Murder Most Malicious: Chapter 1
“Henry, don’t you dare ignore me!” came a shout from behind the drawing room doors, a command nearly drowned out by staccato notes pounded on the grand piano.
Stravinsky’s discordant Firebird broke off with a resounding crescendo. Voices replaced them, one male, one female, both distinctly taut and decidedly angry. Phoebe Renshaw came to an uneasy halt. She had thought the rest of the family and the guests had all gone up to bed. Across the Grand Hall, light spilled from the dining room as footmen continued clearing away the remnants of Christmas dinner.
With an indrawn breath she moved closer to the double pocket doors.
“I’m very sorry, Henry, but it isn’t going to happen,” came calmer, muffled words from inside, spoken by the feminine voice. A voice that sounded anything but sorry. Dismissive, disdainful, yes, but certainly not contrite. Phoebe sighed and rolled her eyes. As much as she had expected this, she shook her head at the fact that Julia had chosen Christmas night to break this news to her latest suitor. And this particular Christmas, too—the first peacetime holiday in nearly five years.
A paragon of tact and goodwill, that sister of hers.
“We are practically engaged, Julia. Why do you think your grandparents asked my family to spend Christmas at here at Foxwood? Everyone is expecting us to wed. Our estates practically border each other.” Incredulity lent an almost shrill quality to Henry’s voice. “How could our union be any more perfect?”
“It isn’t perfect to me,” came the cool reply.
“No? How on earth do you think you’ll avoid a scandal if you break it off now?”
Phoebe could almost see her sister’s cavalier shrug. “A broken not-quite-engagement is hardly fodder for scandal. I’m sorry—how many times must I say it? This is my decision and you’ve no choice but to accept it.”
Would they exit the drawing room now? Phoebe stepped backward intending to flee, perhaps dart behind the Christmas tree that dominated the center of the hall. Henry’s voice, raised and freshly charged with ire, held her in place. “Do I? Do I really? You listen here, Julia Renshaw. Surely you don’t believe you’re the only one who knows a secret about someone.”
Phoebe glanced over her shoulder and sure enough, two footmen met her gaze through the dining room doorway before hurrying on with their chores. Inside the drawing room, a burst of snide laughter from Henry raised the hair at her nape.
“What secret?” her sister asked after a moment’s hesitation.
“Your secret,” Henry Leighton, Marquess of Allerton, the man Phoebe’s grandparents had indeed invited to Foxwood in hopes of a subsequent engagement, said with a mean hiss that carried through the door.
“What...do you believe you know?”
“Must I outline the sordid details of your little adventure last summer?”
“How on earth did you discover...?” Julia’s voice faded.
It registered in Phoebe’s mind that her sister hadn’t bothered to deny whatever it was.
“Let’s just say I kept an eye on you while I was on furlough,” Henry said, “and you aren’t as clever as you think you are, not by half.”
“That was most ungentlemanly of you, Henry.”
“You had your chance to spend more time with me then, Julia, and you chose not to. I, therefore, chose to discover where you were spending your time.”
“Oh! How unworthy, even of you, Henry. Still, it would be your word against mine, and whom do you think Grampapa will believe? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”
“You are not walking away from this, Julia!” Henry’s voice next plunged to a murmur Phoebe could no longer make out, but like a mongrel’s growl it showered her arms with goose bumps.
The sounds of shuffling feet was followed by a sharp “Oh!” from Julia. Phoebe’s hand shot instinctively toward the recessed finger pull on one of the doors, but she froze at the marquess’s next words. “This is how it is going to be, my dear. You and I are going to announce our engagement to our families tomorrow morning, and shortly after to the world. There will be parties and planning and yes, there will be a wedding. You will marry me, or you’ll marry no one. Ever. I’ll see to that.”
“You don’t even know whether or not anything untoward happened last summer,” Julia said with all the condescension Phoebe knew she was capable of, yet with a brittle quality that threatened her tenuous composure. “You’re bluffing, Henry.”
“Am I? Are you willing to risk it?”
Phoebe’s breath caught in her throat at the sounds of shuffling footsteps. She gripped the bronze finger pulls just as Julia cried out.
“Let go of me!”
Phoebe thrust both doors wide, perfectly framing the scene inside. Julia, in her pale rose gown with its silver-beaded trim, stood with her back bowed in an obvious attempt to pull free of Henry’s hold. A spiraling lock of blonde hair had slipped from its pins to stream past her shoulder. Henry’s dark hair stood on end no doubt from raking his fingers through it. His brown eyes smoldering and his cheeks ruddy with drink, he had his hands on her—on her! His fingers were wrapped so tightly around Julia’s upper arms they were sure to leave bruises.
For a moment no one moved. Phoebe stared. They stared back. Henry’s tailcoat and waistcoat were unbuttoned with all the familiarity of a husband in his own home, his garnet shirt studs gleaming like drops of blood upon snow. Anger twisted his features. But then recognition dawned—of Phoebe, of the impropriety of the scene she had walked in on—and a measure of the ire smoothed from his features. He released Julia as though she were made of hot coals, turned away, and put several feet between them.
Phoebe steeled herself with a breath and forced a smile. “Oh, hullo there, you two. Sorry to barge in like this. I thought everyone had gone to bed. Don’t mind me, I only came for a book, one I couldn’t find it in the library. Julia, do you remember where Grampapa stashed that American novel he didn’t want Grams to know he was reading? You know, the one about the boy floating up that large river to help his African friend.”
“I don’t know...” Julia looked from Phoebe to Henry and back again. She brushed that errant lock behind her ear and then hugged her arms around her middle. “I’ll help you look. G-good night, Henry.”
“Oh, were you just going up?” Without letting her smile slip, Phoebe shot a glare at Henry and put emphasis on going up.
A muscle bounced in the hard line of his jaw. His eyes narrowed, but he bobbed his head. “Good night, ladies. Julia, we’ll talk more in the morning.”
He strode past Phoebe without a glance. Several long seconds later his footfalls thudded on the carpeted stairs. Phoebe let go a breath of relief. She turned to slide the pocket doors closed, and as she did so several figures lingering in the dining room doorway scurried out of sight.
There would be gossip below stairs come morning. Phoebe would worry about that later. She went to her sister and clasped her hands. “Are you all right?”
Julia whisked free and backed up a stride. “Of course I’m all right.”
“You didn’t look all right when I came in. You still don’t. What was that about?”
Julia twitched her eyebrows and turned slightly away, showing Phoebe her shoulder. Yes, the light pink weal visible against her pale upper arm confirmed tomorrow’s bruises. “What was what about?”
“Don’t play coy with me. What was Henry talking about? What secret—”
“Were you listening at the door?”
“I could hear you from the middle of the hall, and I think the servants in the dining room heard you as well. Lucky for you Grams and Grampapa retired half an hour ago. Or perhaps it isn’t lucky. Perhaps this is something they should know about.”
“They don’t need to know anything.”
“Why are you always so stubborn?”
“I’m done in, Phoebe. I’m going to bed.” Her perfectly-sloping nose in the air, she started to move past Phoebe, but Phoebe reached out and caught her wrist. Julia stopped, still facing the paneled walnut doors, her gaze boring into them. “Release me at once.”
“Not until you tell me what you and Henry were arguing about. I mean besides your breaking off your would-be engagement. That comes as no great surprise. But the rest... Are you in some sort of trouble?”
Julia snapped her head around to pin Phoebe with eyes so deeply blue as to appear black. Her forearm tightened beneath Phoebe’s fingers. “It is none of your business and I’ll thank you to mind your own. Now let me go. I’m going to bed and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do the same.”
Stunned, her throat stinging from the rebuke, Phoebe let her hand fall away. She watched Julia go, the beaded train of her gown whooshing over the floor like the water over rocks.
“I care about you,” Phoebe said in a barely audible whisper, something neither Julia, nor the footmen, nor anyone else in the house could possibly hear. She wished she could say it louder, say it directly to her prideful sister’s beautiful face. And then what—be met with the same disdain Julia had just shown her? No. Phoebe had her pride, too.
Eva Huntford made her way past main kitchen and into servants’ dining hall with a gown slung over each arm. Lady Amelia had spilled a spoonful of trifle down the front of her green velvet at dinner last night, while Lady Julia’s pink and silver beaded gown sported an odd rent near the left shoulder strap. Eva briefly wondered what holiday activities could possibly result in such a tear, then dismissed the thought. Today was Boxing Day, but she had work to do before enjoying her own brief holiday later that afternoon.
“Mrs. Ellison, have you any bicarbonate of soda on hand? Lady Amelia spilled trifle—oh!” A man sat at the far end of the rectangular oak table, reading a newspaper and enjoying a cup of coffee. She draped the gowns over the back of a chair. “Good morning, Mr. Hensley. You’re up early.”
“Evie, won’t you call me Nick? How long have we known each other, after all?”
It was true, she and Nicolas Hensley had known each other as children, but they were adults now, she lady’s maid to the Earl of Wroxly’s three granddaughters, and he valet to their houseguest, the Marquess of Allerton. Propriety was, after all, of the utmost importance in a manor such as Foxwood Hall. Familiarity between herself and a manservant wouldn’t be at all proper. “A long time, yes, but it’s also been a long time since we’ve seen each other.”
He smiled faintly “I saw you yesterday. And the day before that.”
“True, but only surrounded by others, or when passing each other in the corridors.” She turned to go. “In fact, I should—”
“Oh, Evie, do stay. I’ve craved a moment alone with you. Don’t look like that. I only wish to...to express my deepest condolences about Danny. My very deepest, Evie. A bad business, that.”
Her throat squeezed and the backs of her eyes stung. Danny, her brother... She swallowed. “Yes, thank you. A good many men did not come home from the war.”
Hang it all, this would never do, not on Boxing Day. In a couple of hours she would be free to trudge home through the snow to spend the afternoon with her parents, and they must not glimpse her sadness. She gave a little sniff, a slight toss of her head. There. She smiled at Mr. Hensley. “Tell me, what are you doing down here at this time of the morning? Won’t his lordship be abed for hours yet?”
“Already up and out, actually.”
“On such a cold morning?” Shivering, she glanced up at the high windows, frosted over and sprinkled with last night’s light snowfall.
Mrs. Ellison turned the corner into the room, her plump hand extending Eva’s requested soda, fizzing away in a measuring cup. She handed Eva a clean rag as well. “Who’s up and out on this frigid morning?”
Eva moved a place setting aside and spread the velvet gown’s bodice open on the table. She dipped the rag in the soda. “Lord Allerton, apparently.” She looked quizzically over at Mr. Hensley.
He set down his newspaper. “At any rate, his lordship isn’t in his room. I inquired with the staff setting up in the morning room and no one’s yet seen him today.”
“One supposes he’s gone out for a walk despite the weather, then.” Eva dabbed the dampened cloth lightly at the stain on Lady Amelia’s bodice, careful of the embroidery and the tiny seed pearl buttons.
“Or perhaps a ride in that lovely motorcar of his?” Mrs. Ellison suggested with a sigh.
“No, I called down to the motor shed and his Silver Ghost is still there.” Mr. Hensley frowned in thought, a gesture that did not diminish his distinguished good looks. He was several years older than Eva and had briefly courted her sister before entering into service as an under footman right here at Foxwood. The years had been more than kind to him, she couldn’t help admitting. The slightest touch of silver at his temples might be premature for a man of thirty, but on Nick Hensley the effect was both elegant and charming. Perhaps more so than a valet needed, she added with a silent chuckle.
“Oh, wouldn’t I relish a ride in that heavenly motorcar!” Mrs. Ellison took on a dreamy expression. “Ah well, back to work.”
“I’m sure he’ll turn up. Good morning, Vernon, Douglas.” Eva greeted the two footmen, along with other staff members arriving for breakfast after finishing their morning chores of laying fires, sweeping floors, and setting up the breakfast buffet. An instant later Connie, the new house maid, skidded to a halt in the corridor and, with a visible effort to catch her breath, came into the room. “Good morning, Connie. Everything all right?”
The girl scanned the room with large, worried eyes. “Did Mrs. Sanders notice my late start this morning?”
“Were you late? Well, no matter,” Eva assured her. She hoped she was correct, and that Connie wouldn’t be facing a scolding later from Mrs. Sanders. “It’s Boxing Day and I suppose we’re allowed a bit of leeway. Is everyone ready for their holiday later?”
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was a rare treat for the manor staff. Eva planned to spend the afternoon at her parents’ farm outside the village, but first she needed to set her ladyships’ gowns to rights. After a final inspection of the now nearly-invisible stain, she moved Amelia’s velvet off the table to make way as more staff gathered round.
She was just on her way to deliver the gown to Mable, the laundress, before settling in with needle and thread to mend the beaded strap on Lady Julia’s frock, when Lady Amelia came bounding down the back staircase and launched herself from the bottom step. She landed with an unladylike thwack mere inches away from Eva.
“Good heavens, my lady!” Eva sidestepped in time to avoid being knocked off her feet and spilling her burdens to the floor. She hugged the gowns to her. “Is there a fire?”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Eva. I didn’t mean to give you a fright.” Lady Amelia’s long curls danced loose down her back, and in her haste to dress herself she’d left the sleeves on her crepe de chine shirtwaist undone. “I was looking for you.”
“You know I would have been upstairs to help you and your sisters dress in what?” She glanced at the wall clock. “Twenty minutes.”
Amelia Renshaw’s sweet face banished any annoyance Eva might have felt. At fifteen she was a budding beauty. Not Lady Julia’s glamorous, moving picture star beauty but a quieter, deeper sort that one often finds in country villages like Little Barlow. Her hair was darker than Julia’s but still golden, a color reflected in her eyes, which sometimes shone hazel and other times brown, but always with those bright gold rims. If Phoebe took after their dear but somewhat plain mother and Julia took after their dashing father, Amelia had inherited a pleasing combination of both that would surely endure throughout her lifetime.
“If you’re worried about your frock, my lady, look.” Eva held out the gowns, using one hand to unfold the bodice of Amelia’s green velvet. “I’ve almost got the stain out and Mable will vanquish what’s left.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” Amelia said with a dismissive wave. “You keep the gown. I wanted a private moment to wish you happy Christmas.”
“Lady Amelia, where would I ever wear such a garment? And as for Christmas, you wished me happy yesterday.” Slinging both gowns over her shoulder she reached to button up the girl’s wide cuffs. “Had you forgotten?”
“Yes, but yesterday was a work day for you and this afternoon you’ll be free to enjoy as you like.” She switched arms so Eva could button the other sleeve. “I may wish you happy from one carefree person to another. That’s quite different, don’t you think?”
Puzzled, Eva frowned at her young charge, but only for an instant. “I think it’s a lovely gesture and I thank you very much, my lady.”
“There’s more. I wanted you to know there’s a special surprise in your box from Phoebe and me. Oh, there’s something from Julia, too, something she purchased, very lovely and thoughtful, but Phoebe and I made our gift ourselves. But you’re not to open your box until you’re at home with your parents.” Amelia bounced on the balls of her feet with excitement. “We made one for your mother as well.”
“How sweet of you. But you’re very mysterious, aren’t you?” Eva reached out and affectionately tucked a few stray hairs behind Amelia’s ear. In some ways she was blossoming into a gracious young lady, while in others she was still very much a little girl. One with sadly too few memories of her mother. Poor child, one parent lost to childbirth—along with the babe—and the other to war. Eva hoped she helped fill the gaps, on occasion at least, even if only in the smallest ways. “Whatever it is, Mum and I are sure to love and treasure it always. Happy Christmas to you, my lady.”
To her mingled chagrin and delight, Lady Amelia reached her arms around her and squeezed.
“With this deplorable weather keeping us inside, we’ll have to use our imaginations to keep ourselves occupied this afternoon.”
Maude Renshaw, Countess of Wroxly—Grams as Phoebe and her siblings called her—stood as tall as she had as a young woman, if the photographs were any indication. If anything she seemed even taller now, although Phoebe knew that to be an illusion created by her predilection to always wear uninterrupted black, from the high-necked collars of her dresses to the narrow sweep of her skirts. With smooth hair the color of newly polished silver worn in a padded upsweep culminating in a topknot at her crown, Grams was a study in dignified elegance that caught the eye and held it whenever she entered a room.
Strengthening the illusion of Grams’s Amazonian height, Phoebe’s youngest sibling, Viscount Foxwood—Fox—walked at Grams’s side, her hand in the crook of his elbow. Fox had yet to enjoy a major growth spurt, much to his chagrin as this set him a good head shorter than many of his classmates at Eton. Together they led the small procession of family and guests into the Petite Salon, tucked into the turret of what had been the original house.
This room was one of Phoebe’s favorites. It’s creamy paneled walls offset by bright white wainscoting and an airy cove ceiling made a welcome contrast to the dark oaks and mahoganies in other parts of the house, while rich colors of scarlet, blue, and gold, and the rotunda of windows overlooking the south corner of the gardens, lent warmth and a cozy touch.
An enthusiastic blaze danced behind the fireplace screen, and Mr. Giles and the footmen, Vernon and Douglas, stood at attention, waiting to serve. The table had been laid with leftovers from last night’s dinner—roast goose and venison and beef, with Mrs. Ellison’s savory apple-chestnut stuffing, among other delicacies, and for dessert, the leftover bread pudding and cranberry trifle. Phoebe hoped Amelia could manage to reserve all remnants of trifle for her mouth today and not her attire. At any rate, it was all easy fare designed to allow the kitchen staff, along with the rest of the servants, to finish up early and set out on their afternoon holiday. The day promised adventures for everyone—for the servants as they pursued their personal interests, and, Phoebe thought wryly, for the family and guests as they endeavored to look after themselves for these next several hours.
“Where is my son? It’s not like Henry to be late to a meal.” Lucille, Marchioness of Allerton, regarded her son’s vacant seat at the table. It was no secret that Lady Allerton doted to extremes on her elder son—and always had. Phoebe regarded the marchioness. Where Grams’s stoic self-discipline had sculpted her figure into lines of angular elegance, a less diligent outlook, and perhaps a habit of overindulgence, had softened the Marchioness’s figure, rounded her hips and shoulders and upper arms, and produced rather more chins than a body needed.
“He and Lord Owen must have gone out,” Grampapa remarked. He turned his broad face toward Mr. Giles, who perceived the question without needing to hear the words.
“I believe Lord Owen is still in his room, my lord. If Lord Allerton has gone out, he left no message that I know of.”
Lady Allerton’s frown deepened. “Hmm... That, too, is most unlike Henry. Did he take his Silver Ghost?”
“No, my lady. His motor is still in the shed.”
“Hmm... How very odd.”
“Really, Mama, why all the fuss?” Lord Theodore Leighton—Teddy— reached for a roll and his butter knife with a bored expression. “Henry’s a grown man.”
He fell silent without any further reassurance and buttered his bread with meticulous strokes as if creating a work of art. This proved no simple task, not for Teddy, and Phoebe quelled the urge to reach over and offer her assistance. The knife quivered in his grasp, bringing attention to the scarred flesh of his fingers and the backs of both hands. The rippled skin ended at his sleeves and reappeared in angry blotches above his collar to pull the left side of his face into a perpetual sneer. Phoebe wondered that he hadn’t grown whiskers to hide the scars. Like Henry, this second son of the Leighton family was handsome, or had been, before the war had left its mark on him.
Mustard gas, in the trenches of the Battle of Somme. Phoebe remembered the day a distraught Lady Allerton had telephoned to deliver the awful news. Teddy’s injuries had taken him out of action for nearly six months, but when everyone had expected him to return home, he returned to the trenches instead. He made it abundantly clear at every opportunity he wanted no one’s pity, no one’s help. He’d butter his own roll, thank you, if it took all morning.
Phoebe tried never to feel sorry for him, even tried to like him, but he made it a ticklish task, especially in moments like this. This might be Henry they were talking about, but he and Teddy were, after all, brothers and Teddy exhibited not the slightest concern.
Still, while the elder generation discussed where Henry might be, Phoebe couldn’t help hoping he might never return. She glanced across the table at Julia. Had her argument with Henry driven him away? She noted that Julia’s arms were well-covered in deep blue chiffon, with a velvet shawl draped over that, to hide any evidence of last night.
Well, as Teddy had said, Henry was a grown man who might do as he pleased. Phoebe, on the other hand, saw little in her future now that the war had ended, other than an endless procession of luncheons, dinner parties, and a parade of potential beaux. She sighed.
“What’s wrong, Phoebe?” Beside her, Amelia looked both pretty and smart in a new shirtwaist with blouson sleeves and ribbon piping that matched her blue eyes.
“Wrong? Nothing.” She hoped Amelia never learned of Henry’s boorish behavior of the night before.
“Then why are you moaning?”
“I am not moaning. I sighed. There is a difference.” Phoebe leaned back in her chair and cupped her mouth to prevent Fox overhearing. Fox always seemed to be listening in on other people’s conversations, storing away bits of information to be used at his convenience at a later time. “The truth is, I’m horribly bored, Amelia. I miss...” She paused. How to phrase this without sounding unfeeling and self-absorbed? “I miss the activity of the war. Not the war itself, mind you. I’m happy and relieved it’s finally over. But we made a true difference to a good many people. And now...I fear life has lost its color.”
Her sister nodded, her eyes keen with understanding. “That all we’ll have to look forward to from now on are parties and such, like in the old days?”
“You read my mind exactly. And all that seems so purposeless now. I’ve been thinking—”
“You should be thinking of finding a husband before the dust gathers on that shelf you’re sitting on.” Fox whispered out of the side of his mouth, his gaze still fixed across the table at the elders as if he hadn’t been listening in on Phoebe and Amelia.
“I’m nineteen, Fox. That hardly qualifies me for any shelf and besides, what difference should it make?” Phoebe shook her head at him. “It’s a new world and women will no longer be relegated exclusively to the home. We have choices now.”
“That’s right,” Amelia put in eagerly. “Many choices.”
Fox finally deigned to turn his face to Phoebe, his lips tilting in a mean little smile. “You think so? As you said, the war is over. The men have come home. Time for you ladies to return to the roles God designed you for.”
She nearly choked on her own breath. Only a throat-clearing and a glare from Grams prevented her from retorting—and perhaps wringing her brother’s neck.
“I propose that directly following luncheon, Julia play the piano for us.” Grams pinned her hazel eyes on Julia, turning her proposal into an adamant command that brooked no demurring.
“And following Julia, I wouldn’t mind regaling everyone with a song or two.” This came from Lady Cecily Leighton, Henry’s maiden great aunt. Phoebe glanced up at her, alarmed by the suggestion. Lady Cecily had proved herself thoroughly tone deaf on more than one occasion, and once Phoebe had had to endure an entire hour of jumbled and stumbling notes. If that weren’t enough, the woman’s outfit today reflected sure signs of a growing disorientation, with her striped frock overlaid by a knee-length tunic of floral chiffon. A wide silk headband sporting a bright Christmas plaid held most of her spiraling white curls off her shoulders and neck, giving her the appearance of some kind of holiday gypsy. The poor woman’s maid must have been aghast when her mistress left her room.
“Of course, Cecily, dear.” Grampapa spoke softly and gently, as he did when Phoebe was small. His perfectly-trimmed mustache twitched as he smiled. “We shall look forward to it.”
Phoebe managed to suppress a groan, but Fox could not. Grams shot another glance across the table, while Grampapa’s eyebrows twitched out a warning.
“After Julia serenades us—” Fourteen-year-old Fox pulled face —“And Lady Cecily, too, may we find something exciting to do? Grampapa, couldn’t we take the rifles out for some skeet shooting? It’s not so very cold. Is it?” He directed that last question to Henry’s younger brother, Teddy, who thus far had been silently filling his plate.
“Fox,” Grams said with a lift of one crescent-thin eyebrow, “I believe indoor activities are more appropriate for days such as this.”
“Fox.” Grampapa’s stern tone forestalled the complaint Fox had been gathering breath to utter.
Fox made a grinding sound in his throat and Phoebe whispered to him, “When are you going to grow up?”
“When are you going to stop being so boring?”
“Terribly sorry to be late for luncheon, everyone. I had some letters to write. Do forgive me.” Clad in country tweeds, Lord Owen Seabright strode into the room. He bowed ruefully and took the vacant seat beside Julia. His gaze met Phoebe’s, and she raised her water goblet to her lips to hide the inevitable and appalling heat that always crept into her cheeks whenever the man so much as glanced her way.
Lord Owen Seabright was an earl’s younger son who had taken a small, maternal inheritance and turned it into a respectable fortune. His woolen mills had supplied English soldiers with uniforms and blankets during the war. He himself had served as well, a major commanding a battalion. Unlike Teddy Leighton, Lord Owen had returned home mercifully whole.
If only Papa had been so fortunate....
She dismissed the thought before melancholy had a chance to set in. Of course, that left her once more contemplating Owen Seabright, a wealthy, fit man in the prime of his life and as yet unattached. After years of war such men were a rarity. He’d been invited to spend Christmas because his grandfather and Phoebe’s had been great friends, because Lord Owen had had a falling out with his own family, and because Fox had insisted he come, with Grams’s blessing.
If an engagement between Julia and Henry didn’t work out, Owen Seabright was to be next in line to seek Julia’s hand. Phoebe wondered if Owen, or Julia for that matter, had been privy to that information. She herself only knew because Fox had told her, his way of informing her he’d soon have Julia married off and Phoebe’s turn would be next.
Or so he believed. What Phoebe believed was that Fox needed to be taken down a peg or two.
“Henry isn’t with you?” Lady Allerton asked.
Lord Owen looked surprised. “With me? No. Haven’t seen him today.”
“No one has, apparently.” With a perplexed look, Lady Lucille helped herself to another medallion of beef Bordelaise. “I do hope Henry hasn’t gotten lost somewhere.”
“Odd, him going out on foot alone like that.” Grampapa’s great chest rose and fell, giving Phoebe the impression of a bear just waking up from a long winter’s rest. “Ah, but he can hardly lose his way. He knows our roads and trails as well as any of us. Spent enough time at Foxwood as a boy, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but Archibald,” Grams said sharply, “things look different in the snow. He easily could have taken a wrong fork and ended up who knows where. Or he might have slipped and twisted his ankle.”
“Good heavens,” Lady Allerton exclaimed. “Is that supposed to reassure me?”
“Should we form a search party?” Amelia appeared genuinely worried. Phoebe sent her a reassuring smile and shook her head.
“Oh, Grams, don’t be silly.” Fox flourished his fork, earning him a sharp throat-clearing and a stern look from Grampapa. The youngest Renshaw put his fork down with a terse, “Sorry, sir,” and shoved a lock of sandy hair off his forehead. “But even if he was lost, he’d either end up in the village, the school, or the river. He’s not about to jump in the river in this weather, is he?” The boy shrugged. “He’ll be back.”
He sent Julia a meaningful look. She ignored him, turning her head to gaze out the bay window at the wide expanse of snowy lawn rolling away to a skeletal copse of birch trees and the pine forest beyond that. Far in the distance, the rolling Cotswold Hills embraced the horizon, with patches of white interspersed with bare ground where the wind had whipped the snow away.
Phoebe brought her gaze closer, and noticed a trail of footprints leading through the garden and back again. Henry? But if he’d gone out that way, he had apparently returned to the house.
Grams narrowed her eyes shrewdly on Julia. “I do hope there is no particular reason for Henry to have made a sudden departure.”
This, too, Julia ignored.
“As Lawrence Winslow did last summer,” Grams muttered under her breath. Although everyone must have heard the comment—Phoebe certainly had—all went on eating as if they hadn’t. Grams seethed in Julia’s direction another moment, then returned her attention to her meal.
Apparently, not everyone was willing to pretend Grams hadn’t spoken. “Julia, you and Henry get on splendidly, don’t you?” Fox snapped his fingers when she didn’t reply. “Julia?”
She turned back around. “What?”
Phoebe was gripped by a sudden urge to pinch her. Though last night had obviously left her shaken, this sort of indifference was nothing new. It began three years ago, the day the news about Papa reached them from France, and rather than fading over time her disinterest had become more pronounced throughout the war years. By turns her sister’s apathy angered or saddened Phoebe, depending on the circumstances, but always left her frustrated.
“Stop it,” Amelia hissed in her brother’s ear, another comment heard and ignored around the table. “Leave it alone.”
Phoebe observed her little sister. Had Amelia been privy to last night’s argument, or had she merely grown accustomed to Julia’s fickleness when it came to men?
“My, my, yes, he’ll be back.” Lady Cecily spoke to no one in particular. She had been intent on cutting the contents of her plate into tiny pieces, even her deviled crab sandwich. She didn’t look up as she spoke, but next attacked an olive. Her blade hit the pit and sent the green sphere spinning off the plate and onto the table cloth with a plop. She giggled as she tried without success to retrieve it with her fork, saying, “He must return soon, for isn’t there an announcement Henry and Julia wish to make today?”
Lady Allerton leaned in close and plucked up the olive. With an efficiency born of habit, deposited it back onto the elder woman’s plate. “You asked that this morning, Aunt Cecily. And no, there is no announcement just yet. Why don’t you eat something now?”
“No engagement yet?” Lady Cecily looked crestfallen. She held her knife in midair. “Why is that? Julia dear, didn’t Henry ask you a very pertinent question last night?”
Julia finally looked away from the window as if startled from sleep. She blinked. “I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
“We were all very tired last night, what with all the Christmas revelry.” Grams’s attempt to sound cheerful fell flat. The Leightons might be second cousins, but they would not have been invited to spend the holiday at Foxwood Hall if Grams hadn’t held out hope that Father Christmas would deliver a husband for Julia. The war had left so few men from whom to choose. “Henry and Julia shall have plenty of time to talk now things have calmed down. Won’t you, Julia?”
“Yes, Grams. Of course.”
Phoebe doubted her sister knew what she had just agreed to. Fox sniggered.
“If you don’t stop being so snide,” she whispered to him behind her hand, “I’ll suggest Grampapa send you up to the schoolroom where you belong.”
Fox cupped a hand over his mouth and stuck out his tongue “Then you should stop impersonating a beet every time Lord Owen enters a room,” he whispered back.
“I do no such thing.” But good gracious, if Fox had noticed, was she so obvious? She sucked air between her teeth. But no, Lord Owen was paying her no mind now, instead helping himself to thick slices of cold roast venison and responding to some question Grams had just asked him. She relaxed against her chair. Lord Owen was a passing fancy, nothing more. He was...too tall for her. Too muscular. Approaching thirty, he was too old as well. And much too....
Handsome, with his strong features and steely eyes and inky black hair that made such a striking contrast next to Julia’s blond.
Yes, just a silly, passing fancy....
“Well now, my girls.” Grampapa grinned broadly and lightly clapped his hands. “I believe it’s time to hand out the Christmas boxes, is it not? The staff will want to be on their way.”
“Yes, you’re quite right, Grampapa.” With a sense of relief at this excuse to escape the table, Phoebe dabbed at her lips and placed her napkin beside her plate. “Girls, shall we?”
Amelia was on her feet in an instant. “I’ve so been looking forward to this. It’s my favorite part of Christmas.”
Julia stood with a good deal less enthusiasm. “Not mine, but come. Let’s get it over with.”
Eva could finally feel her fingers and toes again after slogging through snow and slush across the village to her parent’s farm. Mum had put the kettle on before she arrived, and she was just now enjoying her second cup of strong tea and biting into another heavenly, still-warm apricot scone.
Holly and evergreen boughs draped the mantel above a cheerful fire, and beside the hearth a small stack of gifts waited to be opened. Eva eyed the beribboned box from the Renshaws. She wondered what little treasure Phoebe and Amelia had tucked inside.
Mum huffed her way into the room with yet another pot of tea, which she set on a trivet on the sofa table. “Can’t have enough on a day like today,” she said, as if there had been a need to explain. “As soon as your father comes in from checking the animals we’ll open the presents.”
“I think they’re lovely right where they are,” Eva said. “It’s just good to be home.”
“It’s a shame your sister couldn’t be here this year.”
“Alice would if she could have, Mum, but Suffolk is far, especially in this weather.”
“Yes, I suppose...” With another huff Mum sat down beside her, weighting the down cushion so that the springs beneath creaked and Eva felt herself slide a little toward the center of the old sofa.
A name hovered in the air between them, loud and clear though neither of them spoke it. Danny, the youngest of the family. Eva’s chest tightened, and Mum pretended to sweep back a strand of hair, when in actuality she brushed at a tear.
Danny had gone to France in the second year of the war, just after his eighteenth birthday. Not quite a year later, the telegram came.
“Ah, yes, well.” Mum patted Eva’s hand and pulled in a fortifying breath. “It’s good to have you home for an entire day, or almost so. I’d have thought we’d see more of you, working so close by.”
“Tending to three young ladies keeps me busy, Mum.”
“Yes, and bless them for it, I suppose. It’s a good position you’ve got, so we shan’t be complaining, shall we?”
“Indeed not. Especially not today. But...I hear you huffing a bit, Mum. Are your lungs still achy?”
“No, no. Better now.”
The door of the cottage opened on a burst of wind and a booted foot crossed the threshold. Eva sprang up to catch the door and keep it swinging back in on her father, who stamped snow off his boots onto the braided rug and unwrapped the wool muffler from around his neck.
“Everyone all right out there, Vincent?” Mum asked. She leaned forward to pour tea into her father’s mug.
“Right as rain.” He shrugged off his coat and ran a hand over a graying beard that reached his chest. “Or as snow, I should say.”
“Come sit and have a cuppa, dear. Eva wants to open her gifts.”
They spent the next minutes opening and admiring. Eva was pleased to see the delighted blush in her mother’s cheeks when she unwrapped the shawl Eva had purchased in Bristol when she’d accompanied Lady Julia there in October. There was also a pie crimper and a wax sealer with her mother’s initial, B for Betty. For her father Eva had found a tooled leather bookmark and had knitted him a new muffler to replace his old ragged one.
From them Eva received a velvet-covered notebook for keeping track of her duties and appointments, a linen blouse Mum had made and embroidered herself, and a hat with little silk flowers for which they must have sacrificed far too much of their meager income. But how could she scold them for their extravagance when their eyes shone so brightly as she opened the box?
Mum gripped the arm of the sofa and pulled to her feet with another of those huffs that so concerned Eva. “I’ll just check on the roast. Should be ready soon. Oh, Eva, you’ve forgotten your box from the Renshaws.”
So she had. “There’s something inside for you, too, Mum.”
“You have a look see, dear. I mustn’t burn the roast.”
“All right, I’ll peek inside and then I’ll come and help you put dinner on, Mum.”
She picked up the box and returned to the sofa. Her father grinned. “So what do you suppose is in there this year?”
“We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” She tugged at the ribbons, then pulled off the cover and set it aside. The topmost gift was wrapped in gold foil tissue paper. The card on top read To Eva with fondness and appreciation, from Phoebe and Amelia. She carefully unrolled the little package, and out tumbled a set of airy linen handkerchiefs edged in doily lace, each adorned with its own color of petit point roses. A pink, a yellow, a violet and a blue. Eva didn’t think there were such things as blue or violet roses, but her heart swelled and her eyes misted as she pictured the two girls bent over their efforts, quickly whisking away their gifts-in-the-making whenever Eva entered their rooms.
“Oh, look, Dad. See what the girls have for me. Aren’t they perfection? And here’s a fifth, with a tag that says it’s for Mum.”
He craned his neck to see. “Look a mite too fine for the use they’re meant for.”
“Oh, Dad.” Eva chuckled and glanced again into her box. “And here’s a card...” She took out a simple piece of white paper, folded in half. She unfolded it. “It reads, ‘For the Huntfords, for their pains.’ Odd, there’s no signature.”
“Isn’t that jolly of the Renshaws to remember your mum and me.”
“I’ll bet it’s a bit of cash, like last year. Let’s see...” Eva bent over the box to peer inside. The breath left her in a single whoosh.
“Well? What’s next in that box of surprises?” Dad leaned expectantly forward in his chair. “Evie? Evie, why do you look like that? Surely they haven’t gone and given us one of the family heirlooms, have they? Evie?”
“I... Oh, Dad...Oh, God.”
“Evie, we do not blaspheme in this house,” her mother called from the kitchen. She appeared in the doorway, drying her hands on a dish rag. “Eva, what on earth is wrong? You’re as white as the snow.”
“It’s...it’s a ring,” she managed, gasping. Her hands trembled where they clutched the edges of the box. Her heart thumped as though to escape her chest. “A s-signet ring.”
“Oh, that’s lovely, dear. So why do you look as if you’ve just seen a ghost?” Her mother started toward her. Her father’s rumbling laugh somehow penetrated the ringing in Eva’s ears.
She held up both hands to stop her mother in her tracks. “Mum, stay where you are. Don’t come any closer.”
“Why, Eva Mary Huntford, what has gotten into you?” The sullenness in her mother’s voice mingled with that incessant ringing. A wave of dizziness swooped up to envelop Eva. “What sort of signet ring could make my daughter impertinent?”
Eva looked up, the room wavering in her vision. “One that’s still attached to the finger.”