Welcome to our first installment of An Entirely Gratuitous Selwick Christmas Novella (hmm, really must think of a catchier title).
Back in 1803, it’s Christmas Eve. At the Uppington estate in Kent, all the usual suspects are gathering….
Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
— “Deck the Hall”
“Darling, you’ve already had three,” said Amy, scooping her new nephew away from the buffet table before he could hook another mince pie in his grubby little fingers. It was mince with which his fingers were grubby, but that was beside the point.
“Four!” said Peregrine proudly. He had just learned to count and he was justifiably pleased with the new skill.
He looked expectantly at Amy. His new party trick had already garnered a proven record of tangible rewards from impressionable adults. Auntie Amy was no exception.
“All right,” Amy capitulated. She scooped up the slice of pie and offered it down to him. “’Tis the season, after all.”
“Mmmph,” agreed Peregrine, mashing a large quantity of mince against his face and a very little bit of it in his mouth. At least that way, thought Amy optimistically, he had small odds of stomachache, even if his velvet suit wasn’t likely to survive until Christmas Day.
All around her, Uppington Hall was decked for Christmas. Greenery dripped from balustrades and portrait rails, from moldings and doorframes. Irreverent crowns of prickly holly perched on the heads of marble busts of past monarchs, visual symbol of the Uppingtons’ favor at court over the generations. Even the paired blackamoor candelabra positioned on either side of the door bore belts of red ribbon around their waists. Only the painted deities on the ceiling had been spared decoration, and that, Amy, was sure, was only because her mother-in-law couldn’t reach them.
It was Amy’s first Christmas as Uppington Hall, principal seat of the Marquesses of Uppington, her first Christmas as part of the Uppington clan, her first Christmas as a married woman. In grand seigneurial fashion, the Uppingtons were holding open house for Christmas Eve, with all of the local gentry invited to partake of mince pie, Christmas pudding, and a variety of less seasonal delicacies. The air smelled delightfully of cloves and orange peel and the boys of the local church choir were singing away in the corner of the room, their pure, high treble voices lifted to the heavens in a song of praise.
A gloved finger tapped her on the shoulder. “The season for what?”
“Jane!” Amy launched herself at her cousin.
Fortunately, Jane was accustomed to Amy’s ways. She braced herself in preparation for just such a move and so was spared careening into a bust of the first Marquess of Uppington. The marble marquess had suffered indignities enough for one holiday season. In addition to his habitually disgruntled expression, he wore a chaplet of holly from which the berries were already beginning to fall. Lady Uppington believed in leaving no unmoving surface undecorated.
Amy had her suspicions about the moving ones as well, but since she seldom stayed still, she assumed she was safe.
Amy gave an extra little bounce as she gave her favorite cousin an exuberant hug. “When did you get here? I didn’t hear you arrive.”
Jane smiled the enigmatic smile she appeared to have perfected during her time abroad. “You weren’t meant to.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “You can’t claim to be here incognito. Not with the whole family in tow.”
Uncle Bertrand and Aunt Prudence had arrived the night before, in an antiquated carriage laden with assorted offspring, Aunt Prudence’s embroidery bag, and one agitated sheep. The sheep, apparently, was a Christmas present. Amy only hoped it wasn’t intended for her. She had had enough of her sheep in her upbringing in Shropshire, when the French Revolution had exiled her to the care of her aunt and uncle.
It had been Amy’s mother-in-law’s idea to invite Amy’s family to join them all for Christmas at Uppington Hall, the official seat of the Marquesses of Uppington. It was, Amy had to admit, a very thoughtful notion. She was more pleased than she cared to admit to have familiar faces around her.
Well, maybe not all the familiar faces.
A sharp object was doing its best to make a dent in Amy’s left side. It turned out, upon inspection, to be a fan.
Only one woman carried a fan that pointy and wielded it with such deadly precision.
“Incognita,” snapped Amy’s former chaperone, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, driving the point home with another jab of her fan. “Incognita, not incognito. Despite a masculine occupation, one need not abandon the feminine persona.”
Jane’s lips turned up at a private joke. “Except, perhaps, when it might be expedient so to do?” she suggested demurely.
Miss Gwen sniffed. “Expedient,” she allowed, “but never ungrammatical.”
There had been an untold story in that sniff. Perhaps more than one.
Amy looked quizzically from Jane to Miss Gwen, trying not to look as left out as she felt.
Only eight months ago—not that she was counting—they had been a team, the three of them. She was the one who had started it all, after all. It had been her idea to track down the Purple Gentian, her idea to join the ranks of those cunning men who slipped from shadow to shadow, outwitting Bonaparte at every turn. But she hadn’t managed to stay quite shadowy enough, and in the space of one fatal evening, everything had changed. Now it was Jane staying with her brother in her old house, Jane outwitting Bonaparte, Jane getting written up in the illustrated papers as the most daring thing to enter the scene since espionage went botanical.
Amy knew she shouldn’t resent Jane for carrying on with their plans. The point was the goal, not the individual agent.
But she did resent it. It wasn’t logical, and she didn’t like it, but there it was. She wanted to be the one making daring midnight raids on the Tuileries Palace and composing insulting little notes to leave on Bonaparte’s pillow. She had spent years plotting and scheming to find the Purple Gentian and join his League. It was ridiculous beyond all things that the very accomplishment of that goal should have been the cause of both of them being barred from Paris and espionage altogether. It was like of the Greek tragedies her father had loved so well, where the accomplishment of a wish led to its own destruction.
Not that Amy was complaining, she told herself hastily. If she had to choose between her husband and another season’s spying in France… well, Richard was solid and real and kept the bed warm on cold nights and never once thought it was odd or unladylike when she wanted to practice shooting at targets or climbing over fences or other skills that might just come in handy again. There were many spies in the world but only one man she could imagine spending the rest of her life with.
They were happy, really they were. And no one could say they hadn’t made good use of their exile. Together, they had cobbled together a comprehensive curriculum for the training of secret agents, combining Richard’s experience in the field with some of Amy’s more inventive ideas to produce a program that purported to plan for every possible contingency. They were still working out some of the kinks in the curriculum, but their first batch of pupils were coming along quite nicely.
But teaching wasn’t the same as doing. If she minded it, how much more must Richard?
She had caught him, more than once, plotting out routes on the atlas that he would never again follow, and, when he didn’t know she was looking, she had seen him staring broodingly at his old cloak and mask, tokens of the work that was lost to him.
No matter. It was Christmas; they were together; and they were happy. ‘Twas the season. It was practically mandatory to be happy at Christmas. She was happy. She was, she was, she was.
Even if she was just a teeny tiny bit jealous of Jane.
“How long are you back for?” Amy asked her cousin.
“Just past Christmas,” said Jane. “I don’t like to leave our affairs unattended for that long.”
“I’m glad you were able to get back at all,” said Amy, trying to sound enthusiastic.
Jane smiled down at her. “You made it very easy for me. How clever of you to find relatives with an estate so near the coast.”
Despite herself, Amy grinned back. She knew better than to ask Jane exactly how Jane had made her way from Paris or how she intended to return. Jane kept her own counsel on such matters. It was a trait Amy had found maddening while they were working together. One could never tell quite what Jane was planning until she had done it.
Discretion was something Jane had always done very well. She, on the other hand….
It was her indiscretion that had bollixed Richard’s career as the Purple Gentian.
“Well, happy Christmas!” she said, so forcefully that Jane blinked and Miss Gwen frowned. But, then, Miss Gwen always frowned. It was when Miss Gwen smiled that one had to worry.
“Hmph,” said Miss Gwen. “Christmas hasn’t happened yet. We have no idea if it will be happy or not.”
“Spreading good cheer as always, I see?” Richard strolled over to join them, accompanied by two women.
One of the ladies was roughly his own age, with pale blonde hair clustered in curls around a china oval of a face. The other, her mother by the look of it, had the determined look of the faded beauty, trying to make up in too-rich fabric and jewels what she could no longer accomplish with her face. Her white hair had been swept into an elaborate coiffure topped with a diamond parure. A very silly thing, Amy thought, to be wearing to a county affair, even one at the home of a marchioness. The older woman clung very determinedly to Richard’s arm.
Detaching her without visible sign of effort, Richard moved in a touching show of husbandly devotion to his accustomed place by Amy’s side.
It was, thought Amy, rather clever of him. It put her in between him and Miss Gwen’s fan. He was no fool, her husband. He smelled rather nice, too. Like citrus. With a hint of cloves. He must have been raiding the gingerbread again.
Quick to deflect any accusations of good cheer, Miss Gwen favored Richard with her steeliest stare. “Don’t expect me to start spreading goodwill towards men. Useless, the most of them.”
“What about peace on earth, then?” inquired Richard blandly.
“Bah,” said Miss Gwen.
“Bah?” inquired the older of the women Richard had brought with him, in tones of frigid disbelief. “Bah?”
Miss Gwen looked down her nose. “One bah was entirely sufficient. There is no need to imitate a herd of sheep.”
“Sheep?” Uncle Bertrand might be slightly deaf when it came to social niceties, but any mention of his favorite subject brought him bounding to his feet. He crossed the room in record time. “Did I hear sheep?”
“Ah,” murmured Richard. “The pitter-patter of playful sheep.”
“I had a lamb once,” said the blonde woman helpfully. “But it was a very long time ago.”
“Never too late for another,” said Uncle Bertrand heartily, clearly empathizing with her plight.
Amy hastily intervened. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” she said, forestalling Uncle Bertrand before he could inquire after the name, age, and cause of death of the late, lamented little lamb.
“Forgive me for neglecting my duties,” said Richard. “Allow me to present Mrs. Ramsby and her daughter, Lady Jerard.” He carried on with the introductions, presenting Miss Gwen, Jane, and Uncle Bertrand in turn, but Amy heard nothing after that second name.
Baroness Jerard. Here. Now. For Christmas.
Why hadn’t anyone warned her?
Amy must have said the civil thing. She must have bowed or curtsied. Early training did win through, even when one’s mind was entirely elsewhere.
No one had told her that Lady Uppington had invited Richard’s…. Oh, heavens, Amy didn’t even know what to call the dratted woman. First love? First disappointment? Careless betrayer of valiant English agents?
There wasn’t an exactly a one word tag for the-woman-who-broke-his-heart-and-caused-the-death-of-his-second-closest-friend.
At times, the English language was sadly lacking in crucial terms.