Under the mistletoe, p.1

Under the Mistletoe, page 1

 

Under the Mistletoe
 



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Under the Mistletoe


  Under the Mistletoe

  Mary Balogh

  An omnibus of novels

  Old loves rekindled, new loves found, and family bonds strengthened are the themes of these stories from the beloved, multiple-award winning author Mary Balogh. The four classic stories included here are The Star of Bethlehem, The Best Gift, Playing House, and No Room at the Inn. The new story exclusive to this trade collection is A Family Christmas.

  Mary Balogh

  Under the Mistletoe

  © 2003

  A Family Christmas

  “Well?” Lady Templar watched impatiently as her daughter folded her letter and set it down beside her plate on the breakfast table.

  “Mr. Chambers will be coming for Christmas,” Elizabeth replied, rearranging the napkin across her lap.

  “Here? To Wyldwood Hall?” Her mother looked aghast. “How dreadfully inconvenient.”

  “It is his home, Mama,” Elizabeth reminded her.

  “His father purchased it as a trophy,” Lady Templar said disdainfully, as if that fact made it less a possession. “He thought it would elevate him into the ranks of the beau monde and erase the vulgar smell of commerce from his person. He thought to make doubly sure by purchasing a well-bred bride for his son. Well, the son may have both the home and the bride, but he is as much a cit as his father, Lizzie. He is an embarrassment. I wish in my heart now that we had not invited the whole family to spend Christmas here. But it is too late to change our plans. Tomorrow everyone will be arriving. How very provoking, to be sure, that Mr. Chambers will be here too.”

  We? Elizabeth thought. Our plans? It was her mother who had invited everyone to Wyldwood. She had written the invitations and sent them on their way before Elizabeth had even known about her plan for a family Christmas.

  Elizabeth folded her napkin again, set it neatly beside her plate, and rose to her feet. She had not eaten, but she had lost her appetite. Mr.

  Chambers was coming home.

  “Will you excuse me?” she asked. “There are a thousand and one tasks I must attend to.”

  “All of which you will leave to me, Lizzie,” her mother said firmly.

  “You know I am far more experienced than you in managing servants and organizing large house parties.”

  Elizabeth smiled at her but did not sit down again. She left the room and made her way straight up to the nursery. It was not time to feed Jeremy yet. There would have been time first to complete several of the tasks she had spoken of. But she needed to compose herself. The letter had upset her. So had her mother’s open contempt for Mr. Chambers. Lord and Lady Templar had come to Wyldwood in August to be close to their daughter during her confinement in September, and they still had not returned home. Lady Templar had taken over the running of the household, and it had run smoothly ever since.

  Elizabeth could not dispute the truth of what her mother had just said about her superior competence. But oh, how she longed to have her home back to herself again, even if she was less experienced at running a large house. But how could she say anything to hurt her mother? She had never been an assertive person.

  Now all of her aunts and uncles and cousins, as well as her brother and his wife and son, were coming for Christmas-and so was Mr. Chambers. She really had not expected that he would come. She had not even written to inform him of the family Christmas that her mother had planned and to which she had acquiesced after the fact because it was always easier to let Lady Templar have her way than try to fight her.

  The baby’s nurse was sitting close to the window, sewing. Elizabeth indicated with one raised hand that she was not to get up. Jeremy was awake in the crib, making little baby noises, though he was not crying.

  She bent over him, smiling and cooing to him, and lifted him out. She could never resist holding him; he was so soft and cuddly, even though her mother had warned her during the month after his birth that she would spoil him if she gave him too much attention. If love could spoil a person, then so be it.

  It was her one little rebellion against her mother.

  Mr. Chambers was coming home. Edwin. She formed his name with her lips, though she did not speak it aloud. She never had said it aloud-except during their nuptial service.

  Her mother had just spoken with the utmost disdain of Mr. Chambers’s father, who had attempted to buy his way into the upper classes by purchasing a viscount’s daughter for his son. But Mama had been quite as eager for the marriage, Elizabeth thought with some bitterness, and Papa had voiced no complaint. The marriage settlement had enabled them to pay off all the considerable family debts, the result of years of gaming and extravagant living. It had not seemed to matter then that Mr. Chambers’s father was a city merchant without birth or connections and spoke with a hearty Cockney accent. The only important consideration had been that he was as wealthy as a nabob. Privately, of course, they had considered it lowering to have to marry their only daughter to his son, but sacrifices had to be made if they were to maintain the style of living to which their consequence entitled them.

  Elizabeth had been the sacrifice. She had been married off to Mr. Edwin Chambers a little over a year ago, early in December, two weeks before the elder Mr. Chambers died of a heart seizure. During those two weeks Jeremy had been conceived. After the funeral of his father, the younger Mr. Chambers had settled his wife on the grand estate his father had purchased less than a year before, and returned to London to manage the family business. She had seen him on only one occasion since. He had come to Wyldwood after the birth of their son in September. He had visited her in her bedchamber for ten minutes each day, but even during those brief sessions her mother had always been present and had dominated the conversation, choosing topics-deliberately, it had seemed to Elizabeth-designed to exclude her son-in-law or demand only one-word answers from him. He had returned to London after less than a week, with only a few brief words of good-bye to Elizabeth-in her mother’s company.

  He was a stiff, proud, humorless, morose man. As handsome as sin, it was true, with his blond hair and regular features and trim, elegant figure, but with no character or personality or human warmth with which to attract even the mildest affection. He had been a dreadful disappointment to Elizabeth. Nevertheless, he was her husband, and it hurt to hear her mother belittle him.

  When the nurse went downstairs to fetch more mending, Elizabeth sat down. She set the baby on her lap, his head nestled between her knees.

  She held him by the ankles and lifted his legs one at a time to kiss the soft soles of his feet.

  “And he is your papa, my precious,” she said aloud. “He is coming home for Christmas.”

  Jeremy blew a bubble.

  Perhaps, she thought, if he stayed for a week or two he could leave her with child again. It was not an entirely unwelcome prospect. Jeremy gave meaning to her lonely life. Another child could only enliven her existence even more. It was only the process she dreaded. He had not treated her roughly during the two weeks following their wedding-not by any means. He had done only what her mother had warned her he would do.

  It had not even been painful, except a little the first time. But she had been chilled and humiliated by the impersonality of it all.

  “But I will say this,” Elizabeth told her son, taking his little hands in hers and clapping them while he cooed at her. “You were worth every minute of it. And your brother or sister would be worth as many minutes more.”

  It was strange how sometimes she ached for what she had found so terribly disappointing.

  Sometimes Edwin thought that perhaps he had been too fond of his father, who had loved him with every beat of his great, generous heart. His father had worked for years longer than necessary in order to make sure that his son would live
the life of a gentleman. Edwin had had an expensive tutor and had later gone to one of the best schools in England and then to Cambridge. He had been given, in fact, every social and educational advantage that money could buy, as well as oceans of love.

  Wyldwood Hall had been bought for him. So had his bride, with the idea that she would provide him with an entrée to the highest ranks of the society into which he had not been born but for which he had been raised and educated. If it was possible to die happy, the elder Mr. Chambers had done it.

  His son had made him happy by allowing himself to be formed into the sort of person he would rather not have been and placed in the sort of world he would rather not live in with a wife not of his own choosing.

  He had loved his father-perhaps too much.

  It was a gray, blustery, raw day, two days before Christmas, when Edwin Chambers rode up the long driveway toward Wyldwood Hall. He looked ahead to the imposing stone mansion with a sinking heart. It was his, but it did not feel like home. It never had. He would rather be going almost anywhere else on earth to spend Christmas, he thought-except that his wife was here. And his child. And when all was said and done, he was sufficiently his father’s son that he could not simply turn from what was his or shirk his responsibilities altogether.

  His father had never understood that all Edwin had ever wanted was to be proudly his son, to allow him into the family business, to speak with a Cockney accent if he so wished, to marry a woman of his own choosing from his own world and bring up sons and daughters to be proud of their heritage. But it was not his father’s fault that he had never understood. Edwin had never told him, had never been willing to dash the dearest dream of his father’s life. In addition, he had known for a number of years that his father was dying of a heart disease.

  Perhaps it was wrong to allow one’s life to be manipulated, even when the motive was nothing more heinous than love. But he had done it, and he must live with the consequences.

  Lord and Lady Templar would still be here, he did not doubt. They had come for a month or so and stayed for almost five. They would continue to live here, he supposed, for the rest of their lives. Their own home was shabby and in dire need of all sorts of repairs, none of which they could afford. And so Christmas must be spent, not only with his wife and son, but with his mother- and father-in-law, who had never made any secret of the disdain they felt for their daughter’s husband. They had driven him away in September. He had been unwilling to assert his will against them-most particularly his mother-in-law-while his wife was still so weak after giving birth to Jeremy. They would not drive him away this time until he was ready to leave. But the thought of the inevitable conflict was a dreary one.

  He swung down from the saddle outside the great double front doors and handed the reins to a groom, who had materialized from the stables without having to be summoned. He wondered if his approach had been noted from the house too, if it had been watched for with as much reluctance as he felt. Even as he wondered, the front doors swung open from within, and the butler was bowing regally to him and welcoming him home.

  Edwin nodded affably and bade the butler a good afternoon.

  “Is Mrs. Chambers at home?” he asked.

  But she was coming through the stairway arch even as he spoke, and he was struck again, as he had been thirteen months or so ago, when he had set eyes on her for the first time, by her breathtaking beauty. She was on the tall side, slender and yet shapely. She bore herself with an aristocratic grace that was bred into her very bones. She had dark golden hair, large blue eyes, and perfect features.

  She was like an icicle, he had thought from the start-and nothing had happened since to cause him to change that initial impression-ethereally lovely, but icy cold, frigid to the heart. Everything about her bearing and manner proclaimed her contempt for the man who had allowed his father to purchase her as a trophy for his son.

  She curtsied. “Mr. Chambers,” she said. “I trust you had a pleasant journey?”

  He inclined his head to her as he handed a footman his hat and greatcoat and gloves. She had never called him by his given name, though he had invited her to do so when he had called upon her to go through the farce of proposing marriage to her. He had deliberately called her by hers after their nuptials, though she had never invited him to do so. Her greeting chilled and irritated him. The married couples from his world did not address each another with such impersonal formality.

  “Yes, thank you, Elizabeth,” he said. “You are well? You have recovered your health?”

  “Yes, thank you,” she said.

  “And my son?”

  The tightening of her lips was almost imperceptible, but it suggested unexpressed annoyance. He wished he could recall his words and speak them again to refer to Jeremy as their son. But he was accustomed to boasting to his friends about his golden-haired boy-my son-whom he had last seen when the child was ten days old.

  “He is well, thank you,” she said.

  If, he thought ruefully, he had married a woman from his own world, she would perhaps have greeted him each evening of the past year on his return home from work with a smile and a kiss and warm, open arms and an eagerness to share her day with him and to hear about his. He would naturally have thought of their child as ours. He would have seen their son every day of the child’s life.

  But he had only himself to blame that things were not so. His father had not forced him into this marriage. Indeed, he would have been horrified if he had realized that Edwin did not really want it.

  “Would you like to go to your room to freshen up?” she asked, her eyes moving over him and making him intensely aware of the less than pristine state of the clothes in which he had been riding for the better part of the day. “I have guests in the drawing room.”

  “Lord and Lady Templar?” he said. “I trust they are well?”

  “Yes, thank you,” she said. Her chin rose a notch, and she suddenly looked arrogant as well as cold. “We decided to have a family Christmas here. All the members of my family arrived yesterday.”

  What? Good Lord! Without any consultation with him? Was he to have been even informed? How disastrous his own decision to come home at such short notice must have seemed to his wife and her family. How disastrous it seemed to him! If he could, he would have turned and left the house without further ado and ridden away back to London. All her family? He had never even met most of them. Their wedding had been a fair-sized affair, but apart from Lord and Lady Templar and their son and daughter-in-law, all the guests had been his family and his friends and his father’s. He could not leave now, though.

  He would not leave. This was, after all his home.

  “I will meet and welcome them to Wyldwood later,” he said. “But first I would like to go to the nursery. Will you come there with me?”

  “Of course.” She turned to accompany him through the arch to the staircase. She clasped her hands gracefully in front of her, discouraging him from offering his arm.

  “How many guests?” he asked as they ascended the stairs. He could hear the chill in his own voice. He had never been able to inject warmth into it when speaking with his wife. How could one hold a warm conversation with an icicle?

  “Thirty-two adults altogether,” she said. “Thirty-three now.”

  He winced inwardly. Under different circumstances he might have felt some amusement over the realization that he had made the numbers odd.

  Doubtless his wife and his mother-in-law had planned meticulously in order to ensure even numbers. He would even be willing to wager that of the other thirty-two adults sixteen were gentlemen and sixteen ladies, even though normally one would not expect a family to fall into such a neat pattern.

  He was surprised when he opened the nursery door and stood to one side to allow his wife to precede him inside. He had expected a hush appropriate for a sleeping baby. Instead there was a noisy, cheerful hubbub. But of course-there must be children as well as adults in her family. There was a vast number
of the former, it seemed, all rushing about at play, all talking-or, rather, yelling-at once. A few nurses were supervising, but by no means subduing them.

  Several of the children stopped what they were doing to see who was coming in. A few of them came closer, and a copper-haired, freckled little boy demanded to know who Edwin was.

  “You must remember to mind your manners, Charles,” Elizabeth said, nevertheless showing a human touch by ruffling the hair of the offender.

  “This is your… uncle. Charles is Bertie’s eldest,” she explained, naming her brother. She identified the other children in the group, all of them cousins or the children of cousins.

  “What is your name?” Charles asked.

  “Charles!” Elizabeth exclaimed, sounding embarrassed.

  But Edwin held up a hand. “Have you noticed,” he asked, winking at the boy, “that when a lad does not know something he ought to know, adults invariably tell him he should have asked? Yet when he does ask, he is treated as if he had been impertinent?”

  “Ye-e-es!” The children were all in loud agreement, and Edwin grinned at them all.

  “He is Uncle… Edwin,” Elizabeth explained.

  There was a chorus of requests that Uncle Edwin come and play with them.

  He held up a staying hand again, chuckling as he did so. Almost all his closest friends had young families, who for some inexplicable reason always saw him as a potential playmate. His friends claimed that it happened because he was still a child at heart. He liked children.

  “Tomorrow,” he promised. “We will play so hard that you will not have to be told to go to bed in the evening. In fact, you will beg your nurses to let you go there.”

  There was a swell of derisive denials. Charles, who was obviously something of a leader, snorted.

  “It is a promise,” Edwin told them. “But today I have come to see a certain baby by the name of Jeremy, who is mine. Has anyone seen him running around here, by any chance?” He looked around him with a frown of concentration.

 
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