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What Happens At Christmas
By Victoria Alexander
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Cheryl Griffin
All rights reserved.
December 18, 1886
"And you believe this is a good idea," Beryl, Lady Dunwell, said to her sister. Her expression failed to reveal whether her words were in the guise of a question or a comment, which was, as always, most annoying. More so, as her sister's face was the mirror image of her own, and one should never be in doubt as to what one's own twin was thinking.
"No, in truth I don't believe it's a good idea. Wearing the appropriate cloak for the weather is a good idea. Insisting on references before hiring a new servant is a good idea. Having an equal number of ladies and gentlemen at a dinner party is a good idea. This"—Camille, Lady Lydingham, leaned forward slightly and met her sister's gaze with a firmness that belied any niggling doubts in the back of her mind—"is a brilliant idea."
"I suspect the brilliance of it is dependent upon whether or not it goes awry." Beryl studied her sister over the rim of her teacup.
In recent months, the twins had made it a habit to meet at least every other week at the Ladies Tearoom, at Fenwick and Sons, Booksellers. It had become quite the place for ladies of society to gather. Even now, there was scarcely an empty table to be had. Camille wasn't sure why it had become so popular; the room itself was not unlike the other rooms in the bookseller's establishment, lined with shelves and filled with books in what appeared to be a random order. The tea and cakes were excellent, but in society excellent did not always go hand in hand with fashionable. Regardless, the sisters were nothing if not fashionable; and if this was the place to be, this was indeed where they would be.
"And it does seem to me there are any number of things that could go awry," Beryl continued. "Horribly, horribly awry."
"Nonsense." Camille waved off her sister's warning. "I have given this a great deal of thought, and it is a practically perfect plan."
"It's the 'practically' that should give you pause," Beryl said in a wry tone.
"No plan can be completely perfect, although ..." Camille thought for a moment. "I daresay, this is as close to perfect as possible. Mother and Delilah are spending Christmas in Paris with her friend, Countess Something-or-other, and will not return to England until well after the new year. Uncle Basil is on safari in Africa and, as you well know, when he goes off like this, he will not be back for months. Which serves me quite well, as I need a proper English family, having a proper English Christmas, in a proper English country house." Camille heaved a long-suffering sigh. "And while we might well appear proper from a safe distance, close at hand there is very little truly proper about our family."
"Millworth Manor is rather proper," Beryl murmured.
"Thank goodness for that." Camille nodded. "And this year, that proper country house will be filled with a proper family for Christmas." She narrowed her eyes. "There shall be no dallying between Mother and whatever potential lover has thought the spirit of the season would ease his way into her bed. There shall be no lecherous uncle pursuing any unsuspecting females, who have caught his eye. There shall be none of Mother's usual stray foreign exiles bemoaning the olden days in whatever country they're from. Nor will there be aspiring poets, flamboyant artists and absolutely no creative sorts of any type hoping to curry favor and patronage from Mother or any of us."
"You make it sound like a circus."
"There's very little difference between Mother's house and a circus, especially at Christmas, although a circus is probably less chaotic." Camille heaved a heartfelt sigh. "If Father were still with us—"
"Well, he isn't," Beryl said sharply. "He's been gone for twenty years now, and even at Christmas, there is nothing to be gained by wishing for what one can't possibly have." She drew a deep breath. "However, I suppose, as you are going to a great deal of trouble and expense no doubt—"
"Good Lord, yes." Camille shook her head. "I had no idea the price of hiring a troupe of actors would be so dear."
"Well, you are replacing an entire household. Let's see." Beryl thought for a moment. "There's one to play the role of the well-meaning, ambitious, somewhat flighty mother, another for the aging rogue who doesn't quite understand he is neither as charming nor as dashing as he once was, one for the role of the always indignant, somewhat superior, younger sister...." Beryl fixed her sister with a firm look. "Delilah would never go along with this, you know."
"Then it is fortunate she is in Paris with Mother." It never failed to amaze either Camille or Beryl that their younger sister had a distinct lack of imagination and an overdeveloped sense of propriety. Where did she get it? "And don't forget, aside from the primary players, there's the supporting cast." Camille ticked the roles off on her fingers. "I needed a butler, of course, as well as a housekeeper, a cook and an assortment of maids and footmen. I am bringing my lady's maid, however."
"What did you do with Mother's servants?" Beryl stared. "What have you done with Clement?"
"You needn't look at me as if I've done away with him and buried him in the garden." Camille rolled her gaze toward the ceiling. "As even Mother is rarely at the manor for Christmas, in recent years, Clement has spent Christmas with his niece in Wales, I believe. It's silly to have a butler on the premises if there is no one there. I sent the rest off on holiday—paid, of course."
"Of course," Beryl murmured.
"Yet, another expense. However, I have been assured most of the troupe is better at keeping a house than they are on stage, which is fortunate, as I do expect them to do so." Camille lowered her voice in a confidential manner. "From what I understand, most of the players have been in service fairly recently. So that part of it should work out nicely."
"Oh, well, as long as they can tend to the house."
"They are not the least bit famous as actors, that is, which, on one hand, is convenient, and on the other, something of a concern." Camille drummed her fingers absently on the table. "I do need them to be believable, but I should hate to have any of them recognized, so their lack of theatrical success is a benefit."
Beryl stared as if she couldn't quite believe her ears. "It is so hard to get good help."
"Indeed, it is. However, as they are not in particular demand, they are more than willing to take on this ... production as it were. And as costly as they are, they would have charged so much more if they were well known." Camille smiled smugly.
"It's fortunate you can afford them."
"Thank goodness Harold left me with a tidy fortune."
Harold, Viscount Lydingham, had been substantially older than Camille when they had wed. But then, older men with wealth and position were precisely the type of gentlemen their mother had trained her three daughters to wed. And Beryl, Camille and Delilah had obediently done so. Their reward was to be widowed and financially independent at an age young enough to enjoy life and pursue love, should they be so inclined.
Still, Harold had been a very nice man. Camille considered herself fortunate to have found him, and they had been, for the most part, happy or at least content. His demands on her had been minimal through the eight years of their marriage. She had proven herself an excellent wife and, indeed, she had been quite fond of him. Why, she hadn't even considered dallying with another man for a full two years after his death, out of respect. Even now, four years after his passing, she still rather missed Harold.
"And you're doing it all to impress a man—"
"Not merely a man. A prince," Camille said in a lofty manner. Yes, both of her sisters had married well, and Beryl's second husband might well be prime minister someday, but neither of her sisters had ever come close to genuine royalty. "Prince Nikolai Pruzinsky, of the ruling family of the Kingdom of ... of ... Oh, I can't remember where, but it's one of those tiny countries that litter Central Europe."
"But you barely know this man."
"Marriage will solve that."
"Still, this scheme of yours seems rather excessive."
"Perhaps it is, but it's well worth the trouble and the expense. He has an immense fortune and his own castle—besides which, he is quite handsome and dashing, and, well, he's a prince. Which means I shall be a princess. He is everything I have ever wanted and he is this close"—Camille held up her hand and pinched her forefinger and thumb to within an inch of each other—"to proposing. He hasn't actually said the words yet, but he has dropped more than a few hints. I'm confident all he needs now is to be assured that our family is worthy of being elevated to royalty."
"Which you shall prove by presenting him with a proper English family and a proper English Christmas?"
"Exactly." Camille nodded.
Beryl refilled her cup from the pot on their table and Camille knew—the way one twin nearly always knew what the other was thinking—her sister was choosing her words with care. "It seems to me that, should you indeed marry him, at some point in time he shall have to meet Mother and Delilah and Uncle Basil. The real ones, that is. Perhaps at the wedding. Have you considered that?"
"Admittedly, I have not worked it all out, but I will." She waved off her sister's comment. "First and foremost is Christmas, which involves a great deal of planning. You may not have noticed, but Christmas is bearing down upon us with the inevitability of a ... a ..."
"A boulder rolling downhill ready to obliterate all in its path?" Beryl asked with an overly sweet smile.
"I wouldn't put it quite that way, but yes."
"And after Christmas? What then?"
"Admittedly, I don't really know yet. But I will. The rest will fall into place," Camille said with a confidence she didn't entirely feel. "I shall cross those awkward roads when they present themselves. I can't be expected to know every minor detail as of yet, but I am certain I shall come up with something brilliant."
"As brilliant as hiring actors to play the part of your family for Christmas?"
Camille clenched her teeth. Beryl had an annoying habit of being entirely too sensible on occasion. "Even more brilliant, I should think."
"You'll need it. Your current brilliant idea is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. It can't possibly succeed."
"Goodness, Beryl, at this time of year in particular, one should have a little faith."
Beryl stared in obvious disbelief. "Faith?"
"Yes, faith," Camille said firmly. "Before the wedding, I suspect, I will confess all. He is already smitten with me, and by then, I have every confidence he will forgive this tiny farce on my part—"
Beryl choked on her tea. "Tiny?"
"Relatively tiny." Camille nodded. "He will probably find it most amusing. He is easily amused. And it's not as if I am misrepresenting who I am or who we are. Not really. Our family lineage is exactly as I have said. It's just the individual personalities that can be a bit ... unorthodox. Mother and Uncle Basil, that is. In truth, I am simply trying to protect the poor man and give him the traditional English Christmas that he expects and deserves. In many ways, it is my Christmas gift to him. And I am confident we shall have a good laugh about all this. Eventually."
"You do realize you're quite mad."
"Or quite clever." Camille tapped her temple with her forefinger. "Like a fox."
"An insane fox, perhaps. You haven't thought this through, Camille. This is another one of your impulsive adventures."
"Nonsense. I gave up impulsive adventures at least a year ago."
"After the Brighton Incident?"
"Yes, well, probably. It's of no significance now."
She did so hate to be reminded of what her family referred to as "the Brighton Incident." It had not been her finest hour and embodied all the errors in judgment she'd ever made rolled into one, even if it had seemed so delightful when she had thought of it. The incident had skated on the sharp edge of full-fledged scandal involving an ill-conceived wager prompted by entirely too much champagne, two of her close friends who were even more inebriated than she, a masked out-of-doors ball and costumes that came perilously close to no clothing at all. They had only been saved from complete and utter ruin because their faces were hidden, they had relatively spotless reputations (who would have suspected them of all people?) and it was the off-season. Few knew the names of the ladies behind the masks.
"I have given this a great deal of thought." Indeed, she'd had so much to accomplish she hadn't thought of anything else.
"I can't believe you are going to all this trouble." Beryl narrowed her eyes and considered her sister. "It's not for his money. Harold left you with more than you can possibly spend in a lifetime, certainly more than enough to buy your own castle, should you wish to do so. Is it for his title?"
"I have always thought 'Princess Camille' has a lovely sound to it."
"Even so, I can't ..." Beryl's eyes widened. "Are you in love with him?"
"There is nothing about the man not to love," Camille said in a cautious manner.
Still, she'd only been in love once, and that was when she was very young and quite foolish and hadn't quite realized she'd been in love until it was too late. She'd been extraordinarily fond of Harold and had loved him after a fashion, but she'd never been in love with him. She wasn't at all sure there was much use for true love in a practical world; although, admittedly, it would be nice.
"I suspect he may well be in love with me."
"That wasn't my question."
"We've never married for love in this family," Camille pointed out. It wasn't entirely true. She had long suspected Mother had married for love, which was no doubt why she had raised her daughters to marry for other reasons. In this respect alone, Mother was a very practical woman.
"But do you—"
"Not at the moment. But I fully expect to," she added quickly. "Indeed, I am quite confident in no time at all I shall love him with my whole heart and soul. There is nothing about him not to love."
"You said that."
"It bears repeating."
"Yes, well, an immense fortune and a royal title does make it easier to love." Beryl cast her sister a pleasant smile.
Camille wasn't fooled for a moment. The smile might well be pleasant, but the sarcasm was unmistakable.
"You're scarcely one to talk. You married your first husband, Charles, for precisely the same reasons I married Harold."
"I was quite fond of Charles."
"Yes, but you weren't in love with him. Nor were you in love with Lionel when you married him."
"No." Beryl drew the word out slowly. "But ..."
Camille stared. "Good Lord, Beryl, don't tell me you're in love with your husband."
"I might be."
"Nonsense, no one is in love with their own husband." Camille scoffed. "It simply isn't done. You certainly didn't marry him for love."
"No, I married him because his ambitions matched my own. Now, however ..." Beryl paused. "In recent months, since very nearly the start of the year, Lionel and I agreed to forgo our various amorous pursuits and restrict our attentions to one another."
Camille stared. Her sister's and brother-in-law's extramarital escapades were very nearly legendary. "And?"
"And it's turning out far better than I would have imagined." She shrugged. "As it happens, I might indeed be in love with my husband." A bemused smile curved her sister's lips, as if she couldn't quite believe her own words. She looked, well, content, even happy. Camille wasn't sure she had seen a look like that on her sister's face before. But then she was fairly certain Beryl had never been in love before. The oddest twinge of jealousy stabbed Camille. She ignored it. If her twin was happy, she was happy for her.
Excerpted from What Happens At Christmas by Victoria Alexander. Copyright © 2012 Cheryl Griffin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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