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«Anne Perry's Christmas Mysteries», Anne Perry

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A book in the Christmas novellas series, 2008

A Christmas Guest

To all those who are still

hoping and still learning

 

PART ONE

“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.”


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