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Milford Carstairs, senior partner of the firm Trent, Macy, and Carstairs, Solicitors, London, eased his craggy frame back against the beige-striped Sheraton chair in the satin-draped drawing room of Wenwood Abbey and regarded the Munroe family assembled about the wrought-iron tea cart. The Widow Munroe rested on the matching Sheraton chair nearer the white-marble fireplace, slender back straight, iron-gray head erect. His friend Rutherford Munroe had always said he married her because she carried herself better than most of the titled ladies in Society. He rather thought her well-known reserve had been a challenge to the outgoing Rutherford. Lord knows, the only time Carstairs had ever seen her smile was in her husband's company. She'd had precious little to amuse her since the man died; she'd have far less when she knew the whole of it.
She inclined her head toward him as she passed him his tea in the gilt-edged bone china cup, and he accepted it with a nod of thanks. Condescending to the lesser mortals again, he noted as he took a sip, wrinkling his long nose at the steam. Thank goodness the daughters had only inherited her aristocratic good looks.
He glanced at the youngest, Allison, who was trying to sit on the gold-threaded sofa with as much dignity as her mother but only succeeded in looking uncomfortable. She caught his glance and arrested her fidgeting. Too much energy in that seventeen year old. A shame she had been too young to come out before Rutherford's untimely death. Even with her flaxen blond ringlets, vibrant blue eyes, classic features, and slender form, her family would be hard-pressed to find a husband willing to take her in their currentsituation, especially here in Somerset.
His gaze was drawn to the oldest, Genevieve, seated next to her sister on the sofa, and he had to suppress a smile. Now, there was a lady. She'd inherited her father's sense of humor and lively intelligence, along with her mother's considerable physical assets. Smaller than her mother, her curves were all the more noticeable. Where her mother's hair had turned to iron, Gen's was the color of pure gold. Where her mother's aristocratic features were frozen in propriety, Gen's always reflected her thoughts, which were often enthusiastic ones from what he had seen. It was little wonder she had been the toast of London the two years before her father died. She could have whistled up a fortune had she wished it. But she didn't wish it; she had made that point abundantly clear to him.
She also caught his eye on her and gave him a wink as she accepted her cup of tea from her mother's hand. He felt himself relax. At last, the girl was going to do it. He'd made the offer to do it himself several times, but it showed her courage that she had chosen to inform her family of their financial difficulties herself. A pity the girl had to take on such an onerous task when she hadn't yet reached her twenty-first birthday. But the mother had refused to even discuss the matter with him. He remembered her quiet disdain.
"Women should not interfere in financial matters, Mr. Carstairs," she had informed him, gazing serenely out the window of their London town house as if she were contemplating a formal garden instead of a busy London street. "It isn't proper. My husband retained you to see to these affairs. I'm sure you will continue to serve us with your usual thoroughness."
He had been at his wit's end as to how to get her to make the decisions necessary to pay their mounting debts when Gen had taken him aside to ask him about their finances. In her, he had found a quick mind and an inventive conspirator. He wondered if the Widow Munroe even realized that she had already signed away the London house, all its furnishings, all but the four horses that had carried them to Wenwood and the two in residence here, and all but a single carriage. If Gen hadn't taken the initiative, he shuddered to think what would have happened to the family. The Widow Munroe would have been hard pressed to maintain her reserve when faced with Debtors Prison.
Gen cleared her throat, and he focused on the current situation. They had been ensconced in Wenwood Abbey, their small country estate, for several days now. Although Rutherford had mentioned the place several times, Carstairs had never seen it. He was surprised to find it a rambling, single-story structure set in a small clearing in a stretch of woods. True to its name, it even had a chapel at one end. With the trees towering on all sides, the dark wood of the house, and the small infrequent windows, the abbey seemed to brood over dark thoughts. The inside made one feel a little less oppressed, thank goodness, with most of the small rooms having white-plastered or satin-hung walls and flagstone floors. He had to own the place possessed a quiet dignity, not unlike the Widow Munroe.
He and Gen had concocted a story about spending the first holiday since her father's death in more quiet surroundings than London, and he had to agree that the Abbey fit the bill. Despite an initial reluctance to the idea, both Allison and the Widow seemed to have settled in well. It didn't hurt, he supposed, that the villagers seemed so glad to see them, stopping by for little visits and showering them with gifts of cakes and jams. The country air had already put the bloom back into the girls' cheeks.
They had obviously begun to feel the Christmas spirit, as they had decorated the small drawing room with evergreen boughs over the mantle and a kissing bough with the holly, ivy, and mistletoe in the doorway, as for any proper Christmas celebration. Just yesterday, the Widow had announced she was ready to allow them to put off the black they had been wearing since Rutherford's death six months ago. Accordingly, Allison was wearing a sky blue kerseymere gown with a white tucker and cuffs, and Genevieve wore a darker blue wool crepe with embroidery along the hem. Even the Widow wore a fitted gown of gray silk, which showed that age had not detracted from her willowy figure. He was sure they found his long coat and breeches outmoded in the extreme, but he was comfortable in them.
He shifted in his chair, waiting for Gen to speak. They were contented here. All but her mother's tea were poured; the Widow even now was reaching for the pot. There would be no better time. He held his breath as Gen opened her mouth.
"I've invited the Pentercasts for Christmas Eve dinner and festivities," she announced.
He frowned, puzzled, and let out his breath. Then he jumped as the Widow dropped the silver pot onto the table with a clatter. Allison gasped, paling, and fell against the back of her chair as if she were going to swoon. He stared at them in surprise.
"Genevieve," the Widow murmured, allowing a frown to crease her brow, "that is a poor joke to play on your family."
"That was cruel in the extreme," Allison agreed more heatedly. "Sometimes I think you have quite changed since father's death. How could you be so unfeeling!"
"I don't think it's unfeeling." Genevieve smiled as she shrugged. "And I don't think Father would mind. I think he also found it ridiculous to keep up an enmity that began over a trifle a hundred years ago."
"A trifle?" The Widow's frown deepened, and her blue-gray eyes were like slate. He wondered what could possibly be so awful that she would show this much emotion. Heaven knows she hadn't frowned like this when he had come to tell her that Rutherford had been killed in a carriage accident on the way home from his club. He wracked his brain to think of where he had heard the name Pentercast before. Hadn't that been the name of the local fellow Rutherford had had watch the property while they had been living in London these last six years?
"I do not believe," the Widow was continuing, "that you can call evicting us from our home and usurping our rightful place in the community a trifle."
He glanced at Genevieve, who was sipping her tea with composure. Eviction? Usurping? What was this? Had he inadvertently sent the family into some kind of danger?
"Not to mention all the infamous things they've done since," Allison put in with a shudder.
"Those are stories," Gen maintained, reminding him of her mother in her cool reaction to their obvious concern. "By all accounts, Alan Pentercast and his family are well respected in the area. You heard the villagers when they came to visit the last few days--they all call him Squire. They've never done that with any of the other Pentercasts."
"What the villagers choose to call him is hardly our concern," the Widow said with a sniff as she succeeded in pouring her own cup of tea at last. He noted that her hand shook slightly on the handle of the ornate pot. "Pentercasts are Pentercasts. And we do not associate with Pentercasts."
Gen set her cup down on the carved mahogany table beside the sofa and leaned toward her mother. "But surely Father would have wished us to make amends. Didn't he have Mr. Pentercast keep an eye on Wenwood Abbey while we were away?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Chimes have been our caretakers," her mother insisted, refusing to meet her defiant gaze. "I doubt Mr. Pentercast could have provided much assistance."
"Nevertheless, if we are going to live here at the Abbey, surely we must learn to get along with the Squire and his family."
He allowed himself a private smile. There was method in the girl's madness after all. She was going to get them all excited over this Pentercast fellow so that when she made her announcement about them living here in near-penury, it wouldn't be such a blow in comparison. Smart chit; hadn't he always said so?
"Genevieve," the Widow chided, with a glare at him that surprised him with its heat. "I do not know where you get these ideas. I agreed with you and Mr. Carstairs that a change of scene for the Christmas holidays might be refreshing. In truth, I've missed some of our country traditions since moving to London. However, I hope you do not think I plan to take up residence here. We have Allison's come out to plan for next Season, after all."
Gen leaned back casually. "Actually, I was going to suggest that we have her come out here."
Oh, the girl was a master. Had she been man, he would have hired her immediately.
"What!" Allison cried, leaping to her feet. Her cup of tea thumped to the floor, and he was forced to swing his long legs to one side as the brown stain spread across the oriental carpet. He caught Gen's frown and knew that, like him, she was calculating how much it would cost to repair the damage.
"Moderate your tone, Allison," the Widow ordered with a sigh. "See what comes of immoderate temper? Sit down. And as for you, Genevieve, I think we've had quite enough of your announcements at this tea table. Mr. Carstairs, I blame you for this outburst. I told you how I felt about young ladies and financial matters. It quite fills their heads with nonsense."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Gen beat him to it. "I think Father would be proud of what Mr. Carstairs and I have been able to accomplish. Someone had to manage the estate."
And better than Rutherford had, Carstairs amended silently. The man had been the most congenial of fellows, but he had had absolutely no sense for finances. Every bit of his inheritance, frittered away on fripperies to amuse the children, the refurbishment of the Abbey with such unlikely things as a functioning bell tower and a flock of black swans, and the entertainment of his many friends. The man ought to be thanking God daily in his place in heaven for an intelligent daughter who knew the cost of a good meal and a warm roof over her head.
"Your father was always proud of both his daughters," her mother replied. "I simply make the point that you have gone too far, Genevieve. For you to even think about extending an invitation without consulting me..."
"You would never have done it," she protested.
"Precisely, and with good reason."
"You talk as if this is a reality!" Allison interjected, clearly annoyed. "Gen, did you really invite those Pentercasts to dinner tonight?"
Gen put out her small chin. "Yes, I did. And furthermore, they have accepted. They will be here tonight at seven, along with Vicar York and young Mr. Wellfordhouse."
The Widow set her cup of tea on the cart, rose, and shook out the skirts of her gray silk gown. "Well, then, it seems that we will have to make the best of this situation. Allison, come with me. We must find you an appropriate dress and consult Bryce on hairstyles. Genevieve, since you have taken it upon yourself to act as mistress of this house in my stead, I shall leave the entire event in your hands. Whatever happens tonight is on your head. Mr. Carstairs, I wish you well on your trip back to London. I hope you understand when I say that Genevieve will not be spending time with you when we return. Come, Allison."
Grimacing, the girl followed her mother from the room.
"Well," Genevieve said, rising, "that went remarkably badly."
"I thought you had them there before your mother stormed out, in her own quiet way, of course," Carstairs admitted, rising to join her. "That business about the Pentercast fellow was an excellent diversion. I take it he isn't the blackguard they made him out to be."
"Hardly," she replied, gazing toward the fire. A smile played on her lips, and he wondered what she was seeing. "His family has a somewhat unsavory reputation, but he was something of a hero when I was a child. My father once said there wasn't a man in London who could match him."
Carstairs raised an eyebrow. "Your father always did see the best in people. Still, that does seem unaccountably high praise, even from him."
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen him save the Mattison twins from drowning. I'm afraid I must agree with my father's assessment. Certainly none of the gentlemen who courted me were anywhere near as impressive."
He knew at another time he'd find that remark intriguing. Now he felt it incumbent upon him to return to the point. "Be that as it may, my dear, you realize you must tell them the truth."
She wandered closer to the hearth, holding out her long-fingered hands to the fire even though he doubted she could be cold in that fetching confection of wool crepe she was wearing.
"I've been trying, Mr. Carstairs, truly I have. It's just so much harder than I expected. How can I tell mother she must give up her town house? How can I tell Allison she'll never have a come out? The future we offer is too bleak, I fear."
"But it is a future nonetheless," he insisted. "My dear, we've done everything. You know that the only way for your family to stay together is to attempt to live quietly here at the Abbey. We had agreed it was the best course."
She sighed. "I know. Are you absolutely sure we didn't overlook anything? There truly is no other course?"
"None less daunting. Unless of course you've reconsidered..." He hesitated to bring up the subject for her reaction had been so strong the first time he had mentioned it.
"No," she snapped. Then she shook herself. "I know I should consider all the alternatives, Mr. Carstairs, and I know I'm being selfish. But I cannot trade my own happiness for their ability to maintain a more opulent lifestyle. We can all make sacrifices here in the country, and I believe we can all find some measure of happiness." She sighed again. "I can explain it so logically to you. Why do I find it so hard to tell them?"
He offered her his most supportive smile. "You will find a way, my dear. I have complete faith in your diplomacy. You're Rutherford Munroe's daughter."
She started to smile, then sobered. "Yes, I am."
He patted her on the shoulder and turned toward the door. "I'm sorry to have to miss the entertainment this evening, but I promised to return to London within the se'ennight, and I don't want to miss Christmas with my own family. Write to me when the deed is done, will you?"
"Yes, of course," she said with a nod. "Thank you, Mr. Carstairs, for all your help. And happy Christmas."
He turned to her, standing with the fire a golden glow behind her, outlining the curves of her silhouette and turning her hair to flame. If he had been 30 years younger and unmarried, he'd have offered for her himself. "Happy Christmas, my dear." As he moved out into the hallway, he thought he heard her answer.
"I will do everything in my power to make it so."
Prelude, Christmas Eve
Genevieve Munroe paced the wide wood-paneled entryway of Wenwood Abbey, listening for the sound of carriage wheels on the drive. Even with her back to him, she knew Chimes, their man-of-all-work, was watching her from his spot propped up on the parson's bench on the opposite side of the space.
"Settle down, Miss," he chided. "They'll be here soon enough."
She let her pacing turn her toward him and winked. "Settle down yourself. You're as anxious to see this fight end as I am."
"Now there's a true statement," he allowed, folding his hands over his pot belly and stretching his long legs out in front of him. "It would make my life a great deal easier if you Munroes would learn to get along with them Pentercasts. I wouldn't have to be near as particular which side of the wall the game was on. And the Squire, now, is too fine a man to be treated like he was the dirt beneath your mother's slippers."
A tingle of excitement shot through her. She could not let Chimes see it. No one could see it. "We are in agreement there as well," she replied calmly enough, but she couldn't help adding, "has he changed much since we left, Chimes?"
His sharp black eyes lit up, and she struggled not to look too interested in the answer, afraid she'd given away the game. "Since you and Miss Allison and Mr. Geoffrey went to the curate's school together? Not all that much, I suppose. Still interested in the Squire, are we, Miss Gen?"
She wandered closer to him, letting him see how casually she gazed at her reflection in the gilded mirror beside him. She tucked a stray curl back into the golden coil at the nape of her neck. The woman who gazed back was cool and confident, the champion of many a London fete. Satisfied, she turned from the reflection to face him with a gracious smile.
Somehow, she knew she wasn't fooling him for a second.
"I remember how you used to look up at him when you was just a little gel, and he'd come to take Mr. Geoffrey home on his horse," Chimes continued as she resumed her pacing. "Right fine figure of a man is the Squire. I heared tell he was interested in courting Mary Delacourte."
"Did her eyes ever uncross?" Gen asked.
"Now, they were never really crossed. That right eye of hers just tends to wander since she was kicked in the head by that cow all those years ago. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were still sweet on him."
She snorted and heard the unladylike sound echo against the polished wood walls. "I was never sweet on him, Chimes. It was an infantile adoration. I was only fourteen when we left; he must have been, oh ... ".
"Twenty-two. Which would make him just a year or two shy of thirty these days." He scratched the bare spot on top of his graying head. "Good age for a man to marry and settle down."
She scowled at him, determined to put that idea from his mind. "I hope you remember how to keep that mouth of yours shut when Mother arrives."
"Takes more than a pretty frown to scare me, gel." He winked at her, tapping the crook of his long nose. "And don't you worry about your mother. She never did think I was good enough to be the butler, but she can't live without my Annie's cooking." His merry smile faded. "Especially now. Carstairs says you haven't told them yet."
That pulled her up short. Twice now she'd underestimated Chimes ability to see to the heart of matters. What a pity her father hadn't taken him with them to London. She'd have given much to have him point out the shallowness of her beaus before she could even think of engaging her heart. And a word from Chimes might have kept her father from allowing a drunken friend to take the reins.
She blinked away the unhappy thought. She couldn't let her appreciation of the man's abilities deter her now. "I do not wish to talk about it further," she informed him, hands on hips. "I warn you, Chimes, I will brook no arguments on this. They deserve one last happy Christmas."
He held up his gnarled hands in surrender. "Very well, Miss. You can count on me to stay mum." He lowered his voice. "Are we still hunting tomorrow morning?"
She relaxed, the two topics she feared most now past. Lowering her voice as well, she nodded. "Yes. I've convinced Mother that letting me plan the Christmas dinner is excellent practice for when I'll manage my own home some day. Do you think we can still find some good birds for Annie to cook?"
"Good birds, bad birds, my Annie will make them sing in your mouth. Hark, there's the carriage now."
She was surprised at the flutter of excitement in her stomach, even more surprised at the lowering disappointment when Chimes shrugged himself into his coat and found only their Vicar, Thaddeus York, and his curate, William Wellfordhouse, at the door. She chided herself for her lack of enthusiasm. William had been her father's protégé; she had known him for years. He deserved better than her disappointment. She pasted on a smile of welcome as the grooms led the horses away and Chimes showed them in.
"Good evening, Miss Genevieve," Wellfordhouse said with a smile as he took her hands. "I must say you're looking quite well."
She grinned up at him, noting that his sandy hair was as immaculately combed as ever and that his gray eyes sparkled. Before she could return his greeting, the vicar broke in.
"Quite well indeed, under the circumstances, quite well." York ran a hand over his balding pate as Chimes hurried off with their coats and hats. "There are many who question the proper time for mourning. Three months? Six months? A year? Respect for the dearly departed is the key, I find. Your father has been gone a mere six months, has he not?"
She bit back a smile at his faux pas. Her father had ever delighted in baiting the poor Vicar into just such a statement. "Yes, Vicar," she said aloud. "How kind of you to remember." She focused on the young man who had become like a brother to her. "William, you look thinner than when we saw you in London. I hope the Vicar isn't working you too hard."
Wellfordhouse opened his mouth to respond, but the Vicar coughed into his meaty hands. "Hard work, Miss Munroe, is the best road toward heaven, the very best."
"Then dear William must be nearly there," she replied, allowing the smile to show. She noted that Chimes had returned and signaled him forward. "Chimes, please make these kind gentlemen comfortable in the drawing room and inform Mother that they have arrived. I will wait here for our other guests."
Wellfordhouse, who had been looking rather uncomfortable, brightened. "Oh, are we to have other company as well?"
She winked at him. "Yes. The Pentercasts."
"Oh, bravo, Miss Gen!" he exclaimed.
The Vicar grunted. "It is the true penitent who knows the worth of peace, the true penitent indeed."
Gen's smile was threatening to become a laugh. "Chimes," she prompted. She was relieved when their man led them away.
She really should try to remember Vicar York's position, she scolded herself as she resumed her anxious pacing. He had been the head of the church at Wenwood since before she was born. Of course, she never felt as comfortable in his company as she did in William's. William was always pleasant, always kind. He seemed to have taken every lesson in humility and duty to heart. Her father had said he was born to be a clergyman.
Somehow she didn't think the same applied to Vicar York, who seemed far more interested in good food and fine wine. The very thought made her feel guilty. She would simply have to try harder to appreciate the man if they were to live here in Wenwood. If only he didn't insist on repeating every other phrase. She remembered when Allison had pointed it out to their father.
"Don't let it annoy you," her father had replied with that tell-tale twinkle in his eyes that meant he was never less serious. "He only repeats himself to show how very little he has to say, how very little indeed." She could hear Allison's answering giggle. Yes, she'd have to work very hard if she were to be suitably serious with Reverend York.
She had crossed the wide entry twice more when her mother and Allison appeared from the corridor that led to the family wing. She nearly groaned out loud. While she had gone out of her way to pick a simple gown of watered green silk with a modest neck, she saw that her mother had decided to show the Pentercasts who they were dealing with. Her lilac satin gown, with its full skirt, lace overdress, and silver embroidery at the lowered neck and high waist, was more suited to a royal ball than a country dinner. The puffed sleeves required her to wear her long gloves, but Gen knew it wasn't modesty that had caused her to include the two amethyst rings or the matching stone that glinted from the folds of her silver turban.
Allison, not yet out, should have been more simply dressed. The white gown she wore was as plainly cut as Gen's, but it too boasted a silver lace overdress sprinkled with beads that reflected the candlelight. With a pang, Gen noted the Munroe diamonds, one of the few pieces of jewelry she had refused to sell or have paste copies made, sparkling at her throat and wrist. The tiara, usually reserved for the eldest daughter or daughter-in-law, nestled in her flaxen curls. Her mother was obviously making a statement. Standing next to them, she felt like a poor relation.
They had no time to talk as the sound of a carriage came again, and Chimes bustled forward to receive their guests. Her mother uttered a short sigh at his rumpled coat, but he opened the arched double doors with proper ceremony. Trying to ignore the fluttering in her stomach, Gen put up her head and pasted another smile on her face.
Mrs. Pentercast entered first. She was shorter than Gen remembered, reaching only to Gen's shoulder, and much rounder. Gen could only hope her face didn't show her shock as Chimes took her black velvet evening cloak to reveal that she was wearing a lilac satin gown with a lace overdress and silver embroidery. It was obviously a copy of the London gown, done somewhat less grandly and looking much less impressive on the short, squat figure than on her mother's tall, spare frame. Even the silver headband with its purple ostrich feather she had elected to wear instead of a turban failed to give it the proper polish. Nevertheless, her mother's forced smile of welcome froze on her face.
"Clear the way, Mother," an annoyed voice demanded, and Mrs. Pentercast scurried forward so fast that Gen's mother was forced to step back to keep the purple feather from lodging in her nose. Geoffrey Pentercast, looking much as Gen remembered in his many caped brown-tweed greatcoat that called attention to his broad shoulders, clumped into the entry, trailing mud, decayed leaves, and a six-foot log in his wake.
"Thought you wouldn't have a proper Yule Log," he announced, dragging the massive stump by a chain into the center of the entry. Gen tried not to think about what it would cost to repair the scratches he was making in the parquet floor.
She could feel her mother's disapproval. "Why, of course, Mr. Pentercast," Gen answered quickly for her. "How very thoughtful of you to bring it along. We haven't had a Yule Log in years, have we, Allison?"
"Yule Logs are such quaint customs," Allison said with a sniff, "for children."
"I like to think there's still some of the child in all of us, Miss Munroe," a deeper voice said from the doorway. The flutter in Gen's stomach intensified, and she swallowed, looking up to find Alan Pentercast regarding her from the door. Her first thought was that he was very different from what she remembered, but she wasn't sure what had changed.
Like his brother, he still had the shaggy thatch of brown hair that defied combing and the dark brown eyes that seemed to sparkle with some secret. Unlike his brother, who was shorter and more powerfully built, he stood a good head taller than anyone in the room. His face seemed leaner, his features more sharply planed. He moved with a negligent grace she'd only seen on London dance floors. As Chimes took his many caped blue-tweed greatcoat, she saw that he wore the black trousers, white satin waistcoat, and black cutaway coat of a London Corinthian. Unlike the dress his mother wore, the outfit was obviously no copy. She would have said it had been cut by Weston, although she'd have also wagered there was no padding in the shoulders or calves. The sensitive, brave young man she remembered had been replaced by a confident, authoritative gentleman. She wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or awed.
"As my daughter Genevieve noted, Mr. Pentercast," her mother was murmuring, "we appreciate the thought. Chimes, please see to the ... er ... log."
"Mind you," Geoffrey put in as Chimes stepped forward to take up the chain. "I expect to be the first to sit on it, since I brought it."
"I'm sure that won't be a problem," her mother quipped. "I believe we all know each other. You are all most welcome to our home."
Gen cast a sidelong look at Alan, who stood towering over his mother. She caught herself standing a little straighter and recognized the ridiculous desire to have him notice her. Good heavens, you'd think I was being introduced to the Prince Regent, she thought in disgust. Nevertheless, she kept her head high as his family stepped forward.
Little Mrs. Pentercast was peering up at Gen's mother, squinting as if to focus on the narrow, aristocratic face a foot above hers. "My word, Trudy, I hope you're not going to stay on this high horse of yours all night. I told Alan I thought that invitation was a mistake."
Mrs. Munroe glowered down at her, and for a moment Gen thought her mother's reserve would crack. She wracked her brain for a way out of the growing hostility.
"Mother," Alan put in, "I'm sure the Munroes wouldn't have asked us here if they hadn't have wished for the company." He made a bow over her mother's hand. Some of the lines around her mother's mouth eased. "And on such an important occasion. We are honored."
His mother sniffed, and Geoffrey rolled his eyes, but her mother offered him the closest thing to a smile Gen had seen since her father died, and Gen began to relax. "Perhaps it is time to put our differences behind us, sir."
He smiled a genuine smile in return as he straightened and Gen found herself wishing he'd smile at her that way. "Nothing would please my family more, I assure you."
"Except, perhaps, for something to eat," Geoffrey interrupted, causing her mother's eyes to narrow once again. "This was an invitation to dinner, was it not?"
"Chimes?" her mother snapped, and their man scurried forward from the back of the house, dusting off his hands. "Please escort our guests to the withdrawing room."
Chimes motioned them down the corridor that opened to the left of the wide entry. Alan offered his mother his arm, and Geoffrey fell in behind, muttering something about wanting to withdraw himself. Her own mother followed with stately steps. Allison walked beside her at the end of the procession.
"I don't know why you wanted these people in our home," she whispered to Gen. "They are every bit the rudesbys we have been warned about for years."
"Shh," Gen warned. "I haven't been overly impressed with your own manners, Miss."
Allison tossed her head.
Gen had hoped things might go better when the company was all gathered in the withdrawing room. Reverends York and Wellfordhouse rose as the procession entered, their voices raised in greeting, and her hopes rose anew. Then Mrs. Pentercast obviously disappointed them, especially Vicar York, by giving the reverends the briefest of nods before turning to try various chairs in the room. After several were proclaimed unsuitable, she deigned to sit in the Sheraton chair nearest the fire. With a shrug that seemed to indicate he'd been through this before, Alan went to stand beside her, leaning against the fireplace mantle. As the chair she had taken was Gen's mother's favorite, her mother had no choice but to take the matching chair in the corner nearest the door, making it look as if she wanted nothing more than to escape.
Allison threw herself down in the chair next to it. Geoffrey glanced around the room with a shake of his head, grumbling about the tastes of females in general, then clumped to slump down in the chair nearest his mother. The Reverends resumed their places on the sofa across the back of the room. Gen forced down a sigh as she sank onto the chaise lounge on the other side of the door. She knew she wasn't the only one to notice that the Pentercasts and the Munroes were now effectively lined up on opposite sides of the room.
Silence stretched. A log settled in the fireplace. She could hear the clink of silver next door as Chimes and their footmen put the finishing touches on the table. This was maddening! What had she been thinking to arrange this? Despite her father's admiration of Alan, no Munroe had been seen in the company of a Pentercast for a hundred years. What had made her believe she could get them to change their behavior now? So what if it was Christmas, time of peace on earth and good will toward all? The all must not have included the Pentercasts and Munroes.
If only she could help her mother and Allison realize how important it was that they get along with their neighbors. But she was the only one who knew why it was so important, and she had promised herself to remain silent. She felt like a prisoner in her own handmade cell. Looking up, she caught Alan's gaze, and, to her surprise, he grinned at her. She blushed, looking away, afraid what he might think should he see the frustration in her eyes.
"You are looking exceptionally lovely tonight, if I may say so, Mrs. Pentercast," York rumbled, breaking the silence. "That color is the perfect shade on a lady of your influence in the community."
Her mother's eyes snapped fire. Mrs. Pentercast blushed prettily, patting down her skirts. "How very kind of you to say so, Vicar."
"All the ladies look lovely if you ask me," William put in with a nod to the corners of the room. "We gentlemen are most fortunate to be in their company."
"Well said, Wellfordhouse," Alan agreed heartily. "And if I may compliment our hostess, this room is particularly festive. It's been a long time since Wenwood had a proper Christmas with the Abbey open. Your neighbors have missed you." He said the last with a pointed look at Gen, and she felt the fluttering begin in her stomach again.
"Hear, hear," William nodded agreeably.
Her mother inclined her head in acknowledgment. "It is good to have Christmas in the country again."
"Will you be coming with us to see the Thorn tonight?" Alan queried.
Her mother looked thoughtful. "I haven't done that since I was a child. Is it still alive?"
"Oh, very much alive," William assured her. "Tom Harvey spotted the bud this morning, I'm told. I expect the entire village will be there tonight to see if it blooms."
"Course it will bloom," Geoffrey grumbled. "That's what the damn thing's for, isn't it?"
Her mother stiffened, and Allison widened her eyes, looking shocked at his language. His own mother glared at him.
"Well, if you ask me, we must be very careful how we treat these trappings of Christmas," York grumbled. "There is entirely too much reverence paid to this Wenwood Thorn, entirely too much. And these boughs and that ivy over the door are pagan customs that once had no place in a good Christian home, no place at all."
"How very thoughtful of you to remind us," her mother all but snarled.
"My duty, madam, my duty" he replied, patting his sagging belly with complacency.
"I don't know but I rather like them," Geoffrey insisted. He leered at Allison. "Especially the kissing bough."
"What a pity there aren't any proper gentlemen on which to use it," Allison replied with a toss of her flaxen curls.
"Chimes!" her mother fairly shouted. The beleaguered servant bumped through the door leading to the dining room, rubbing a stain off his already dirty black trousers. "How soon do you expect dinner?"
"I'm quite happy to report, Madam, that dinner is ready to be served."
She rose, and the rest of the company rose with her. Gen suppressed her disappointment as Alan made to take his mother's arm again. To her surprise, Vicar York, his considerable bulk quivering, fairly leaped from his seat to offer Mrs. Pentercast his arm. Alan raised an eyebrow but stepped aside. Geoff snorted as they moved past him. When Alan made no move to claim the hostess, William, looking awkward, offered her mother a tremulous smile. "Mrs. Munroe?"
She inclined her head, accepting his arm. He sighed visibly, and Gen bit back a smile at her childhood friend's difficulty playing the gallant. Allison stamped after them, ignoring the grin Geoffrey cast her. He fell in behind her.
"May I?" Alan asked beside Gen. The room was suddenly too warm and much too small. She swallowed, unable to meet his eyes. This is what you wanted, she reminded herself. You've been dreaming of him noticing you since you were fourteen. She put out her hand, noticed it was trembling, and scowled at her own timidity. She was no longer that girl of fourteen in the midst of her first crush. She had gone into dinner with marquesses and earls, danced with royal dukes and princes alike. She had no reason to be so nervous around Alan Pentercast, of all people. She slapped her hand down on his arm.
He chuckled. "I was hoping it wouldn't be quite this difficult." He grinned, and she wasn't sure if he was referring to her attempt to bring their families back together or her own hesitation in accepting his offer. With a smile that was much too stiff, she allowed him to lead her in to dinner.
The mood at dinner was no better than it had been in the drawing room. Chimes had done a credible job of making the long, damask-draped table look festive, with a silver epergne of red-berried holly in the center and sprigs of ivy by each crystal goblet. She found herself wondering where he had found the silver serving platters and how much they might sell for at auction. But as the first course, which included a lovely mulligatawny soup, was served, she found she had other problems.
Geoffrey continued to live up to her mother and Allison's preconceived notions of the Pentercasts by gulping enormous quantities of food, guzzling glasses of wine, and burping after each course. Allison, seated opposite him, glowered at each infraction and made a point of daintily picking at the various dishes. Mrs. Pentercast spent her time comparing everything to other dinners she had had: It seemed the table was not nearly as festive as her first Christmas Eve dinner with friends, the various courses were not as exotic as what the Regent served, and the large brass candelabra above the table was not nearly as large as the one in the Manor dining room. The only time she paused in her litany was to blush and giggle over Reverend York's incessant stream of compliments. Seated at the head of the table, Gen's mother refused to eat, her conversation dwindling to nods when someone addressed her directly. Although both Alan and William continued to be congenial, Gen was hard pressed to find topics of conversation that would be entertaining.
The men didn't even stay for their after-dinner port but repaired with the ladies to the withdrawing room. Geoffrey insisted that Chimes produce the Yule Log he had brought and then uttered a few more curses when there wasn't a brand from the previous log available to light it. Alan managed to turn his tantrum aside with a joke, but she could see that her mother was ready to throw the youth out.
She had to think of something safe to discuss, some way to pass the time until it would no longer be rude to send them home. She considered cards, but she wasn't sure of the Vicar's feelings on the matter, and she shuddered to think of the fighting that would accompany any attempt to pair the group into partners. Music was out of the question: She'd never get her sister to perform, and she didn't think her voice or fingers would be steady enough given the present company. Heaven knows she found it hard enough to focus on the conversation when every time she looked up she met Alan's gaze. Another occasion she would have been thrilled by his regard, but at the moment it seemed singularly inappropriate when the rest of the room was actively feuding. She had to think of something. Her eyes lit on the Christmas greenery over the mantle. Perhaps the season of peace might inspire.
"You mentioned the Wenwood Thorn a while ago, William," she ventured as the flames licked around Geoffrey's Yule Log and they had all settled in their places around the room. "That was always one of my favorite Christmas customs. What was yours?"
Always willing to join in the conversation, he smiled at her, looking thoughtful. "My goodness, there are so many. I suppose one might be the bells calling the villagers to midnight services. It's so quiet then, one can almost imagine what that first Christmas must have been like for the Holy Family."
"I've always liked that old wives' tale that the animals talk on Christmas Eve," Alan said with a smile. "When I was a boy, I don't know how many times I crept out to the stable to find out. Unfortunately, I always fell asleep before I could prove the tale true."
Gen smiled as well, imagining the dark-haired boy curled up in the hay. Then her mother surprised her by joining in the conversation.
"Rutherford always liked that story as well. He loved all the Christmas traditions. Do you remember, Gen, how he liked to play Snap Dragon?"
Gen nodded. "Oh, yes. I think his grin was brighter than the flames from the brandy."
Allison clapped her hands. "Oh, Mother, may we?"
"Now who likes childish games?" Geoffrey muttered.
Gen ignored him, signaling to Chimes, who left with a wink. At last, she seemed to have found something they could all agree on. She was pleased when a few moments later Chimes returned with a large, shallow silver bowl filled a quarter of the way with raisins. A footman followed him with a bottle of her father's best brandy. Mrs. Pentercast pulled her chair closer to the little table on which he set the bowl, and the others drew around it as well, eyes shining with expectation.
The gentlemen peeled off their gloves, and the ladies did likewise. With a flourish, Chimes poured the brandy over the raisins and lit it on fire. Gen wasn't sure who uttered the "oooh" as the other lights in the room were put out.
"This was your idea, Allison," her mother said quietly. "Why don't you start?"
William's tenor began the song, and Alan's baritone joined in.
"Here he comes with flaming bowl
Don't be mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!"
Allison's quick fingers darted through the flames, and she popped her captured raisins triumphantly into her mouth.
"Take care you don't take too much
Be not greedy in your clutch.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!"
William pounced in, then snatched his hand ruefully back, fingers empty. He shrugged good naturedly.
"With his blue and lapping tongue
Many of you will be stung.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!"
Her mother daintily reached through the blue mist and produced a single, plump raisin, which she ate in two bites.
"For he snaps at all that comes
Snatching at his feast of plums.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!"
Geoffrey had stepped up beside her, darting a hand into the bowl and scooping up a handful while the hairs on the back of his hand smoked. He shoved the raisins into his mouth and licked the brandy off his fingers.
"But Old Christmas makes him come,
Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!"
It was her turn. She reached through the blue mist of brandy flames, but before she could reach one of the plump raisins beneath, she felt the heat on her skin and snatched back her hand. Geoffrey snorted in contempt.
"Don't 'ee fear him, be but bold
Out he goes, his flames are cold.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!"
Alan's large hand swept through the flames and brought out a handful of the raisins. With a bow, he offered them to her. Shyly, she reached out and pulled two from his palm, popping them into her mouth. Licking the brandy from her lips, she looked up at him, noticing the blue flames reflected in the depths of his dark eyes. Then Chimes stepped forward and covered the dish, extinguishing the blaze.
"That was fun!" Allison exclaimed as the candles were relit. "Let's do another game. How about Forfeits--the Twelve Days of Christmas?"
As the others moved back to their seats, Alan blocked her way. "Sure you wouldn't like some more raisins?" he murmured, large hand open.
Gen shook her head, pulling on her gloves. As before, it was as if the temperature in the room had increased with him so near. She reminded herself again that she was an accomplished lady and squared her shoulders. "You won them fairly," she managed to reply congenially. "I never was all that good at these kinds of games."
He popped the remainder in his mouth. Then he cocked his head, regarding her even as he pulled on his own gloves. By the light in his deep brown eyes, she would have sworn Chimes had never extinguished the flames. "I've heard you were very good at other games, however. What do you say to a friendly wager?"
She frowned at him, feeling a bit unsteady. "What do you mean, sir?"
"I wager you'll not be able to remember the gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas."
"And what must I do if I loose?" she asked, trying not to eye the nearby kissing bough.
"Marry me," he replied.
Gen stared at him, growing cold all over. She could not have heard him correctly. But the intent look on his face told her she had.
"La, sir, but I do not understand," she murmured, lowering her eyes and praying he would confirm it as a poor joke.
"Surely I'm not the first to propose to the Incomparable Miss Munroe," he quipped, and she was forced to look up, surprised by the touch of bitterness in his tone. His expression, usually so open, seemed guarded. He watched her as intently as Chimes had. It made her no more comfortable.
"If you truly are sincere, you will understand when I say this is rather sudden."
"Ah, but we have so little time. You return to London after Epiphany, do you not? I fear I must make my mark while I can. Come now, Miss Munroe, have we a wager?"
She stepped back from him, the sharp look in his eyes, the implacable line of his jaw, the perfect cut of his coat combining to focus her thoughts to a spear point. She had struggled to understand the change in him: now it was clear. The self assurance she had admired had inflated into arrogance, an arrogance that was all too familiar from her time in London.
He'd become another wretched Corinthian.
How she despised the breed. They lived on a shallow plane. To them, a female was only to be coveted for the pretty exterior; the woman beneath held no interest. And to think she had always considered him different, more noble, better. He was the standard to which she had held all others. She marveled at her own naiveté. She felt as if a favorite statue had fallen and shattered at her feet, a statue of a hero, no doubt. With two words he had destroyed the last of her childhood illusions. Illusions that had been destroyed one by one as she learned of her father's other life.
"Only a Pentercast would wager something so important on a trifle," she heard herself sneer.
That she had stung him was obvious by the look that quickly came and went in his eyes. For a brief moment, she thought she had misjudged him. Then his face stiffened. "Apparently the good Reverend Wellfordhouse has been remiss in his duties. He should have warned you that what the Pentercasts set out to get, they achieve. Whether you take my wager or not, by Epiphany, you will agree to be my wife."
She could have cried at his arrogance. "Then he should have warned you as well that we Munroes are not to be had so easily."
She was surprised to see the return of his former grin. "I never expected it to be easy. But I will prove to you that we are meant to wed, if I have to play the devoted lover and bring you the twelve gifts myself."
"How typical." She shook her head. "Do you honestly think you can buy my love as easily as your ancestor bought my home?"
"I won't spend a penny," he replied with a twinkle in his eyes. "If I can do it, will you marry me?"
She ought to slap his face for daring to ask. Better, she ought to order Chimes to throw him out, him and his entire rude family. Her mother had been right--Pentercasts were not to be trusted. What a shame she had to bring her own family here to live near them. And she had so hoped they might be of assistance.
Perhaps they still could.
She eyed him, mentally calculating his chances of success as Carstairs had taught her to do. The exact nature of the gifts eluded her at the moment, but surely at least a few of them were rather obscure. And if he somehow had to gather them without purchasing them, it would make winning harder still. She had twelve days to outwit him. With his arrogance, it shouldn't be all that difficult. Perhaps it was time the Munroes put the Pentercast arrogance to good use. Perhaps this time, the wager would turn out differently. "If you fail, will you renew the harvest tithes--ten percent to my family in perpetuity?"
"Now who's after money?" he countered.
Gen blushed but stood her ground. She knew how difficult the change in finances would be for her mother and sister. Life at Wenwood would be easier if they could count on a steady source of food. "Come, sir, you cannot expect me to play if there is nothing to my advantage. Have we a wager?"
Alan cocked his head. "If I succeed in giving you the appropriate gift for each day of Christmas according to the old Forfeits game, without spending a penny, you will agree to be my bride. If I fail, I provide your family with ten percent of the harvest from my land and ensure that future generations do likewise. That's it?"
"That's it." Gen peeled the glove from her right hand. "I believe you Pentercasts follow the traditional way of wagering." She spat on her palm and held it out to him. "Is it a wager?"
Alan grinned, peeling off his own glove. He spat on his palm. "A wager it is."
He clasped her hand, and she felt the strength of his grip, his warm fingers curling around the back of her hand until his fingers touched his thumb. She pulled away much more quickly than she had intended. Turning to hide the blush that must be staining her cheeks, she felt him catch her arm. "Oh, no. I suggest we enter the wager tonight with a neutral party."
She frowned, and he released her. "We are not in London, sir. There is no betting book at Wenwood as there is at White's."
"No," he said with a smile, "but there is the Reverend Mr. Wellfordhouse."
Gen glanced over at William, who was actively helping her mother through the various verses of the poem, to much laughter by Allison and Geoffrey as he insisted that it was a goose in the pear tree. Catching her glance, he excused himself and joined them near the sofa.
"Is there something you need, Miss Genevieve?"
Pulling on her glove, she felt her blush deepening as she tried to think of a way to phrase what she had just done. William would of course be shocked at her mercenary wager. She felt a little shocked herself. But of course, Alan would not win, and her family would have no need to worry for their food. And perhaps this Corinthian at least would think twice before making such an insulting offer again.
She put up her head. "Yes, William. Mr. Pentercast and I wish to enter a wager with you."
He frowned. "A wager?"
Alan grinned, and she knew he was watching her squirm. "Yes, Mr. Wellfordhouse. Miss Munroe has just wagered her honor against the harvest tithes from my land."
William choked, and Gen glared at Alan.
"What this odious man is trying to say, William," she explained, thumping him on the back to help him catch his breath, "is that Mr. Pentercast has wagered that he can bring me each of the gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas poem on the appropriate day without spending a penny. If he cannot, he will owe my family the income his forefather stole from us."
"Uh, uh, uh," Alan tisked with a shake of his finger. "He won a wager, fair and square, as I intend to do. And if I win, Miss Munroe has agreed to become my bride."
William looked back and forth between Alan's confident smile and Gen's equally determined scowl. "I see. And what is it exactly you expect me to do?"
"Set the rules of this contest," Alan explained, "and act as judge to ensure that each of us follows them."
"Fairly," Gen amended.
"I see," William said again. "And you are willing to marry Miss Genevieve in full ceremony and treat her as any other wife, Squire?"
Alan nodded. "I so swear."
"And you're willing to marry the Squire and be his obedient wife, Miss Genevieve?" he continued.
Gen glared at Alan. "Perhaps not completely obedient. But, yes, I so swear as well."
William glanced between them again. "Very well. Here are your rules, then. The gifts are fairly well specified in the poem, I believe. They shall be delivered through no direct use of money to Miss Genevieve before the last stroke of midnight on each of the days specified. If the Squire succeeds in this undertaking, I shall be more than happy to read the banns myself."
Gen turned her glare on him.
"And of course should the Squire fail," he quickly added, shrinking back from her, "I will be just as happy to count the harvest tithes."
"Done." Alan nodded. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I had best see to my mother before the Vicar quite turns her head with his flattery." He moved off to stand beside his mother's chair.
"I must say, William, that I am a bit surprised at you," Gen chided.
He raised an eyebrow. "Why, Miss Gen? I've thought you and the Squire were well matched for years. If this is what it takes to win you, I wish the man well." He hurried off to rejoin the game as she stared after him open mouthed.