Emily Radley stood in the center of her magnificent drawing room and considered where she should have the Christmas tree placed so that it would show to the best advantage. The decorations were already planned: the bows, the colored balls, the tinsel, the little glass icicles, and the red and green shiny birds. At the foot would be the brightly wrapped presents for her husband and children.
All through the house there would be candles, wreaths and garlands of holly and ivy. There would be bowls of crystallized fruit and porcelain dishes of nuts, jugs of mulled wine, plates of mince pies, roasted chestnuts, and, of course, great fires in the hearths with apple logs to burn with a sweet smell.
The year of 1895 had not been an easy one, and she was happy enough to see it come to a close. Because they were staying in London, rather than going to the country, there would be parties, and dinners, including the Duchess of Warwick’s; everyone she knew would be at that dinner. And there would be balls where they would dance all night. She had her gown chosen: the palest possible green, embroidered with gold. And, of course, there was the theater. It would not be the same without anything of Oscar Wilde’s, but there would be Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and that was fun.
She was still thinking about it when Jack came in. He looked a little tired, but he had the same easy grace of manner as always. He was holding a letter in his hand.
“Post?” she asked in surprise. “At this time in the evening?” Her heart sank. “It’s not some government matter, is it? They can’t want you now. It’s less than three weeks till Christmas.”
“It’s for you,” he replied, holding it out for her. “It was just delivered. I think it’s Thomas’s handwriting.”
Thomas Pitt was Emily’s brother-in-law, a policeman. Her sister, Charlotte, had married considerably beneath her. She had not regretted it for a day, even if it had cost her the social and financial comforts she had been accustomed to. On the contrary, it was Emily who envied Charlotte the opportunities she had been given to involve herself in some of his cases. It seemed like far too long since Emily had shared an adventure, the danger, the emotion, the anger, and the pity. Somehow she felt less alive for it.
She tore open the envelope and read the paper inside.
I am very sorry to tell you that Charlotte received a letter today from a Roman Catholic priest, Father Tyndale, who lives in a small village in the Connemara region of Western Ireland. He is the pastor to Susannah Ross, your father’s younger sister. She is now widowed again, and Father Tyndale says she is very ill. In fact this will certainly be her last Christmas.
I know she parted from the family in less than happy circumstances, but we should not allow her to be alone at such a time. Your mother is in Italy, and unfortunately Charlotte has a bad case of bronchitis, which is why I am writing to ask you if you will go to Ireland to be with Susannah. I realize it is a great sacrifice, but there is no one else.
Father Tyndale says it cannot be for long, and you would be most welcome in Susannah’s home. If you write back to him at the enclosed address, he will meet you at the Galway station from whichever train you say. Please make it within a day or two. There is little time to hesitate.
I thank you in advance, and Charlotte sends her love. She will write to you when she is well enough.
Yours with gratitude,
Emily looked up and met Jack’s eyes. “It’s preposterous!” she exclaimed. “He’s lost his wits.”
Jack blinked. “Really. What does he say?”
Wordlessly she passed the letter to him.
He read it, frowning, and then offered it back to her. “I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to Christmas at home, but there’ll be another one next year.”
“I’m not going!” she said incredulously.
He said nothing, just looked at her steadily.
“It’s ridiculous,” she protested. “I can’t go to Connemara, for heaven’s sake. Especially not at Christmas. It’ll be like the end of the world. In fact it is the end of the world. Jack, it’s nothing but freezing bog.”
“Actually I believe the west coast of Ireland is quite temperate,” he corrected her. “But wet, of course,” he added with a smile.
She breathed out a sigh of relief. His smile could still charm her more than she wished him to know. If he did, he might be impossible to manage at all. She turned away to put the letter on the table. “I’ll write to Thomas tomorrow and explain to him.”
“What will you say?” he asked.
She was surprised. “That it’s out of the question, of course. But I’ll put it nicely.”
“How nicely can you say that you’ll let your aunt die alone at Christmas because you don’t fancy the Irish climate?” he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle, considering the words.
Emily froze. She turned back to look at him, and knew that in spite of the smile, he meant exactly what he had said. “Do you really want me to go away to Ireland for the entire Christmas?” she asked. “Susannah’s only fifty. She might live for ages. He doesn’t even say what’s wrong with her.”
“One can die at any age,” Jack pointed out. “And what I would like has nothing to do with what is right.”
“What about the children?” Emily played the trump card. “What will they think if I leave them for Christmas? It is a time when families should be together.” She smiled back at him.
“Then write and tell your aunt to die alone because you want to be with your family,” he replied. “On second thoughts, you’ll have to tell the priest, and he can tell her.”
The appalling realization hit her. “You want me to go!” she accused him.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Christmas Grace by Anne Perry. Copyright © 2008 by Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.