Georgie is excited for her first Christmas as a married woman in her lovely new home. She suggests to her dashing husband, Darcy, that they have a little house party, but when Darcy receives a letter from his aunt Ermintrude, there is an abrupt change in plans. She has moved to a house on the edge of the Sandringham estate, near the royal family, and wants to invite Darcy and his new bride for Christmas. Aunt Ermintrude hints that the queen would like Georgie nearby. Georgie had not known that Aunt Ermintrude was a former lady-in-waiting and close confidante of her royal highness. The letter is therefore almost a royal request, so Georgie, Darcy, and their Christmas guests: Mummy, Grandad, Fig, and Binky all head to Sandringham.
Georgie soon learns that the notorious Mrs. Simpson, mistress to the Prince of Wales, will also be in attendance. It is now crystal clear to Georgie that the Queen expects her to do a bit of spying. There is tension in the air from the get-go, and when Georgie pays a visit to the queen, she learns that there is more to her request than just some simple eavesdropping. There have been a couple of strange accidents at the estate recently. Two gentlemen of the royal household have died in mysterious circumstances and another has been shot by mistake during a hunt. Georgie begins to suspect that a member of the royal family is the real target but her investigation will put her new husband and love of her life, Darcy, in the crosshairs of a killer.
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November 25, 1935
Eynsleigh House, Sussex
I'm looking out of my window on a misty November morning. A deer and fawn are standing at the edge of our woods and a couple of hares just raced across the grass. It's hard to believe that this lovely place is now my home and that my life is now so settled. I also still can't quite believe I am a married woman with a wonderful husband. Sometimes I want to pinch myself to find out if I'm dreaming. But then I don't want to wake up!
"'Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, please to put a penny in the old man's hat,'" sang my housemaid, Sally, in a high, sweet voice as she brandished the feather duster over the portraits in the long gallery. I have never actually seen the value of feather dusters. All they seem to do is to make the dust fly off one surface to land on another nearby. That was certainly happening at the moment, but then, Sally was getting into the spirit of the season and dusting like an orchestra conductor in time to her singing.
She was a trifle optimistic about Christmas coming. It was still a month away, an idea just looming at the edge of my consciousness. But the song brought a sudden realization that I'd have to do something about getting ready for the holiday season. Now that I was mistress of a great house it would be up to me to see to decorations, invite guests, buy presents. . . . Golly, I thought when I realized what might be expected of me.
Until now Christmas had been a cheerless affair at my family castle in Scotland, with my sister-in-law, Hilda, Duchess of Rannoch, commonly known as Fig, only allowing one log on the fire at a time, in spite of the fact that gales were habitually felling trees all over the estate. Now, for the first time, I could have the holiday I had always dreamed of-in my own house with my new husband, and maybe family and friends. I pictured sitting by a roaring fire with my nearest and dearest around me and went through to the study to find paper and pencil to make a list of people to invite. Darcy was sitting at the desk and looked up in surprise as I came in.
"Hello-I didn't hear you coming."
"Sorry, am I interrupting something?" I asked.
"No. Just some odds and ends I promised I'd clear up for the Foreign Office." He gave me the wonderful smile that still melted me like ice cream on a hot day, even after four months of marriage. "Did you need me?" he asked.
"No, I just came to get some paper," I said, "but Sally was singing about Christmas coming and it dawned on me that it was up to me to arrange things. I'm sure we can find a suitable tree on the estate and Mrs. Holbrook will know where decorations are stored, but we should invite people, shouldn't we? This house is far too big for just the two of us."
"A house party, you mean?"
"Gosh, that sounds a bit grand and formal, doesn't it? I was thinking more of people like Mummy and Max, Granddad, Belinda and your father and Zou Zou. Our nearest and dearest."
"I notice you haven't mentioned your next of kin." He looked up at me with a wicked grin.
"My brother, you mean?" I paused, collecting my thoughts. "Much as I love Binky and my nephew and niece he'd have to bring his wife with him. Besides, the Duke of Rannoch has responsibilities around Christmas. He has to dress up as Father Christmas and hand out gifts to the crofters' children, and preside at the gillie's ball on New Year's Eve. And Fig's awful sister, Ducky, will be bound to join them. And her even more awful brother-in-law, Foggy, and utterly dire daughter, Maude." I paused then added, "And Fig would be too cheap to pay for train tickets anyway."
"I take it that's a no," he said, making me laugh. "But what about your royal relations? The king and queen should give the party some class, shouldn't they?"
I gave him a severe look. "You are teasing," I said. "You know perfectly well they always go to Sandringham for Christmas, and besides, the king isn't well. And he hates staying in other people's houses."
"Well, there is always the Prince of Wales, and don't forget Mrs. Simpson." He was still smiling.
"Over my dead body," I retorted. "She is the last person in the world I would want to spend a holiday with-apart from Fig. Or should that be 'with whom I should want to spend a holiday'?" I paused. "In any case I'd die of nerves if I had to entertain anyone of rank, even if they would come."
Darcy looked down at the papers on the desk again.
"What about your father?" I asked. "Do you think he'll come?"
"I don't think you'll get my father to leave Ireland twice in one year," Darcy said. "You know he hates to travel. He hates mixing with people he doesn't know. And besides, it's steeplechase season. He'll have horses in the big races around Dublin."
"I'll take it that's a no," I said, repeating his words.
"I just know my father too well," he said. "But there are other people we could invite. My aunt Hawse-Gorzley, for one. We both had Christmas at her house once."
I shot him a horrified look. "Oh Darcy. Think of all the awful things that happened that Christmas. Someone died every day."
"Apart from that it was quite jolly, wasn't it?" he said, making me give an exasperated laugh.
"Darcy! I'd expect the guests to be dropping like flies if she was here."
"It wasn't my aunt's fault that people were being killed around her," Darcy pointed out. "And they did catch the murderer."
"All the same," I said, "that is a Christmas I'd prefer to forget."
"Didn't I propose to you on that occasion?" He was looking up with a challenging smile.
"That part wasn't so bad," I retorted and helped myself to writing paper.
As I was on my way out he called after me, "We'll have to invite the neighbors, you know. It's the done thing for the lady of the manor to entertain."
That brought me up short. I still hadn't quite come to terms with the knowledge that I was now not only a married woman but also supposed to be a leading light in local society.
"Oh crikey," I muttered. "A festive dinner, you mean? Boars' heads and flaming puddings and things?" My thoughts went immediately to Queenie, who was the only cook we had. She had been filling in quite well, but if it came to flaming anything . . .
"I don't think it has to be a formal meal," Darcy said. "Maybe just for a wassail bowl and mince pies."
"I think I can manage that much," I said. "I mean Queenie can manage that much. She has a surprisingly light touch with pastry."
Darcy frowned. "Speaking of Queenie-it really is about time we found a proper cook. I know she's not bad at what she does, but her food is strictly of the nursery variety. If you really do want to invite people for a house party I'm not sure they'll be thrilled with shepherd's pie and spotted dick. And God knows what she'd do to a turkey. Probably explode it."
"You're right." I chewed on my lip. "I've been meaning to do it for ages. In his last letter Sir Hubert asked me whether I'd found a good chef." In case you've forgotten, Sir Hubert was the true owner of this lovely estate. He had been one of my mother's many husbands and had made me his heir, allowing us to live at Eynsleigh while he was off climbing mountains.
"Any chance he'll be home for Christmas?" Darcy asked.
"I'm afraid not. The last letter was from Chile and he was even talking about getting a boat across to Antarctica to go exploring there. I wish he didn't live so dangerously."
"You can't make a leopard change his spots," Darcy said. "If your mother hadn't turned him down for a second time he might have stayed closer to home."
"It was because he kept going off exploring and climbing things that she left him in the first place. I believe she really does love him, but you know Mummy-she likes to be adored all the time. And she does like Max's money."
Darcy frowned. "I don't think I'd be too happy in Germany these days, however rich I was. The more I hear about Hitler and his henchmen, the more worried I get."
"Surely he's all bluster, isn't he, Darcy?" I asked. "Big speeches and parades to make the Germans feel better."
"If you want my opinion, the man is a dangerous lunatic," Darcy said. "I believe he plans no less than world domination-and your mother's Max is helping the cause by turning his factories to making guns and tanks."
This was a subject that was worrying me-one I tried to push to the back of my mind. I didn't want to admit that my mother was now deeply entrenched among the Nazis or that she might be in danger. I told myself that for all her aura of frailty she was a tough little person and could always take care of herself. I switched to a more pleasant topic.
"You'll have to do what Binky does and play Father Christmas to the local children, won't you? Doesn't the lord of the manor have to do that?"
"I suppose so. That will be fun," he said. "Good practice for when we have some of our own."
I wished he hadn't said that. It was another subject that was worrying me. We had now been married over four months and there was still no sign of a baby. I know the doctor had told me that these things take time and I should just stop worrying and let nature take its course, but there was that tiny sliver of doubt that kept whispering that there might be something wrong with me. I was absolutely sure there was nothing wrong with Darcy. His private life had been as colorful as my mother's before he met me.
"So I'll write to invite Mummy and Max, shall I?" I asked as Darcy turned his attention back to the papers on the desk. "And Belinda, Zou Zou and of course Granddad."
"It's your house," he said easily. "Invite who you want, as long as we have a cook that won't set fire to the house."
"Queenie hasn't done that yet."
"There's always time." He grinned. "I think a house party would be splendid. The more the merrier. It would be good practice for our entertaining skills."
"What about some of your friends," I said. "Anyone you'd particularly like to invite?"
"Most of my friends are still unmarried and likely to be off having fun skiing or on a yacht over Christmas," he said. "You said you'll invite Zou Zou. She's my friend too. Maybe she'll want to bring a couple of others along."
"If she doesn't go over to Ireland to be with your father."
He grimaced. "That relationship doesn't seem to be going anywhere, does it? My stupid father is too proud to pop the question because he feels he has nothing to offer her. She's a princess and he's a mere baron. And she has oodles of money and he has none."
"And I think she likes her freedom. She enjoys flying off to Paris in her little plane, doesn't she? And her house in London. I do hope she comes, Darcy. She's the life of any party, isn't she?"
"She's a wonderful person. Quite unique," he agreed. The way he said it reminded me that his relationship with Zou Zou might not have been entirely chummy, but it would have been childish to mention that. And she was a wonderful person, who, like my mother, just happened to be a magnet to men.
"Off you go then and write your invitations," Darcy said. "I think Christmas Eve to the New Year should be about the right amount of time to have guests, don't you?"
"Perfect," I said. I went off happily to the morning room and settled myself at the table in the window. It was my favorite spot when the sun was shining, which it was today. It faced the rear of the house, with a view across the grounds. Manicured lawns with a rose garden, now pruned to bare stalks for the winter, stretched to a wild woodland beyond, today laced with strands of morning mist. Dewdrops sparkled on the frosty grass. It was a perfect day to go out riding and I wished we had horses. My own horse was still at Castle Rannoch in Scotland and of course Darcy and I had no spare money to buy mounts, both coming from families who had lost their fortunes long ago. I paused for a moment, wondering how I could bring Rob Roy down from Scotland. That would be a long, and expensive, journey and one for which I couldn't ask my brother to pay. My brother, the current Duke of Rannoch, was as penniless as I was.
Then I decided that a dog might be the next best thing. One can have lovely walks with a dog. Perhaps I'd ask Darcy for one for Christmas. I pictured a black Lab puppy bounding at my heels.
I went back to the task at hand. "Dear Belinda. We are planning a little house party for Christmas and do hope you can join us if you are not going to your father's house."
"Dear Zou Zou. We are planning a little house party over Christmas and do hope you can join us. P.S. We're inviting Darcy's father. Perhaps you can persuade him to come."
"Dear Mummy. We are planning a little house party for Christmas and would love it if you and Max could come over from Germany to join us. It would be so jolly if you were here."
"Dear Granddad, I do hope you will come and stay over Christmas. I miss you and it would be perfect if you were here." I knew better than to mention the words "house party" to him. Any trace of posh or formal would make him shy away, since he came from a humble background and felt ill at ease among the upper classes. (In case you don't know my family history, my mother was a famous actress who married a duke, so I had one grandfather who had lived in a Scottish castle and one who lived in a semidetached in Essex. I adored him.)