"I do not accept it!” Mariah Ellison said indignantly. It was intolerable.
“I am afraid there is no alternative,” Emily replied. She was wearing a beautiful morning dress of pale water green with fashionably large sleeves and a sweeping skirt. With her fair coloring, it made her look prettier than she was, and having married money she had airs above her station.
“Of course there is an alternative!” Grandmama snapped, staring up at her from her chair in the withdrawing room. “There is always an alternative. Why in heaven’s name should you wish to go to France? It is only a week and a half until Christmas!”
Emily sighed deeply. “We have been invited to spend Christmas in the Loire valley.”
“Where in France is immaterial. It is still not England. We shall have to cross the Channel. It will be rough and we shall all be ill.”
“I know it would be unpleasant for you,” Emily conceded. “And the train journey from Paris might be tedious, and perhaps cold at this time of year . . .”
“What do you mean perhaps?” Grandmama snapped. “There is no possible doubt.”
“So perhaps it is as well that you were not invited.” Emily gave a very slight smile. “Now you will not have to worry how to decline with grace.”
Grandmama had a sharp suspicion that Emily was being sarcastic. She also had an unpleasant and surprisingly painful realization. “Do I take it that you are going to leave me alone in this house for Christmas while you go visiting wherever you said it was, in France?” She tried to keep her voice angry rather than betraying her sudden sense of being abandoned.
“Of course not, Grandmama,” Emily said cheerfully. “It would be quite miserable for you. But apart from that, you can’t stay here because there will be nobody to care for you.”
“Don’t be absurd!” Grandmama regained her temper with asperity. “There is a houseful of servants.” Emily’s Christmas parties were among the few things Grandmama had been looking forward to, although she would have choked rather than admit it. She would have attended as though it were a duty required of her, and then loved every moment. “You have sufficient housemaids for a duchess! I have never seen so many girls with mops and dusters in my life!”
“The servants are coming with us and you cannot stay here alone at Christmas. It would be wretched. I have made arrangements for you to go and stay with Mama and Joshua.”
“I have no desire to stay with your mother and Joshua,” Grandmama said instantly.
Caroline had been her daughter-in-law, until Edward’s death a few years ago had left her a widow of what Grandmama referred to as “an unfortunate age.” Instead of settling into a decent retirement from society, as the dear Queen had done, and as everyone had expected of her, Caroline had married again. That in itself was indiscreet enough, but instead of a widower with means and position, which might have had considerable advantages and been looked upon with approval, she had married a man nearly two decades younger than herself. But worse than that, if anything could be, he was on the boards—an actor! A grown man who dressed up and strutted around on the stage, pretending to be someone else. And he was Jewish, for heaven’s sake!
Caroline had lost what wits she had ever had, and poor Edward would be turning in his grave, if he knew. It was one of the many burdens of Grandmama’s life that she had lived long enough to see it. “No desire at all,” she repeated.
Emily stood quite still in the middle of the withdrawing room, the firelight casting a warm glow on her skin and the extravagant coils of her hair. “I’m sorry, Grandmama, but as I said, there really is no choice,” she repeated. “Jack and I are leaving tomorrow, and there is a great deal of packing to do, as we shall be gone for at least three weeks. You had best take a good supply of warmer gowns, and boots, and you may borrow my black shawl if you would care to?”
“Good gracious! Can they not afford a fire?” Grandmama said furiously. “Perhaps Joshua should consider a more respectable form of employment? If there is anything else on earth he is fitted for?”
“It has nothing to do with money,” Emily retorted. “They are spending Christmas in a house on the south coast of Kent. The Romney Marshes, to be exact. I daresay the wind will be chill, and one often feels the cold more when away from home.”
Grandmama was appalled! In fact she was so appalled it was several seconds before she could find any words at all to express her horror. “I think I misheard you,” she said icily at last. “You mumble these days. Your diction used to be excellent, but since your marriage to Jack Radley you have allowed your standards to slip . . . in several areas. I thought you said that your mother is going to spend Christmas in some bog by the sea. As that is obviously complete nonsense, you had better repeat yourself, and speak properly.”
“They have taken a house in Romney Marsh,” Emily said with deliberate clarity. “It is near the sea, and I believe the views will be very fine, if there is no fog, of course.”
Grandmama looked for impertinence in Emily’s face, and saw an innocence so wide-eyed as to be highly suspicious.
“It is unacceptable,” she said in a tone that would have frozen water in a glass.
Emily stared at her for a moment, regathering her thoughts. “There is too much wind at this time of the year for there to be much fog,” she said at last. “Perhaps you can watch the waves?”
“In a marsh?” Grandmama asked sarcastically.
“The house is actually in St. Mary in the Marsh,” Emily replied. “It is very close to the sea. It will be pleasant. You don’t have to go outside if it is cold and you don’t wish to.”
“Of course it will be cold! It is on the English Channel, in the middle of winter. I shall probably catch my death.”
To give her credit, Emily did look a little uncomfortable. “No you won’t,” she said with forced cheer. “Mama and Joshua will look after you very well. You might even meet some interesting people.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” Grandmama said furiously.
Nevertheless the old lady had no choice, and the next day she found herself sitting with her maid, Tilly, in Emily’s carriage. It made slow progress out of the city traffic, then sped up as it reached the open road south of the river and proceeded toward Dover, roughly a hundred and forty-five miles southeast of London.
Of course she had known the journey would be dreadful. To make it in one day she had set out before dawn, and it would be late before they reached whatever godforsaken spot in which Caroline had chosen to spend Christmas. Heaven alone knew what it would be like! If they were in try- ing circumstances it might be no more than a cottage without civilized facilities, and so cramped she would spend the entire time forced into their company. It was going to be the worst Christmas of her life!
Emily’s thoughtlessness in gallivanting off to France, of all places, at this time of year, was beyond belief! It was an outrage against all family loyalty and duty.
The day was gray and still, and mercifully the rain was no more than a spattering now and then. They stopped for luncheon, and to change the horses, and again a little after four o’clock for afternoon tea. By that time, naturally, it was dark and she had not the faintest idea where she was. She was tired, her legs were cramped from the long sitting, and unavoidably she was rattled and jolted around with the constant movement. And of course it was cold—perishingly so.
They stopped again to inquire the way as lanes grew narrower and even more rutted and overhung. When at last they arrived at their destination she was in a temper fit to have lit a fire with the sheer heat of her words. She climbed out with the coachman’s assistance, and stood on the gravel drive of what was obviously a fairly large house. All the lights seemed to be blazing and the front door was decorated with a magnificent wreath of holly.
Immediately she was aware of the smells of smoke and salt, and a sharp wind with an edge to it like a slap in the face. It was damp, so no doubt it was straight off the sea. Caroline had obviously lost not only her money but the last vestige of her senses as well.
The door opened and Caroline came down the steps now, smiling. She was still a remarkably handsome woman in her fifties, her dark mahogany hair only lightly sprinkled with the odd silver at the temples, which had a softening effect. She was dressed in deep, warm red and it gave a glow to her skin.
“Welcome to St. Mary, Mama-in-law,” she said a trifle guardedly.
The old lady could think of nothing whatever that met the situation, or her feelings. She was tired, confused, and utterly miserable in a strange place where she knew perfectly well she was unwanted.
It was several months since she had seen her erstwhile daughter-in-law. They had never been genuinely friends, although they had lived in the same house for over twenty years. During her son Edward’s lifetime there had been a truce. After- ward Caroline had behaved disgracefully and would listen to no advice at all. It became necessary for Grandmama to find other accommodations because Caroline and Joshua moved around so much, as his ridiculous profession dictated. There was never a question of Grandmama living with Charlotte, the elder granddaughter. She had scandalized everyone by marrying a policeman, a man of no breeding, no money, and an occupation that defied polite description. Heaven only knew how they survived!
So she had had no choice but to live with Emily, who at least had inherited very considerable means from her first husband.
“Come in and warm yourself.” Caroline offered her arm. Grandmama briskly declined it, leaning heavily on her stick instead. “Would you like a cup of tea, or hot cocoa?” Caroline continued.
Grandmama would, and said so, stepping inside to a spacious and well-lit hall. It was a trifle low-ceilinged perhaps, but floored with excellent parquet. The stairs swept up to a landing above and presumably several bedrooms. If the fires were kept stoked and the cook were any good, it might be endurable after all.
The footman carried her cases in and Tilly followed behind him. Joshua came forward and welcomed her, taking her cape himself. She was escorted into the withdrawing room where there was a blazing fire in a hearth large enough to have accommodated half a tree.
“Perhaps you would enjoy a glass of sherry after such a long journey?” Joshua offered. He was a slender man of little above average height, but possessed of extraordinary grace, and the suppleness and beauty of an actor’s voice. He was not handsome in a traditional sense—his nose was rather too prominent, his features too mobile—but he had a presence one could not ignore. Every prejudice in her dictated that she dislike him, yet he had sensed her feelings far more accurately than Caroline had.
“Thank you,” she accepted. “I would.”
He poured a full glass from the crystal decanter and brought it to her. They sat and made conversation about the area, its features, and a little of its history. After half an hour she retired to bed, surprised to find it was still only quarter past ten, a perfectly reasonable hour. She had imagined it to be the middle of the night. It felt like it, and it was irritating to be wrong.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Christmas Guest by Anne Perry. Copyright © 2005 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.