides, I like to think it was my wish whispered to Cupid that day at the circus that made my dreams come true, despite anything that soothsayer could have predicted."

Timothy smiled down at her. "I thought you did not believe in such things as soothsayers and magic reindeer. What was it that you whispered in that silly reindeer's ear, anyway? You never did tell me, Dorcas."

Dorcas put her arms around his waist and smiled up at him. "I told him my Christmas wish was for you to be mine forever."

He grinned and pulled her closer. "Did you, now?"

"Yes, I did, and even though that gypsy's prediction did come true, that you did marry another, it was my wish to Father Christmas through Cupid that brought you back to me."

Timothy chuckled. "You really are giving that reindeer an awful lot of credit, darling. It could not have been I having anything to do with coming back to you, could it?"

Dorcas's eyes were now teasing. "Oh, no, it was all Cupid's doing. Now do you understand why he means so much to me?"

"I do, darling, and we will find him, I promise," he said as he placed a kiss on her forehead. "Now, I think it is time you and I went to bed and maybe Father Christmas will grant my wish as well!"

"Oh, and what did you wish for, Timothy?"

He pulled her towards the stairs. "Come with me and you will find out!"

"Ma? Papa? We're back!" Abby's voice cried out in the foyer as Sydney followed behind with Little Timothy in his arms.

Benjamin came galloping down the stairs to greet them and Little Timothy squealed when he saw his uncle.

"Hi, Abby! Hi, Syd!" Ben greeted them happily as he took his nephew from Sydney and flipped him over his head and onto his shoulders. Then he zoomed around the room, making Little Timothy shriek with laughter.

"Hello, Ben," Abby said with a smile as she watched her little brother play with her son. She was just about to ask where her parents were when Dorcas appeared at the top of the stairs and Timothy stuck his head out of his study.

"Oh, Abby, Sydney, you're home!" Dorcas exclaimed happily as she made Benjamin hand over her grandson so she could smother him with kisses. "How was Christmas with your Pa, you two?"

"We had a wonderful time, Ma," Sydney replied. "But we sure did miss being here with you all on Christmas Day."

"And we missed you, too," Dorcas replied as Timothy came and plucked his grandson out of her arms.

"Oh, Ma, before I forget," Abby said as she took the baby's bag from Sydney's shoulder and rifled through it, "I believe we have something that belongs to you."

"Oh?" Dorcas asked with raised eyebrows.

"Yes, I am afraid Little Timothy must have pilfered it the night we were here before Christmas Eve. I found it that night in his cot whilst he was sleeping." She finally found what she was looking for in the bag and held it out to her mother.

Dorcas's hand flew to her mouth and she suddenly burst into tears when she saw it was a familiar little reindeer. She could only take him in her hand and press him to her heart.

Timothy put his arm around her. "You see, darling? I told you he would find his way home!"

"I am so sorry, Ma, I had no idea it meant so much to you or I would have brought it back right away. Little Timothy must have put it with his other toys that night before we could catch him taking it off the tree."

"No, it is all right, darling. He has been found and that is all that matters. Your father made him for me, you see, when we were younger than you are now. I can understand why Little Timothy was drawn to him. Thank you for bringing him back to me."

"Of course, Ma," Abby said gently, surprised at the amount of emotion the little wooden object evoked from her mother.

"I remember that little reindeer, Ma," Sydney added. "I remember you and Sir Timothy hanging it on the tree that first Christmas Abby and Sir Timothy spent with us."

They all smiled at the little creature, and then Dorcas walked over to the Christmas tree and hung it reverently from one of its branches—this time much higher up and out of Little Timothy's reach.

Then Abby took Sydney's hand and smiled shyly at them all. "There is another reason why we came by today. Sydney and I have some news we would like to share."

Dorcas and Timothy looked expectantly at them, and Sydney's eyes were shining as Abby took a deep breath. "We are having another baby!"

"Oh, my darlings, that is wonderful news!" Dorcas exclaimed as she flew to Abby and gave her a hug. Then she hugged Sydney as Timothy took his turn embracing his daughter.

"I am going to be an uncle again?" Ben asked excitedly.

Abby laughed and ruffled his hair. "Yes, Uncle Ben, you are going to have another nephew or niece to spoil."

"Brilliant!" Ben said happily as he grabbed his nephew again and tossed him into the air.

"It really is the strangest thing…" Abby began.

"What is, darling?" Dorcas asked.

"Well, just recently I was wishing with all my heart to have another baby soon. And then, when we were with Pa over Christmas, I somehow just knew my wish had come true! The moment we got home I went to see Doctor Armstrong and he confirmed my suspicions. It is the best Christmas present I could have asked for!"

Dorcas's eyes widened as she looked at her daughter. "Abby, I know this is going to sound like an odd question, but when exactly did you make this wish?"

Abby gave her a curious look then thought for a moment. "Well, let's see…it was the night we spent here for Christmas. We had just come home and I had put Little Timothy to bed. I remember standing there watching him sleep—my precious little boy—and I suddenly wanted desperately to have another baby. I believe I even said it out loud, asking Father Christmas to bring me a baby! Isn't that the silliest thing? But my wish really did come true!"

Dorcas suddenly looked like she was going to cry again. "No, darling, that was not silly at all. And you said you found Cupid in Little Timothy's cot?"

"Yes, I found him that night, in fact. Little Timothy was clutching him in his hand."

Dorcas began to laugh, and she reached out and took Timothy's hand as she looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "Do you know what, darling?" she said to him.

"What is it, my love?" He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

"Oh, Timothy, I think I believe in magic after all!"

Timothy began to laugh, too, as he pulled her into his arms. "So do I, darling, so do I."

The End


"My Young Man: A Dorcas and Timothy Christmas" is an amateur, not-for-profit publication produced solely for the fans of "Lark Rise to Candleford". It is not intended to infringe upon any rights held by the BBC or the estate of Flora Thompson.

I would like to thank each of you for taking the time to read my story, with special thanks to those who left reviews.