Just to give you a hint of what else is to come, it turns out that Eloise and Colin wanted to get in the game, so there is now a Prologue and Epilogue that will be released once our historical story has run its course. I know it seems a little upside down to have the Prologue appear after the body of the story, but… oh well. Eloise does have a habit of running late.
Finally, before we move on to the chapter at hand, I have a brief mea culpa to offer. Eloise might be late, but the carol I used as the heading for this chapter is early; thirteen years too early, to be precise. The song Silent Night wasn’t written until 1816. But it was too perfect not to press into service, considering that Uppington Hall was having an anything but silent night. Apologies to you music historians out there who must be gnashing your teeth at the miraculous pre-occurrence of the song a full thirteen years before it was actually written.
Now on to Chapter Five….
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
— “Silent Night”
The room was quiet. Too quiet.
Amy flung out an arm and felt along the empty space next to her. The sheets were cold, the mattress smooth, not dented by the weight of a human form. Richard still hadn’t come to bed.
If she went to France, the other side of the bed would always be cold.
That was another problem with an empty bed; there was too much space for thought to creep in. Never a good idea late at night. Groaning, Amy rubbed her face in the pillow before levering herself on an elbow to peer at the clock on the mantel. The fire had burned down, but there was just enough of a glow left to make out the faint shape of the hands of the clock, angled somewhere past three.
The snow had died down sometime after midnight, lending the landscape outside the draperies an eerie calm. The branches of the trees were stark and black beneath their white tracery, and the moon glinted blue-white off the frost-crisped snow. There were already tracks across the ground, the double dots left by deer and the longer, blurrier footprints left by their two legged peers, the gardeners and the gamekeepers.
Where was Richard? She had left him playing billiards with Miles, after Henrietta had made sure that the pointy sticks were going to be used entirely for hitting the balls and not each other. It wasn’t like him to stay up so late. On the other hand, it also wasn’t every day that he broached the possibility of her moving to the side of the Channel.
Did he want her to go, or was it simply that he believed that she wanted to go? Amy felt a twinge of guilt at the memory of all the times she had made careless comments about how unfair it was that he had got to spend seven years playing hero, while she had three measly months, all the times she had grimaced over the appearance of the Pink Carnation’s name in the illustrated papers, or sighed over the atlases of places she might never see again.
But just because she said she wanted to go didn’t mean she actually wanted to go—at least, not on those terms. Didn’t Richard realize that? Oh, heavens, how did she expect him to make sense of it when she couldn’t make sense of it herself?
It was useless! Amy flung back the covers. There was no point in even pretending to sleep. She would get herself some pie. That was what she would do. Pie. Lots and lots of pie. And maybe some of the gingerbread, too, unless Miles had already demolished the lot. Then she would wash it all down with hot, buttered milk. By the time she ate her way through all that, she would be too full to do anything but sleep. Either that, or she would have enough of a stomach ache to distract her from less pressing worries.
It might not be a brilliant plan, but at least it was a plan.
Amy thrust her feet into her slippers and flung a dressing gown over her night rail. She wasn’t quite sure where the kitchens were, but it was no matter. A kitchen was a kitchen. How hard could it be to find? After tracking down secret agents and hidden dispatches, a large, stationary object like a kitchen should be no challenge at all.
Amy marched boldly out into the hallway and immediately pressed back into the safety of her own doorway as she heard the creak of another door being opened. A nightcap poked its head out of one of the bedroom doors, looked to right and left, and then dashed across the hallway. A brief knock and another door opened. Amy heard a muted giggle as a pale hand reached out and the man was abruptly whisked around the doorframe.
Hmm. Amy looked back and forth from one door to the other. Clearly someone was having an interesting evening.
She started forward, but the slow whine of another doorknob in motion sent her scurrying back for safety. Goodness, was everyone in Selwick Hall out and about tonight? At that rate, why not just light all the candles and call it Christmas Day already? After a few cautious moments, a door halfway down the corridor opened. Out stalked a tall, spare woman in the most alarming confection of a nightcap Amy had ever seen, bristling with bows and lace in a garish shade of purple.
As Amy watched in puzzlement, Miss Gwen strode the length of the hall, one hand shading her candle, back straight, bows on her nightcap flapping gaily, looking neither left nor right. Reaching a door at the very end, she put one ear to the wooden panel, gave a little nod of satisfaction, and coolly let herself in.
Stranger and stranger.
It was certainly a busy Christmas Eve at Uppington Hall. All that was missing was Father Christmas and Amy had no doubt he would be about sooner or later. With a shrug, Amy appropriated one of the candles from the hall table and resumed her aborted journey.
This time, she didn’t even have the warning of a whining doorknob; whoever occupied this room must have brought their own oil. Instead, Amy gave a start as she found herself face to face with yet another pale-gowned figure.
“Jane!” she gasped.
Jane held a warning finger to her lips. Her pristine white nightcap perched on top of her smooth brown hair, which had been braided into a single long tail that fell nearly to her waist. She gave a quick look around. “So you figured it out, too.”
Figured what out? Other than the way to the kitchen, that was. Not wanting to admit ignorance, Amy gave a quick, decisive nod.
“She just left her room,” said Jane, in a hurried whisper. “If we move quickly, we can catch them before we miss too much.”
Miss what? Amy wondered, nodding furiously in agreement. Catch whom? It was all very confusing. What had Lady Uppington put in those pies? Had everyone run mad except her?
“Come along,” said Jane. “There’s no time to be lost. Miss Gwen is searching her room as we speak.”
“Whose room?” Amy blurted out.
Jane looked sharply at her. “Lady Jerard.”
“Of course,” muttered Amy. “I knew that.”
Fortunately, Jane was in too much haste to enquire further. “Here. Take this.” Jane extended the large object she had been holding, adding matter-of-factly, “I have my pistol.”
Pistol? For Lady Jerard? What?
Automatically putting out her hand, Amy felt her wrist sag under the weight. “What is it?” she hissed, squinting in the dim light.
“A warming pan,” said her cousin calmly.
“A warming—” On inspection, that did, indeed, appear to be what it was; a warming pan, with the coals removed. Amy turned it over in her hands, peering closely at the copper casing. Miss Gwen did have that sword parasol and Jane a reticule that doubled as a grenade…. “Does it turn into a crossbow, or have a sword concealed in the handle?” she asked eagerly.
“Well, no,” said Jane apologetically. “But it does make a rather satisfying thunk when you clunk someone over the head with it.”
Fair enough. Amy shouldered her weapon and scurried after her cousin down the length of the hallway and around a curve to a stairwell Amy hadn’t been aware existed. It twisted downwards in a dizzying spiral of whitewashed walls.
Amy caught at Jane’s arm as they bypassed the landing and started on a another flight. “How do you know where we’re going?”
It was Amy’s own ancestral-home-by-marriage and she hadn’t had the foggiest idea of where half the corridors led. Other than the path between her bedroom and the main reception rooms, of course.
Jane just looked at her. Amy could see her right eyebrow beginning to rise.
Not the eyebrow. She couldn’t take the eyebrow just now.
“Never mind,” Amy said hastily. “Forget I asked.”
Silly her. Jane undoubtedly had the entire floor plan of Uppington Hall committed to memory, outbuildings and all. Just an average precaution in the day of a professional spy. That was, Amy was forced to admit, one reason why she herself hadn’t lasted terribly long in the trade. She was very good at the whole dashing escapades bit, but very poor at advance planning. After all, how was one to know what one wanted to know until one was in a position to want to know it? Unless one was Jane, that was.
The winding stair spat them out onto an intricately inlaid marble floor that Amy recognized as belonging to the first floor. Jane led the way soundlessly down another corridor, pausing in front of an ornate door with a curved top, that Amy recognized as the door to the library. Richard had taken her there the other day to show her his favorite globe, the one that he had accidentally launched out the French doors and into the duck pond as a scapegrace little boy. The thought made Amy smile. But only for a moment.
How many more stories would they have time to exchange if she were to go back off to Paris?
A sharp hiss of indrawn breath brought her back to the business at hand. With a warning look, Jane held a finger to her lips and angled her head to the door.
* * *
Marlowe… Marvell…. Richard’s finger followed an alphabetical line across the shelf of verse, but it was no use. Dead poets were all very well in their way, but their cold hands couldn’t lend talent to the living.
It had really been quite poor planning on his part, his mother had opined with that irritating touch of maternal smugness, to write poetry to a teenage infatuation but not to his bride. Richard’s pointing out that “teenage” and “infatuated” were the general prerequisites for the writing of poetry had left his mother unmoved.
“But Amy doesn’t want poetry,” he had argued.
“Don’t be silly,” his mother had said, as though he were closer to eight than twenty-eight. “All women want poetry. Especially when you’ve been writing it to someone else. I saw the look on her face when that dreadful Deirdre announced that she had poetry from you.”
How could he explain that the look had been there already, product of homesickness for a life he had taken away from her—and then offered back to her. Somehow, the giving back hadn’t worked quite as he intended. She had seemed, in fact, more upset by the cure than by the disease. Richard frowned at the elaborately embossed bindings. He knew he was missing something, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what. With a sigh, Richard tossed Marvell and his winged chariots aside. Poetry wasn’t the remedy. But since he wasn’t quite sure what the remedy was, here he was, on the second floor balcony of his parents’ library at three in the morning on Christmas Eve, culling the shelves for inspiration.
Merton… Milton…. Paradise Lost hit a bit too close to home right now. Richard picked up Paradise Regained, but it appeared to be entirely devoid of useful tips on how to get back to a state of grace.
Below, the library door slid inward. A female figure stepped hesitantly in. Richard glanced eagerly down, but it was the wrong woman. She was too tall, fair rather than dark. Her blonde curls glowed like a nimbus in the light of her candle. Pushing the door closed behind her, she looked from left to right, as though she were looking for something or somebody.
Blast. Deirdre. He bloody hoped she wasn’t looking for him. Richard ducked behind a bust of Horace. He felt like a fool, hiding behind the statuary, but he really wasn’t in the mood for another tete-a-tete, particularly not at a singularly compromising hour of the morning. With any luck, she had just come for a book to wile away the sleepless hours, and, having found one, would depart forthwith.
Funny, that. He didn’t remember Deirdre being much of a reader. Of poetry or prose. But that had all been seven years ago. They had all changed in seven years. Perhaps Lord Jerard had awakened her to an appreciation of the joys of good prose. Or perhaps she was just very, very bored.
She moved purposefully towards the far end of the room. Purposeful was good. Go on, Richard thought, sucking in his breath and pushing as far back against the wall as he could. Horace rested on a very pointy plinth, which was doing its best to put a permanent dent in Richard’s midsection. Pick a book. Pick a book and go.
Instead of heading for the shelves, she made for the French doors that opened out onto the snowbound garden. Richard stifled a sigh. Brilliant. That was all he needed. Soulful staring into the moon-bright night while he found himself punctured in places God had never intended.
Pushing aside one of the heavy brocaded drapes, she leaned close to the glass panel, so close that her breath left a fine fog on the glass. Holding up her candle, she moved it first to the right, then to the left, as though she were… signaling. Signaling whom?
Before Richard could speculate further, she unlatched the door with a quick, decisive motion, yanking it open with one hand. The draperies blew back as a frigid gust of air rushed into the room, and with it, the androgynous form of someone shrouded in a thick black cloak, a hood pulled low over his or her head.
“I thought I was like to freeze out there!” said in a female voice, in very colloquial French.
“English, please,” said Deirdre coldly, in the sort of voice he had never heard her use before. “And keep your voice down. We don’t know who else is about. The house is simply swarming with Selwicks and their brats.”
Richard’s jaw had relocated to somewhere in the vicinity of his waistline. What in the devil? An irreverent part of his brain speculated on exactly what his mother would have done to his former ladylove had she heard her darling grandchildren being referred to as brats. A more useful part of his brain was wondering what the devil she was about and exactly why she was conducting rendezvous with French speaking persons in his parents’ library in the wee hours of the morning.
“I need more time,” Deirdre was saying. “I haven’t got it yet.”
The cloaked figure made a gesture of displeasure. “I thought you said it would be an easy job.”
Deirdre frowned. “It should have been. The wife was an unanticipated complication.”
“You mean,” said the other woman, with Gallic directness, “that he no longer has the infatuation for you.”
“Nonsense,” said Deirdre, with a smile that sent a chill right through Richard’s wool coat, brocade waistcoat and assorted layers of linen. “It’s simply a matter of reminding him.”
Richard and Horace exchanged a look of masculine disgust.
“It will just take me a little more time to persuade him to confide in me, that’s all. But he will,” Deirdre concluded, with insulting assurance. Had he really been that much of a pushover seven years before? Apparently, yes. “For old time’s sake.”
Their old times hadn’t been that good.
Below, the library door appeared to be moving of its own accord. It slid slightly and then stopped again. Their backs to it, neither Deirdre nor her companion noticed. Richard frowned down at the portal, but it appeared to have decided to stay still.
The other woman arrived at a decision. “I shall return tomorrow, then. The same time. Shall you be able to stay another night?”
Deirdre gave a nonchalant shrug. “I don’t see why not.”
“But I do!” This time, the door was definitely in motion. It careened open, bumping into his mother’s wallhangings before rebounding back. As Richard watched, his wife charged into the room like a very short Valkyrie, waving a—was that a warming pan?—over her head like a battle axe.
His wife skidded to a halt, warming pan at the ready, and confronted the two startled conspirators. “Don’t even think of trying to escape. I heard everything. The game is up!”