It may be January in 2009, but in 1803, it’s still Christmas Eve (amazing how long Christmas Eve can last when one is posting two chapters a week!).
Otherwise, voila Chapter Four!
The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood….
The holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn….
The holly bears a bark, as bitter as any gall….
— “The Holly and the Ivy”
“You invited her to stay?”
“It’s just for the one night.” Richard added defensively, “Their coachman doesn’t like to drive in the snow.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
It didn’t help that Richard agreed with her. “Well, what I was supposed to do?” he asked testily. “Fling Deirdre and her aged mother out into the snow?”
The use of his former beloved’s Christian name had been a tactical error. He could see it in the narrowing of Amy’s blue eyes.
“No,” she said with dangerous calm. “You were supposed to fling them into their carriage, which is designed to ride through the snow. That’s what carriages are for.”
Richard scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Not this one apparently.” Letting his breath out in a long sigh, he looped an arm around Amy’s shoulders, pulling her against him. “Why all the fuss? If we were back at Selwick Hall, you would do the same for any other guest who didn’t want to travel. There’s certainly room enough in this old pile.”
Amy shrugged out of his embrace. “I don’t like the way she forced her way in.”
“She didn’t exactly batter down the castle gates,” Richard retorted. “My mother invited her.”
Amy made a grand, sweeping gesture. “Oh, and if your mother invited her, then it must be all right.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” From the look on Amy’s face, she didn’t know either, but she wasn’t about to admit it. Richard pressed his eyes shut. He wished he knew exactly what they were fighting about. Or was it just that they were clearly bound to fight about something? His two glasses of port—or had it been three—were beginning to catch up with him in a bad way. “Look. There was no way my mother could have not invited Deirdre. She’s a neighbor. We’ve always held open house at Uppington Hall on Christmas Eve.”
Amy folded her arms across her chest. “Of course. And she’s a part of that world.”
Richard had a feeling he was about to step into something soft and squishy, but he ventured forward anyway. “Yes.”
“And I’m not.”
Ah. That was the squishy bit. “I didn’t say that.”
Shaking her head, Amy turned away. “Never mind. I’m just— Never mind.”
Concerned, Richard followed after her, resting his hands on her shoulders. “Just what?” he asked.
He could see the bared nape of her neck as she bent her head forward, the little tendrils of curl escaping from their ribbon dark against the tender skin. Ordinarily, he would have kissed her curls away, but this didn’t seem a moment for that.
Amy gave a little shake of her head. Richard could feel her shoulders rise and fall beneath his hands as she shrugged. “Nothing,” she said, turning jerkily, so that she was addressing the top button of his waistcoat. “Just—all this. Seeing Jane. Too much mince pie.”
“It’s not the mince pie, is it?” Richard asked grimly. “It’s the Jane bit.”
Amy lifted her head. Her eyes looked darker than usual, too dark in the shadow cast by his body. Richard thought abstractedly that this was the second pair of big, soulful blue eyes he had encountered this evening in this very same room. But this time, there was a difference. He cared.
“A little,” she admitted. “No. A lot.”
Richard felt a lump in his chest that was more than just the three pieces of mince pie he had shared with his nephew. Out of the mass of indigestible emotion, he found himself blurting out, “If you had it all to do again, would you do it differently?”
Amy took a step back. Someone, presumably his niece Caroline, had stuck a sprig of holly into the bandeau that held back her curls. It had come unmoored, bobbing drunkenly beside one ear, like a buoy in a deserted sea.
“Do what?” she asked warily.
Grimacing, Richard made an abortive gesture. “All this. You had so little time over there before we had to leave—before I had to leave,” he corrected. He, at least, had had seven years playing hero, long enough, if he were being entirely honest, for the exercise to begin to stale. Amy, on the other hand, had had three months, three months after a lifetime of training. “Are you sorry?”
Richard tried to keep his voice light. “That you yoked your lot to mine.”
Amy plucked the sprig of holly from behind her ear, squinted at it, made a face, and tossed it onto the desk. “I don’t usually think of it as a yoke.”
Richard didn’t like the sound of that “usually”. “Just when Jane comes to visit, then.”
Amy sketched an impatient gesture that could equally be taken as negation, assent, or do-we-really-have-to-talk-about-this-now? “We should be getting back,” she said. “Your mother wanted to get up a game of charades.”
“Bother the chara—”
“And you have house guests now.”
Richard cursed bloody Deirdre, her bloody mother, and their bloody coachman to perdition. He threw in the snow for good measure while he was at it. Bother the snow.
“I had house guests before,” muttered Richard. “And they aren’t my guests, they’re my parents’ guests.”
Amy dignified that with all the response it deserved. None. Tucking her holly more firmly into her hair, she swept the train of her red velvet dress up over her arm and started for the door, back towards charades, and house guests, and assorted dotty relatives who would effectively preclude their having any sort of meaningful conversation just by being themselves. Not that he was doing too well on the conversation front as it was—digging his own grave appeared to be the operative phrase—but he couldn’t let her go off looking like that. Not when it lay within his power to fix it.
“Wait—” Richard caught his wife by the hand. She looked back over her shoulder. A holly berry gave up its hold on her hair ornament and jounced off her shoulder before rolling harmlessly to the carpet. Before Richard could allow himself to think better of it, he took a very deep breath, and rattled off, all at once, “Would-you-like-to-go-back-to-France?”
Amy dropped her train in her surprise. The heavy fabric slid to the ground with a swish like falling snow. “What?”
“When Jane goes back, you could, too. It would be tricky”—Richard paused, fighting the impulse to enumerate and multiply the trickiness until it moved from tricky into impossible—“but it could be done,” he finished nobly. “You can still do what you always wanted to do.”
That part appeared to have occurred to Amy, too. “And what about you?”
Richard shrugged. “Miles seems to think that there’s work to be done on this end.”
The idea didn’t hold much savor at the moment. Going back to an empty house to code dispatches at the end of the day struck him as immeasurably lonely. He’d got used to being part of a pair. Being by himself would feel like being—well, holly without the ivy. Mince without the pie. Something less than the sum of its parts.
Amy slowly gathered up the fabric of her train, pleating it up bit by little bit, with slow movements entirely unlike her usual self. “So I would go back to France and you would stay here.”
No, he wanted to say. Out of the question. But having broached the possibility, he couldn’t snatch it away again. There were nasty names for people who offered gifts and then took them back.
“It is a possibility,” he said, as neutrally as he could. “Think about it. Decide what you want.”
Amy looked at him sideways, her brows drawing together over her nose. “What do you want?”
That was easy enough. For both of them to be in France again, swinging through windows on ropes, leaving mocking notes on pillows, and spiriting men out of prison, together.
Oh, hell. He didn’t even need France. It was the together bit that counted. He would settle for being back at Selwick Hall, pre-Christmas, pre-Deirdre, setting up their spy school and arguing over the best route from Calais to Paris.
He took refuge in banalities. “For you to be happy.”
“On the opposite side of the Channel?”
I could not love thee dear so much, loved I not honor more…. It had always been one of his favorite verses. Why should it be only the woman who waited, while the man went adventuring? The sentiment applied both ways.
“If that’s what it takes,” he said grimly. That hadn’t come out quite right, had it? This whole waving from the castle portcullis thing might be harder than he had thought. Pinning his face into a great, big, fake smile, Richard said with exaggerated heartiness, “Think about it. Consider it… a Christmas gift.”
“Thank you.” Amy’s voice was curiously subdued, her face shadowed by that absurd sprig of greenery. Shouldn’t she be… happier? Excited? Relieved? Richard frowned, trying to see around the spiky leaves. “I will.”
Richard’s eyes followed his wife’s progress as she strode out of the room. He was trying to read the set of her back. It told him nothing more than that her dress appeared to have even more than the usual number of buttons and that if the set of her shoulders was anything to go by, he wasn’t going to be the one undoing them. He had blundered and he wasn’t quite sure how.
Wasn’t that what she wanted? To have the chance to go back to France?
Bloody snow. Bloody Deirdre. Bloody, bloody, bloody Christmas. He knew he should have just given her a kitten.
Richard realized, belatedly and unhelpfully, just how much he had counted on an immediate denial. She was supposed to elated, tearful, thankful—and then say no. “No, dearest,” said a ridiculous falsetto in his head. “Never mind the espionage. My place is here with you.” Cue embracing. And so forth. He got to be all noble, she said no, and they all lived happily ever after.
Instead… Richard buried his head in his hands. What the devil was he to do when she actually took him up on his offer?
* * *
The holly was bobbing loose against her cheek again.
Plucking it out, Amy let it drop onto one of the small tables that littered the hallway. She wasn’t feeling terribly festive at the moment. In the space of five minutes, the entire holiday had gone as rancid as last year’s Christmas pudding.
It couldn’t be a good thing when one’s husband of nine months started suggesting cross-Channel living arrangements.
There was a cold breeze in the center hall, snaking under the heavily carved panels of the front door, whistling around the corners of the windows, lurking beneath the great curved dome of a ceiling that soared three stories above. The greenery Lady Uppington had draped across every available surface ought to have leant warmth to the space but the vast proportions of the chamber seemed to dwarf all human efforts. Amy pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders.
There was someone else in the hall, blending neatly into the wall. It was Jane, holding a creased piece of paper close by one of the tall branches of candles that lit the hall.
“What are you reading?” Amy asked, crossing the hall to her cousin.
“Just some… verse,” said Jane abstractedly.
“Verse?” It was Mrs. Ramsby, standing in the open door of the receiving room.
In a moment, Jane had gone from an accomplished operative to a blushing debutante. The transformation was astounding. A gentle flush stained her perfect porcelain cheeks as she modestly lowered her eyelashes. “Just—just a poem,” she faltered, the picture of maidenly guilt. “From a friend.”
Pat on her cue, Miss Gwen stalked out from behind Mrs. Ramsby. “A gentleman friend, no doubt,” she snarled. “Give it here.”
Jane pressed the scrap of paper to her chest, looking imploringly at her chaperone.
Miss Gwen extended her hand.
Reluctantly, clinging to the paper until the last moment, Jane surrendered the forbidden token to her chaperone.
It was, thought Amy, better than the dumb show in Hamlet, and far better acted than most theatricals she had seen, even at the Comedie Francaise.
“One of those London bucks, I shouldn’t wonder,” snapped Miss Gwen, reveling in her role. “Hmph!”
“It’s just a poem,” offered Amy, doing her best to play along, but something about the smoothness of the interplay between Jane and Miss Gwen made her feel like a grain of sand that had somehow got into a well-oiled clockwork.
Miss Gwen turned the full force of her glower on her former charge. “Poems today, love letters tomorrow. Don’t think I’ve forgotten your example, missy!”
“Hullo! What’s everyone doing out here?” Henrietta poked her head around the door, followed by Lady Jerard. Amy could have hugged her. Henrietta, that was. Not Lady Jerard. “Don’t worry. You’re not missing anything at charades. Miles is being a glass elephant again.”
An indignant howl came from within the reception room. “They hadn’t guessed it yet!” echoed hollowly through the hall.
“They were going to!” Henrietta tossed back blithely over her shoulder. “He’s always a glass elephant. What’s the entertainment out here? Mummers? Morris dancers?”
“Poetry,” offered Amy.
“Oh,” breathed Lady Jerard. “Did Richard write you poetry, too? I mean—oh dear, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?”
Amy tossed her head. “I’ve always preferred prose.”
“You mean he didn’t write you any poetry,” cackled Miss Gwen.
“I think I’m going to watch Miles be a glass elephant,” said Henrietta loudly. “Who wants to join me?”
Everyone, apparently. Amy watched as Henrietta expertly shooed the straying guests back into the reception room. It was a useful skill for a hostess to have, guest herding. As they trooped back into the room, she could hear Miss Gwen’s voice raised in strong disapproval of any pachyderm with the poor sense to choose such a fragile material as glass. “Entirely impractical!”
Amy lingered behind, waiting until Henrietta had signaled the footmen to close the twin door behind them before sidling over to Jane’s side.
“What was it really?” Amy asked. “Before Miss Gwen appropriated it?”
“Better Miss Gwen than someone else.” Jane’s brows pulled together, creating two small, perfect furrows. Even Jane’s worry lines were symmetrical. Amy could feel her own hair sticking up on one side where she had pulled out the holly, and hastily shoved it back under the bandeau. “It was a message. From Augustus. In verse,” she added, with a hint of a smile.
Augustus Whittlesby had carefully cultivated his reputation as the most prolific poet in France, author of verse so bad that even Bonaparte’s secret police thought twice before trying to slog through it.
So it was Augustus now, was it? Amy had long had her suspicions that Whittlesby’s attentions were more than professional. But Jane didn’t look like a woman who had just received a love letter.
Jane frowned. “It was foolhardy of him to send it to me here.”
“It is in code, isn’t it? In verse.”
“I believe we clarified that already,” said Jane dryly. “Oughtn’t you to be enjoying the charades?”
“I don’t like glass elephants.” Now would be the time to tell Jane that she was free to join her in France. But Amy balked. Instead, she found herself blurting out. “Have you heard that the lovely Lady Jerard is staying the night?”
Jane delicately raised her brows. “The same lovely Lady Jerard who used to receive poetry from your husband?”
Amy bared her teeth. “That is the one.”
“I don’t think you really have anything to worry about,” said Jane kindly.
Why was it that being told not to worry made one more inclined to do so? “Of course I’m not worried,” Amy lied stoutly. And she wasn’t. Not really. Not about that.
“I’m surprised Lady Uppington invited her,” Jane said thoughtfully, digging the hole deeper. “Given her history.”
Amy didn’t ask how Jane knew. Jane knew everything. Always had done, always would. There were times when it came in quite handy. At other times it was unspeakably infuriating. Fortunately, this was one of the former. The fewer explanations she needed to make, the better.
“I think she wanted to gloat,” said Amy frankly. “Over Richard being all settled. Besides, it was just her maid who was the French spy.”
“And her maid was dismissed,” Jane mused.
“Well, yes. One would assume so.”
“She was.” Jane sounded quite definitive about it. “Without references.”
Sometimes, Jane had the most irritating way of getting caught up in inconsequentialities. “What sort of references would one give? Excellent at cleaning linen, eavesdropping, and general mayhem?”
Jane gave Amy one of her patient looks. “Which meant that no one was able to track her down after… the incident. She simply disappeared.”
“Back to France, presumably.” Amy couldn’t have cared less about the loathsome Deirdre’s former maid.
To be fair, Deirdre wasn’t even so loathsome. She was just generally insipid. When it came down to it, Amy wasn’t even really jealous of her. Richard wasn’t the sort to pine after lost loves. Lost careers, on the other hand….
On the whole, Amy would far rather the problem were Lady Jerard. One could compete against another woman. One couldn’t compete against a lost way of life, especially when one was the direct cause of the losing of it.
“Oh, drat it all,” Amy said belligerently, starting across the hall. Even glass elephants were preferable to the unpleasant gyre of her own thoughts. And maybe she could find Peregrine and get him to mash some more mince pie against her dress. “It’s Christmas Eve and I’m going to go play charades.”
Jane regarded the drawing room doors with an abstracted expression on her face. “It may be a more interesting game than you think.”